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Newsflash: your friend’s bad friending isn’t all about you

I am a champion grudge holder. It’s not something to be proud of, but I hold onto feelings of anger and resentment like vertigo sufferers hold onto the safety bars on rollercoasters.

Years ago, one friend asked me why I’m always a bit chippy and weird with a mutual acquaintance. “Because she got really flirty with your boyfriend in 2006, remember? She tried to snog him!” My friend had forgotten this incident and couldn’t even remember going out with the boy in question. But I stewed, and struggled to forget something that happened 10 years ago – something that didn’t even directly involve me.

So it’s embarrassing, but not surprising, to admit that I only just ‘forgave’ my ex best friend for being mean to me, even though we haven’t spoken since we were taking our GCSEs, over half my lifetime ago.

When I started secondary school, Kirsty* (*not her real name) was one of my new classmates and I desperately wanted to be her friend. She wasn’t one of the loudest girls, and she didn’t brag about how trendy she was – she was just dry and wickedly funny, supplying punchlines and sometimes reducing me to breathless fits of giggles with a raised eyebrow. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Friends, a programme that my parents wouldn’t let me watch. She’d actually been to New York with her Mum. She was cool and clever and grown up, and had a perspective on life that seemed different from anyone else’s. Other people were happy to accept what they were told, but she challenged them. She seemed to know that there was life outside sleepy Dorset, and I wanted her to tell me all about it.

Kirsty was immediately commandeered by Charlotte* a girl I knew from primary school, a friend who was good at blowing hot and cold with me, and was confident in her coolness. I became Kirsty’s stand-in BFF – I was the pal version of a supply teacher, and I used to look forward to flu season because I’d get a full week of Kirsty’s undivided attention.

Then, one summer, Kirsty and I started hanging out together all the time. I felt as though I’d won a competition. She’d bitch about Charlotte and I’d join in, thrilled. I’m not proud of how good it made me feel to be ‘promoted’, but when we returned to school in the Autumn, it was just the two of us. Charlotte was out in the cold.

I lasted a term. For a few months, we told each other everything and spent every spare second together, and after Christmas Kirsty started blanking me. “Nothing is wrong! Why are you being weird?” she’d mutter, as I tearfully tailed her down school corridors demanding to know what had happened and what I’d done. It was as if I’d been dumped. I suppose I had.

For months and years afterwards, I thought of Kirsty as the person who had hurt me the hardest, the girl who wronged me, and the person who had seen something so awful and unfixable inside me that she couldn’t bear to be seen with me any more. It’s only now I realise that what happened probably had nothing to do with me at all.

Before the break up, Kirsty had told me about her parents’ divorce, and how she felt that her family was alternately suffocating and abandoning her. She’d gained weight quickly and then lost it even more quickly, and she was suffering from a severe eating disorder. Like me, she was dealing with the difficulties of just being in her teens, surviving school and dealing with the enormous amount of academic pressure that was facing her.

At the time, I think it made sense for me to experience sadness, anger and confusion. I wish I’d known that then, it was just too hard for her to be a good friend to anyone. She needed to draw people close and reject them, because it was a way for her to show she was in control. I don’t think she did it on purpose, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to actively cause me pain.

Hurt people hurt people, and our teenage years are a traumatic time. In some ways we’re at our angriest – we lash out, yet we’re incredibly vulnerable to the sadness and fury of others. Years later, I can finally see that we reject each other for all kinds of reasons, and most of them don’t have anything to do with the person being rejected.

I wish I hadn’t made Kirsty’s pain all about me. But I’ve finally realised that what happened wasn’t my fault, and I think that makes me a better friend now.


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Image: Manjit Thapp

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