Written by Annie Lord
Dealing with a friend you know you’d be better off without? You’re not alone. Here, one woman tells Annie Lord the story of the toxic friendship she can’t walk away from.
Content note: this article contains references to miscarriage and eating disorders that readers may find upsetting.
“You’ll be fine – it happens to everyone,” the message from my best friend Bonnie* read. I was currently in hospital recovering after losing my baby at 10 weeks after rupturing internally – it had been a life-and-death situation in the midst of the pandemic in 2020 and the doctors weren’t sure if I would pull through. I was emotionally and physically shattered, yet Bonnie’s response was heartless. Worse still, she’d taken five days to reply to my news.
Things hadn’t been right between the two of us for a long time. Bonnie had been a terrible, toxic millstone around my neck for years – but I was still shocked by her words that had left me feeling completely worthless as I lay in that stark hospital bed. How could she be so cruel? But the reality is that Bonnie hasn’t been very nice to me for a large portion of our friendship.
When Bonnie and I met at school aged 12, we instantly became inseparable. We did everything together, spending hours out cycling on our bikes and watching Dirty Dancing over and over. We told each other everything: about boys, our first periods and every insecurity, which for me revolved around my eating disorders and body dysmorphia. It felt like she was always there for me, but looking back there were cracks in our friendship early on. Bonnie was bossy – it was ‘her way or the highway’ – but I think I let her take the lead in our relationship as my low self-esteem meant I didn’t feel I could make decisions for myself.
When we left school at 18, something changed. I started university in our hometown, while Bonnie got a full-time job and soon became jealous of the new mates I’d made and the experiences I was having. When I introduced her to my new friends, Bonnie was rude or cold towards them. Her bossiness also revved up a level in that she’d dictate where we went and even what we’d order. It started to grind me down, especially as she made me feel like my opinions didn’t matter. If I ever brought up how I felt about our friendship, she’d make it seem like I was getting upset over nothing.
Then, one Saturday night while we were out clubbing, she suddenly vanished. Tipsy and feeling increasingly panicked, I searched for her, petrified that someone had spiked her drink. Standing outside the club, shivering in my dress and heels, I called and called but there was no answer. Sick with worry, I eventually called my mum. On the drive home, Bonnie messaged to say she’d left with a friend that she’d bumped into. Mum was furious that she had abandoned me, but I was scared to rock the boat and tell Bonnie how much she’d upset me.
Meanwhile, my eating disorder was still an issue, leaving me with little confidence. This meant that Bonnie could do whatever she wanted in our relationship and get away with it. She began making sly digs about my appearance, and while they were usually only silly things, like guys preferring blondes (her) to brunettes (me), her comments became embedded in my brain. My appearance was my biggest worry, and her words only amplified my body issues. But I couldn’t bring myself to walk away from the friendship. Years passed, and I still couldn’t make that break.
Throughout our 20s and into our 30s, we’ve been part of the same wider friendship group. It’s the main reason why I’ve never properly called Bonnie out, even though I’ve wanted to. I worry about her turning mutual friends against me – I’ve seen her do it to other people throughout our lives. However, friends outside our circle struggle to understand why I haven’t cut her out as she’s such a terrible friend. Looking back, I wish I had, but low self-esteem has always made standing up for myself a struggle.
I own a successful marketing business and Bonnie works as a make-up artist. Since she has realised that I can be useful to her professionally, she has made constant demands of me, such as insisting on freebie tickets to concerts, where she then ignores me. When I called her out on this behaviour, she denied it and made me feel paranoid. In fact, any time I confront her, she either turns it around or is so nice to me that I then feel guilty and drop it. She’s an expert at manipulation and gets her own way every single time.
But when I lost my baby in 2020, I finally understood how terrible a friend Bonnie is. That brutal “it happens to everyone” message came when I was at my lowest and left me disgusted, angry and disappointed. Her lack of empathy was something I really couldn’t forgive. Since then, we’ve become much more distant.
The one good thing to have come out of the pandemic is that I’ve only seen her a couple of times in the last few years – I’ve welcomed the space lockdown gave me from her, but I wish I’d used it to confront her about that text – and her behaviour in general – head on. The last time I saw her face-to-face, was about six months ago when I went into her shop to get my make-up done before a work event. She’d always told me that I shouldn’t get my make-up done anywhere else, so I kept on supporting her business. She barely acknowledged me as I walked through the door and got another member of staff to do my make-up. Frankly, it was a relief.
The trauma of losing my baby – and Bonnie’s response – led me to start therapy. Over the last two years, I’ve learned a lot, including how to say no to people and create healthy boundaries. I’ve been able to cut several negative relationships out of my life as a result, but I still haven’t mustered the courage to do it completely with Bonnie. I know that if we met now, we wouldn’t be friends. We have absolutely nothing in common. But despite how she has treated me, there’s still an attachment from the fact that she is my oldest friend. We’ve known each other now for two decades and grew up together. That history binds you somehow, no matter how toxic things feel.
I’m well aware that I would feel much less stressed without Bonnie in my life. My stomach lurches every time I get a message from her asking for help with her business. That’s all our relationship is now – her asking me for favours. I know from therapy that it would be really empowering if I could make a stand and cut her off for good, but I’m a non-confrontational person, so I need to work up the courage to do that. Instead, I’ve started ignoring her messages; I’m hoping that the relationship will slowly fade out and we’ll lose contact for good. If not? Only time will tell if I’m able to finally find the strength to fight back after all these years. Either way, there’s no way back for our friendship.
For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat’s website or call one of their helplines.
*Names have been changed
Illustration: Irina Selaru
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