As an adult, I thought I knew what abuse looked like. I had even self-righteously imagined what I would do if a boyfriend hit me, or a boss had touched me inappropriately. Most of these scenarios ended with instant absolution, me bouncing out of the room and into the arms of the nearest governing body. But in living the kind of charmed life where everyone I cared about had been kind and respectful, I never imagined needing a game plan for emotional abuse. Particularly when it manifested in a platonic relationship.
Turns out that the whole childhood rhyme about sticks and stones is absolute bullshit. Words can leave wounds, and they can take years to fully identify.
Lady (not her real name, of course) and I were such close friends that I initially glossed over the warning signs. She had blown up at me in a restaurant, angry to be eating alone after I told her I couldn't afford both dinner and a movie. I remember sitting in stunned silence, staring into my Diet Coke as she compared my dream of being a writer to trapping myself in a lifetime of poverty. The argument came out of nowhere and dissipated almost as fast. By the time we had paid the check and headed toward the movie, she was playing the role of the excited film fan, and I was repeatedly pinching myself to keep the tears at bay.
I avoided her for months afterwards, only to start hanging out with her again that summer when she sent a frantic "I miss you!" text.
I ended up moving in with Lady shortly after my day job folded and I found myself unable to afford my dream apartment. Three months as a resident of her living room with only nominal rent felt like the time I needed to figure out what was next. I put my furniture in storage, my toothbrush in her bathroom, and began forwarding my mail.
The strange pattern she'd hinted at months before repeated itself almost immediately after I moved in. When we were alone, angry, extended outbursts that were seemingly forgotten moments later became the norm. Discussing banal details like folding paper bags would end with her either stomping out of the room or out of the house, yelling and crying. Later, Lady would return and admit the reason she lashed out was because she was feeling lonely, and the only reason she felt OK was because I was living with her.
Like many victims of abuse, statements like these made me feel emotionally responsible for both her and the situation. So even though spending time with her in close quarters made me nervous, I said yes to every post-fight In-And-Out run or movie. Maybe if I could make her happy, even for a few hours, I could be, too.
During her brighter hours, Lady was still the friend I remembered — the one who could talk through feelings and keep a secret or two. Only now, with her outbursts in the back of my mind, girl talk felt dangerous. I knew I was giving her ammunition, but I continued anyway, trying to be the friend I thought she needed.
Sure enough, every confession was used against me, often subtly brought up in conversation in ways that outsiders would have never picked up on. I admitted my Christmas job left me no time to hit the gym and I was feeling fat. The next day, she announced that she accidentally lost five pounds and was looking "a little Ethiopian." After I opened up about the extent of my money issues, she complained about how much her weekend trip to Vegas was costing her. When I was feeling brave enough to call her out, her apologies would come with a qualifier, justifying her behavior. ("I was drinking and things got heated" and "You were pushing my buttons" were two of her standbys.) When I wasn't feeling brave, I would just cry myself to sleep.
The money issue was a big one. I stayed because I couldn't afford to leave, a fact she was fully aware of. Everything she owned had a price tag that she regularly made clear I would pay if the item broke, tore, or went missing. I became terrified to touch anything in the house, buying mugs and dishes at the dollar store and sitting on the floor instead of at her table. I was constantly put in positions where I couldn't win. She would accuse me of taking advantage of her hospitality, but when I refused to sleep on her $1000 sheets while she was away for the week, she accused me of thinking she was a monster.
One night, after a particularly vicious exchange, I sat in my car sobbing and calling any friend I could for comfort. But, when they picked up, I couldn't explain what was wrong and ended up downplaying the situation. How could they know? So much went on behind closed doors. Since I had no witnesses to back up my story, it was almost impossible not to believe I was overacting.
When we did have company, Lady was careful to present the situation as two BFF roomies having fun. Later, I told one of our mutual friends about the mocking and ridicule I had privately endured. She replied with an incredulous, "That doesn't sound like Lady." Before living with her, I would have said the same thing.
Leaving should have been a no-brainer. And looking back, I'm shocked I put up with the situation as long as I did. But after three months of cohabitation, I was beaten down to the point where I no longer recognized myself. Instead of telling someone what was going on, or looking for a new place to live, all my energy went to staying out of the house, working all afternoon at the store, and then writing in Starbucks until it closed. On a good week, I'd see her only a handful of times.
Like all my other shortcomings, Lady called me out on the avoidance, telling me that she didn't believe I was a "happy person." In that moment, I had to agree. I replied, telling her that I was thinking about moving back in with my parents and driving the 50 miles to work each day. She casually responded by saying that she had been Googling ways to commit suicide. My blood ran cold, and I agreed to stay put.
I could no longer tell the difference between the truth and manipulative threats. If I couldn't make her happy, could I make anyone happy? The situation blinded me to the reality that her happiness wasn't my job. I couldn't think straight enough to realize that pulling the plug when someone no longer has your best interests at heart isn't selfish — it's an act of self-love.
The tipping point came when, after a long day at work, I came home, took a shower, and checked Facebook. Only then did I discover a post on my wall where she mentioned the hot water heater had broken. Hell hath no fury like Lady discovering that you're mopping up an inch of water in her kitchen with her good towels. She couldn't believe that during my eight hours behind a cash register I had failed to check social media. I couldn't believe... everything, actually.
Too scared to stage a final confrontation, I didn't tell Lady I was leaving. The next day, I pretended to sleep until I heard the door close. I leapt up, adrenaline racing, as I began erasing my existence. After the sun rose, I ran to borrow paper bags from the next-door neighbor. She asked if Lady knew I was moving out.
"I'm leaving to get away from the emotional abuse," I told her. The words shocked me, but not the neighbor. She nodded in agreement and then texted me a half hour later to tell her Lady was on the way home. Because of her kindness, I was able to escape without confrontation.
I thought I'd be relieved as I drove away from Lady's house one last time. But instead I felt numb for the next few months and edgy for the next few years. She still had a huge emotional hold over me. As a Christmas gift to myself, I unfriended her on social media, shaking nervously because even though there was no way I'd ever take her calls again, I still was worried what she'd say or do if she thought I didn't like her.
Years later, I've finally learned that respect isn't built into every situation. Being cut down or made to believe I'm not worthy is deeply painful and should be taken just as seriously physical abuse. Still, relationship insecurities regularly resurface. A pal laughed when recently, after sympathetically slogging through my rants about men and dating, I bought her ice cream and begged her not to repeat anything.
"That's what friends do!" she replied, digging into her scoop and promising never to breathe a word. Oh, yeah... I'd forgotten.
I will not excuse the hell Lady put me through. She may never acknowledge that her actions were abuse, but then again, most abusers don't. Not long ago, a mutual friend slipped and mentioned her, hinting that she's working on her life. For the first time in the five years since I moved out, her name no longer filled me with dread. Which is good. Anyone so miserable they need to control, cut down, or hurt someone else to feel better deserves some relief. I can root for her redemption, but I'm not going to be a part of it. I've finally healed. Lady's role in my story has come to an end.