I’ve been listening to a lot of “breakup” music, lately. In part, this is because we listen to CDs when we’re driving, and we drive, a lot, when our son refuses to nap. The car puts him to sleep. It has no iPod/Phone hookup, so we pulled out the ole CDs, and it turns out that my high school collection remains in tact, in its 90s-style book case. I have this music to thank for reminding me to write this post, about friend breakups; it has been on my to-write list since the BlissDom conference. This may be the first of a few posts, because you know, breakups have a tendency to overflow any container we try to keep them in. This may explain the way we all have beloved albums almost entirely dedicated to breakup feelings.
Author, blogger and speaker Annie Downs challenged us at BlissDom to write the difficult topics we know will be uncomfortable, because someone out there needs to read our thoughts on those topic. Ms. Downs, a person I wanted to hug about thirty seconds into her speech, because her personality came across as so warm and kind, confessed to us that she wished there was more out there about friend breakups. We’re not talking about friends who lose touch, here. This is the friendship that has a terribly sad ending, with sad and awkward repercussions for everyone within a social circle. There are many tears shed during these friend breakups, and they are important. They matter. But we don’t talk about them. Well, Annie Downs, here is the story I promised you that I would tell.
For most of the time I was in college, three female friends and I formed a sort of core group. Our friendships solidified during our first year, in part because of proximity. Lucy (not her real name) lived down the hall from me, and is, in fact, accidentally in the background in one of my photos from move-in day at Barnard. My dad and I are standing at the gates, and there she is, walking out the gates, right behind me. It was like some kind of gravitational pull. We had similar interests in music, theater, musical theater. She had had real voice lessons (unavailable in my small Minnesota home town) and seemed to have more experience, and therefore, more confidence, than I did about auditions. The four of us had fun. The two of us had fun. There are some great pictures of all of us giggling.
Lucy was good at talking us into stuff, like the First-Years’ Ball. Why get all dressed up and go to a dance at a university with a 3:1 girl:boy ratio? I have no memory of any actual argument in favor of going, but I think it was just the sheer force of Lucy’s will that got us to go. We even had an ok time, somehow, despite disappointing food and, as we predicted, not a cute (or straight) boy in sight. (I’m not much of a dancer.) She taught me to enjoy bad, but fun, romantic comedies. She told me to go for it, when I was unsure about taking a voice class. I can still sing an Italian aria from La Bohème, thanks to that class. I sing it badly and in a much lower key, but I did pretty well with it at the time. It was fun.
Part of what attracted the four of us to each other at the time was that we all needed financial aid at a very expensive college and, as we would later learn, we all needed therapy for anxiety and depression. Not just in the way that every college first-year student could use some therapy, but in a genetic, this is too heavy, I need help, sort of way. Given the nature of those struggles combined with other, more ordinary, transformations, the group dynamic was bound to change.
The first test came during the incredibly stressful hunt for sophomore housing; three of us would be living together, but Lucy would not be invited. She had said that she wanted to live with friends, because she needed people to “take care of me.” It’s hard for me to separate what her behavior was like before she was diagnosed and medicated with a serious mental illness, and this was nine years ago. I don’t remember what it was, exactly, that needed taking care of. I do remember that none of us wanted to be responsible for taking care of a roommate. That was a separation she had not anticipated, and I don’t remember hearing her air her feelings about it. It may have been good preparation for all of us, though, given that we would be separated from the group we relied on and our individual friendships, in some pretty bizarre ways.
By the summer between my junior and senior years of college, three of us had lived in Europe, one as an au pair during a leave of absence necessitated by failing grades and alcoholism. Lucy had been left behind and, although I can’t remember exactly when, been diagnosed with bipolar disporder. I don’t know which kind (there are several). I remember that she was taking lithium, but not eating properly. She struggled with her weight. She fought with her family, who lived not far away. That summer, I returned to New York City after an entire academic year in Scotland.
I came back from Scotland depressed. I had made fast friends and left them behind, but many of my New York friends were gone for the summer. Lucy was one of the few friends who was also living in the dorms for the summer, but instead of leaning on each other, we broke our friendship. I still feel so guilty about the fact that I don’t know what I did to upset Lucy, but I must have done something. One day, I got a slip in my mailbox indicating that I had a package. As it turned out, I had many packages. The cardboard boxes contained everything that Lucy had ever borrowed from me. I was stunned. It still seemed possible that we could save the friendship, because we still had two close friends in common.
But we didn’t connect. I was working three jobs, seven days a week. I was so miserable that a friend recommended an intensive therapy program. After I had been deemed depressed enough to benefit from therapy twice a week, I could see a Columbia/Presbyterian hospital psychology intern for free.