I don’t know if I can write this post.
No, that’s not true. I can write this post easily. But I don’t know if I can publish this post.
Author Sarah Dessen recently had an essay published on Seventeen’s website. It was about a teenage friendship with an older boy. To me, it was about a need to please. It was about powerlessness, a lack of independence and confidence, seeking validation in others when you don’t know how to find it within yourself. I liked her essay. I liked it a lot. It resonated with me.
When I was young, I had this friend. We met in third grade and quickly became Best Friends. We did everything together. We had sleepovers every weekend, passed notes in school, talked for hours on the phone. She even called my mother “Mom” sometimes. We were going to be the crazy old ladies in rocking chairs on a porch someday. We were the kind of friends they invented those broken heart necklaces for. It’s a funny thing, how those necklaces are such a prominent symbol of those kinds of friendships. How often do those friends end up breaking your heart? Mine did.
When we were 15, I met a boy. I liked him, he liked me, all was good. We dated for a year, my entire sophomore year of high school. He got along with my friend, too, and we hung out together a lot. He and I talked about the future, where we’d go to college and what we’d study, how many kids we wanted and what we’d name them. I loved him. At the time, I really really loved him. Then he went off to a summer camp, a church-related thing, if I remember right. Funny thing: my friend went to the same camp. Even funnier: when they came home, he broke up with me. Most hilarious: he and friend started dating shortly after we broke up.
Haha, yeah, I was cracking up. Okay, not really. Okay, yes, I was, but not funny haha. I was a mess, as you can imagine. I was devastated about the boy, of course. I was blind-sided by this, since I’d thought we were happy and had a future together. (I was young. Forgive my naivete.)
But. My friend. I cried more tears over her than I ever did about the boy. I’d known him for a year. Her, I’d known for EIGHT. I thought she and I knew each other inside and out. I trusted her implicitly. I was so wrong.
I never said what I wanted to say, which was, “HOW? How could you possibly choose him over me? What did I do to deserve this? Yes, you deserve to be happy, but how can you be happy when you know I’m miserable and heartbroken?” I never told her, “How can you be so selfish?” Heaven help me, I never said, “Does it make you feel better to make me feel worse?”
What did I say? I don’t really remember. I remember crying a lot over the next several months. I remember throwing a bowl against the wall in my bedroom. I remember vomiting when I found out they’d slept together. I think I did ask the boy, “Why? Why her?” but apparently didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Something about how they had a lot in common, I think. Sure, I understood that. That’s why the three of us had a good time together. She and I had a lot in common. More than I realized, clearly. But why did neither of them have that internal switch that might have made them stop and say, “Hey, is this the right thing?” Why did neither of them decide they could consider someone else’s feelings too?
Oh, I remember teenage love. Boy, do I. I remember how deep and intense it is. You think it’s perfect and will last forever and nothing else matters. And I never want to deny anyone a chance at love. But at the very least, the barest minimum of concern for your “best friend” would suggest that you give her a bit of time to heal from the breakup before you start dating the boy. You might even check with her, say, “You know, I really like this guy. I think he might be someone important. But you’re important too, so I want to make sure you’re okay with it first.” For whatever reason, that never happened.
What happened next? I stopped talking to both of them immediately and moved on to my other friends. Ha. Nope. You’d think. I wish. But I didn’t really have other friends. I’d always been shy, and up to that point, that friend was all I wanted, all I needed. I was friendly with other kids at school, but I didn’t hang out with any of them. These two people were my support system. So what does a 15-year-old girl do when her support system is the thing bringing her down? In my case, she tries desperately to keep it going. Yep, I accepted them dating. I stayed “friends” with both of them and never confronted my friend. I could lash out at him, but never her.
I shouldn’t say never. It happened once, when she lied to him about something she had done and blamed it on me. I yelled that day. Loud and fierce. And boy, did it feel good.
I wish I’d kept that feeling. But I didn’t. I kept the feeling of “I have nobody else, so I better hang on to these two. They’re the best I can get.” I kept that feeling for my entire junior year of high school. The boy went back and forth, dating both of us at different times. He’d give us enough attention that we wouldn’t leave, then switch to the other girl. We split proms: I went to his Senior, she took him to our Junior. The friend drove me to school in awkward silence. Other people talked about us. A few girls tried to get me to walk away, and I shrugged it off. I tried to move on a bit, dating a couple of boys, but it wasn’t right. The best part of those dates was how jealous it made the boy. It always made him boomerang back to me. I liked it. And I hated that I liked it.
There was part of me that knew the whole situation was messed up, that I deserved better, that I’d be happier if I could remove myself. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was too scary to do that when the alternative was such an unknown.
Was I being selfish too? I don’t know. Maybe. Should I have been the bigger person and walked away to let them have their shot? Maybe. It would have been the better thing for me, that’s for sure. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not until the pattern was broken.
He went off to college, and I started my senior year. I was active in a lot of fun things at school, newspaper and theatre and choir. I loosened up and started hanging out with other people. Other boys started flirting with me. Not just one, but a few. It was refreshing how free I felt. I felt amazing. I was doing cool things, finding cool people, all on my own. I could be me without worrying about whether I was the right “me” for the friend or the boy.
That’s when the magic happens, isn’t it? When you come into your own? Another boy started flirting with me. This was a boy I’d noticed before, but we were never single at the same time until now. We started dating and it felt so right. It felt exciting and safe, comforting and warm. It felt happy. He liked ME, just me. And I liked him. I liked him so much that I happily broke a date with the other boy one weekend. He’d come home from college and we were supposed to go to a movie. But I wanted to see the nice boy instead, so I cancelled. I said I didn’t feel well. He didn’t believe me. I didn’t care. Oh, he found out eventually, yelled at me, cried at me, begged me not do anything but kiss the nice boy. I laughed at that one. His power was gone. I had finally found my own power.
I think most teenage girls have a similar experience in their past, a time we all wish we’d been stronger sooner, a time we wish we had valued ourselves more than another person. Maybe we all need those experiences to get to the point where we can value ourselves. Those are the experiences that stick with us. Here it is, over 20 years later, and I can still vividly remember those emotions. It’s not really about the boyfriend. I don’t miss the boy at all. Really, once he went to college, I never missed him again. I married the nice boy and 20 years later, he’s my person, my other half. It’s not really even about the friend, though I do miss her. Or rather, I miss that first deep friendship, that innocent, all-encompassing devotion. That’s long-gone.
My friendships now are different. I don’t trust as easily. Loyalty and compassion mean more to me now. I have less patience for liars and fakers, and make a point to spend my time with people who are genuine and kind.
I’ve told my teenage daughter variations of this story several times, each time emphasizing whichever part is relevant to her struggles. I wish I could keep her from going through what I had to go through. I want her to be the strong version of herself without having to go through that valley of weakness.
Why say all this? What’s the point of this post? I can’t say it better than Sarah did in her essay: “What do I want? To teach her to be wary without being fearful. To know that she can trust her gut. That if something feels wrong, that’s all the reason you need to get out of there. Don’t worry about being nice, or hurting someone’s feelings: they’ll get over it. Or, they won’t, and so what? You don’t have to wait, I want to tell her, until you have no choice. You have more power than you know. So say no. Say it loudly. Say it twice. And then get out of there, and come home.”