Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the friend-bully

When I was 15 or 16, I received a phone call. When my mom handed me the phone, I assumed it'd be a friend wanting to make plans; what happened next would leave me without a voice. On the other end was J, a classmate and so-called friend, and she had called on behest of my supposed best friend R (or so J claimed) to basically tell me everything wrong with me.  The subtext, of course, is that with so many egregious faults, who would want to be my friend?

Had I been older, I would have interrupted when the onslaught began and hung up on the bitch. Instead, I sat in passive silence, tears running down my face, listening, accepting the litany of my faults. Part of me wanted to hear all the things I feared were true; part of me just couldn't stop listening despite the pain. Here was a person I thought was my best friend in the entire world, a girl whom I'd shared all my secrets, and whom I loved, speaking through this horrible person.  When I finally did hang up--or did my mother see my tears and tell me to hang up? I can't remember--my mom was furious and I was heartbroken.  After that day, R was no longer my best friend, and I was left bereft.

I'd forgotten about that painful occurrence until recently, when R posted something about the bullying she'd endured in high school. While I knew she had been mocked and bullied--in fact, I was one of the few people who stood by her and tried to defend her as best I could in  my shy, quiet way as she spun what I would come to realize were likely elaborate fictions--all that kept running through my head was well, yes...but weren't you also a bully to me? The cruelty of adolescence is that nearly everyone has someone weaker than themselves to bully, and it turned out that even a supposed-best-friend can become a bully when her friend is socially awkward, shy, and sheltered. I was, in other words, a fairly easy target for such cruelty, especially with the encouragement of someone who cared nothing for me.

I'd later learn that this same best-friend had revealed my secrets. Thanks to the honesty of my brother, I discovered that she had divulged all kinds of private information: boys I liked, the fact that she wanted me to try out for cheerleading in order to make fun of me, and who knows what else. For the painfully shy girl I was then, this was untenable, though I was lucky to discover it after our best-friendship had crumbled into a friendly school companionship after I wordlessly forgave The Incident. By then I had her full measure and knew better than to trust her beyond silly confidences.

Here I am, however, 15 years later, and I am actually glad that I realized that bullies in best-friend disguise are exactly the wrong kind of friends to have. Since then, I had a few friend-bullies that I learned to stand up to or pushed out of my life (or at least toward the periphery), and now my best friends are close as sisters (or brothers!). They'd no sooner bully me or hurt me than they would their own family, and I trust them completely. They might poke fun at me, but then know when to stop before it ventures into cruelty. It was through betrayal and pain that I came to learn what true friendship should and could be, and formed a close-knit group of friends instead of isolating myself as I could have so easily done.  It helped to go to college, where I was in constant contact with individuals who had similar interests to me, and it also helped that I grew up and grew out of my shyness and gained confidence and independence.

So in a weird way, thanks R for teaching me the nature of true friendship. While I'm sad to hear about how the echoes of that high school pain have reverberated through to your present, I hope you can also see that bullying comes in all shapes and sizes--but that it can also be fuel for growth and positive change.

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