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Toxic

It all started four years ago,” she begins. “I was dancing at a wedding when someone new joined the circle and took my hand. I recognized her from somewhere. After the first dance ended we played a little ‘Jewish geography,’ and it turned out that we had attended the same sleepaway camp. We sat down at an empty table and talked over the music, catching up on the last two decades. It was really exciting to reconnect and we exchanged phone numbers. A friendship soon ensued. Every evening we would schmooze on the phone for hours. After I put the kids to sleep, the first thing I did was reach for the phone.” Although they’d been in the same bunk for two years in a row, Pessi and Mia had not been especially close. While Pessi was the kind of girl whose cup was half full, Mia was dark and brooding, and most of their relationship had centered around Pessi encouraging Mia to look on the bright side of things—a losing battle. “But she seemed different at the wedding. Her life had not been easy; she had had two broken engagements and she was still single, but her darkness had developed into a rich, self-deprecating sense of humor. She laughed a lot more and made me laugh.

After all these years we clicked. Whenever she called, I grabbed the phone. The word I would use to describe how it felt to talk to her is ‘thrilling.’ Our friendship was thrilling.” Pessi was able to talk on the phone with Mia until late at night because her husband was rarely home before midnight, as he had a long commute and spent many hours at his job. “The kids were in bed by eight o’clock, after which I was all alone in a quiet, darkened house. Now there was this old friend who had popped out of the woodwork, and she was also alone, being an older single as well as an only child. In the beginning, we kept each other company. It was as simple as that when it started. The weirdness began later, and it started so slowly that I didn’t even realize I was under pressure until I was completely bowed under its weight.” Every friendship has its rough patches, and the difference between a rough patch in a healthy relationship and the steady decline in a toxic one can be hard to pinpoint when it first begins. At a certain point Pessi began to feel pressured to talk to Mia all the time. “She started telling me how lonely and bored she was, and how important it was to her that we talk at least once a day. I thought, Poor girl, she’s so lonely that she counts every second until I call her. I resolved that I would be there for her.” Unfortunately, that rough patch can very quickly become a patch of quicksand. “I’d dealt with many people who were needy, but I’d never encountered anyone like her.

I’ve always tried to help people—I’ve been a magnet for girls in need of a listening ear since high school—but then they’d get back on their feet and move on. This was different. I tried to offer Mia support as I’d done for others. But I didn’t realize until afterwards that the more I tried to fulfill her needs, the more she needed. It was a deep hole that could never be filled because she kept on digging.” Then Pessi found herself being dragged down into it. “It started one night when I was running late with the kids and couldn’t get to the phone at our usual time. I don’t remember if I was nursing the baby or dealing with a kvetchy older child, but I do remember what happened afterwards. She just got so angry. She usually has a soft and pleasant voice, but it got loud and scary. ‘You said you were going to call me!’ she said accusingly. ‘Why didn’t you call? I was waiting and waiting. How dare you make me wait like that?’ “Another time I had a party at work. I ended up leaving early because she kept texting me the whole time to let me know that she was waiting. It took me a while to get home, but I called her the moment I walked through the door. When she picked up she immediately began calling me the most horrible names.

There I was, standing in my heels, having called her the first second I could and all she said was, ‘Now you call me? Now you wake up? I’m already sleeping.’ Then she hung up the phone.” At first the yelling and screaming happened only once in a while. Mia would inevitably call back the next day, sweet and contrite, and Pessi would forgive her, feeling that she really couldn’t have meant to speak to her the way she had the day before. In fact, it only made her feel that Mia needed her more than ever to learn how to express difficult emotions in a socially appropriate way. “I thought, I’m a good communicator, so Hashem must have sent her to me so I can teach her. And I really thought that I could.” Then the verbal abuse became more frequent. It started affecting Pessi and, in turn, her family—and ultimately threatened her sanity. “It got to a point where if I mentioned anything good in my life—my kids, the nice guests I’d had, my work—she would get angry. She would say, ‘Just look at you doing all these things while I do nothing.’ But the worst part, the part that made me think I might go crazy—was her unpredictability. I never knew what would set her off. So I started preempting her, trying to second-guess how she would feel about things. I began cutting my vacations short, lied about having enjoyed them, and even dreaded things that used to be enjoyable, like weddings and other simchos, simply because I knew that the happier I was, the angrier she was going to be. “The next day she’d be back to her old sweet self. I would forgive her and the cycle would start all over again. But she was pulling me into her darkness, and part of me saw what was happening.

I was an upbeat, optimistic person, and she was making me over in her own image so I was just as dark and brooding as she was. Mia was in a black hole, and her goal was to pull me in there with her.” After several months of this, Pessi’s husband wanted to know what was going on, why she was so involved with this friend, but she told him only a half-truth: that Mia was very needy. In retrospect, she probably didn’t reveal the whole truth because she feared he would tell her to end the friendship, and she wasn’t ready to do that yet. But that moment would come very soon. It all came to a head when Pessi found out she was expecting her seventh child and her initial reaction wasn’t joy; it was fear. “When I found out that I was pregnant I was terrified. I knew Mia was going to go crazy.” She did, but for the first time since that fateful wedding three years earlier when they’d reconnected, Pessi was unwilling to stay around to pick up the pieces. It took her a long time to see the truth about Mia and their friendship. “As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t really know how terrible our relationship was. I guess you have to be on the outside to see it, because it wasn’t until I called Elisheva, an old friend of mine, that my eyes were opened. She pointed out that we hadn’t really spoken in years. I apologized and said that I’d been busy. ‘Busy with what?’ she wanted to know, sounding hurt. I remembered how close we used to be and wondered what had happened to change that.” The answer, of course, was Mia. “I started telling her about this girl I’d reconnected with. I only meant to illustrate that I’d been very busy because she needed me so much, but the whole story came spilling out, almost against my will.

Elisheva was shocked into silence, and I was shocked at the tears that were rolling down my face. And once I started crying I couldn’t stop. I was in so much pain, in such a bad place, and I hadn’t even realized it.” After that conversation, many more followed. Elisheva gently and repeatedly pointed out that Pessi had been sacrificing too much for Mia’s sake; she was sacrificing herself. Pessi felt as if she had suddenly put on a pair of glasses as her life came into focus. “I knew it wasn’t ideal, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of Mia’s impact on my life. For the first time I allowed myself to see things objectively, how my kids would beg me to put the phone down and pay attention to them. How my husband would nearly plotz with impatience every time we were late because I was texting Mia every five minutes. How even though I pretended otherwise, I was a tense, miserable mess at every simchah I attended when I should have been having a wonderful time, laughing and dancing with the people I love. Instead, I was scrunched in some corner where the music wasn’t too loud, talking to her on the phone for hours on end. It was no way to live.” Nonetheless, it still took Pessi several more months to work up the courage to end it. She found herself making all kinds of excuses. Mia had had a hard day so it wasn’t a good time. Or else she would convince herself that Mia was actually getting better. But the moments of calm never lasted long. “Why can’t we be like all your other friends?” she finally asked Mia in frustration. “Why can’t we just be light and have fun?” Mia reacted to that suggestion with her by now customary fury. She froze Pessi out for a few days and then behaved as if nothing had happened. She called and texted just as often, and expected Pessi to do the same. Pessi, though, had finally had enough.

Her family was more important than this. She was more important than this. “I was miserable, but even worse was the feeling that I was stagnating. This friendship and the misery it caused was so all-encompassing that I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to do—the things I was meant to do—with my life. I felt like not only was she taking my olam hazeh, she was taking my olam haba too.” She finally came to the realization that if she was going to end it, it was all or nothing. Pessi spent a long time planning what to say. She even took the step of consulting with a professional. Then she closed the chapter on their friendship by email, since she knew that there was no way Mia would allow her to say what she needed to say either in person or on the phone. This is the text of her email: To my beloved friend Mia, I don’t know how to begin. It hardly seems appropriate to start with the customary pleasantries such as hi or how are you, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. So I’m just going to plunge right in. Forgive me. The two of us have had an incredibly special friendship. Before we reconnected at Tzippy’s wedding, I honestly didn’t know that such a strong bond between two people could exist. I guess we just really clicked on so many levels. We laughed together, we cried together, we even shared many similar views of the world. We could talk and talk for hours and the time would fly by.

That is exactly the issue I want to address, and the reason why I am referring to our friendship in the past tense. Because, Mia, as much as I love you—and I do love you, let there never be a doubt in your mind—our friendship has to end.I am crying as I type this. This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Mia, we’ve had a lot of turbulence in our relationship, to put it mildly, and I’ve spent years listening to you, accepting it when you put the blame squarely on my shoulders. I believed you because I believed in you and in our friendship, and I did everything in my power to keep you happy and keep our friendship afloat, no matter the cost. I just realized recently, and I am so sorry that I can barely write these words but I must: The cost is too high. I could go into specifics, but I know you’d dismiss them and find a way to make it all my fault. Then I would have to apologize, as I always do, accept the blame, as you always demand, and then be back to the same place where you are my one and only priority, as you insist on being. Instead of singing songs with my kids as we set the table for dinner I’d be texting you with one hand while balancing the dishes with the other. Instead of chatting with my husband as we pack for a family vacation, I’d be canceling the trip for fear of hurting you with my happiness. Instead of greeting my husband or children when they return home after a long day, I’d be raising a finger to indicate that I’ll talk to them in a second; I’m talking to Mia. I can’t help you right now. Mia, I used to have a lot of interests and plans for my life, but I no longer have the time or energy to implement them. All of my resources are spent on you.

Now, before you think that I blame you entirely, I want you to know that I consider myself equally at fault. I enabled you by giving you everything you demanded. But now it’s time for me to break the cycle. I hope you believe me when I say that I wish you all the best in the world. But you must also believe me when I say that we can’t be friends anymore. Please don’t call me or send me texts or emails. Don’t make it harder for me than it already is. Mia, I will miss you. Love, Pessi Not unexpectedly, Mia responded with furious, hurtful words, and Pessi’s phone rang off the hook. “Call me back!” Mia raged on the answering machine. “You’d better call me back right now!” Pessi changed her email address, home phone number, and got a new cell phone. It was over. Except that it wasn’t; not quite. “Even after our relationship ended something happened to me, something terrible. I forgot how to have a normal relationship. I don’t know if it’s real or just my perception, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to recognize boundaries anymore—what is appropriate and what isn’t, how often to call someone, what to share and what not to. I’m jealous of other people and the normal friendships they have so effortlessly that I can no longer enjoy.”

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