“She’s disappearing,” I can’t help but think as the months and years go by. She’s being erased. My heart aches a bit. For much of my life, she was always right there, a stable and predictable presence in my life, even when a few provinces were between us, even when a month or two went by and we didn’t talk much.
I never considered us best friends, because I don’t really consider anyone in my life to have that designation — I’m close with different friends for different reasons, and I understand that there is an ebb and flow to all relationships. But she and I ranked right up almost since we met.
A few weeks before her wedding several years ago, we had a long-distance, marathon phone call. When my next phone bill arrived, I realized that that phone call costed me $45. I wasn’t upset. I remember thinking, “That was worth every cent. Who knows what things will be like after she’s married? We’ll probably still talk on the phone from time to time, but things will change. Of course they’ll change a bit.”
They didn’t change a bit. They changed drastically.
It took me a long time to realize why things changed so much. I thought that maybe it was just me. Maybe I was just lonely, because although I was quite well connected with family, friends, co-workers, and so on, I didn’t have a significant other. Then I met the Handyman! But I still cared about my friend, of course, and I still felt…pushed aside, like I no longer counted as anyone in her world. I tried to talk to her about it. She claimed there was no problem, everything was fine. I left things alone for a long time. I did my own thing. I kept my conversations with her light, funny, far less frequent. I tried to brush aside any unpleasant feelings I had in that friendship.
And yet as time went on, she seemed to be disappearing more and more. And I couldn’t simply be okay with that. Decades of a close friendship couldn’t just fall apart like that, could they?
I’ve learned that when a friend enters into an unhealthy world — of alcohol or drugs, or another addiction, or a cult, or a shady marriage situation — your relationship with that friend will quite likely have a very, very good chance of falling apart.
A new window was opened for me one day: I heard someone described as a narcissist. I realized that I didn’t actually know what it means when someone is a narcissist, aside from some vague ideas of someone who thinks they’re quite special or extremely good-looking or self-centred. I googled the term and read up on such things as healthy narcissism, the narcissism spectrum, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and other Cluster B personality disorders. On YouTube, I discovered Dr. Les Carter’s videos, “Surviving Narcissism”; for a long time, I devoured those videos, because every single one of them shed some light on my friend’s husband. Of course, I’m an outsider to her situation, but as far as I can see, nothing in those videos has been disproved yet. I wish it weren’t so, but I’m worried and saddened that it is. The videos helped me to see how I am responsible for our friendship falling apart (I’m not) and how I can fix things (I can’t). I tend to take things very personally, but I’m learning that how people treat us says more about them than it says about us. Now, finally, at almost 36 years old, that’s somewhat of an epiphany for me.
As I’ve been learning about NPD, the pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place. I see how rushed everything was at the beginning of my friend’s relationship with her now-husband — from dating, to getting engaged, to getting married — and I see “love-bombing” written all over it. At the time, I didn’t really think too much about how fast everything went. After all, they were both in their 30s, had been in previous relationships, and seemed to be convinced that this was better than the rest. And who am I to question someone else’s decisions, as long as they seem relatively sane and happy? But as things started to go downhill so soon after the wedding, I couldn’t ignore the niggling thoughts that something was strange about the whole deal.
Some time later, as we ended yet another awkward, distant phone call, I paced my living room floor. Angry and disheartened about the turns of events, I almost tossed the pile of her wedding photos into a garbage can. That day no longer seemed like a beautiful day. It seemed like a lie. I tucked the photos into the bottom of a box in the back of a closet. Maybe one day I’ll see the beauty and hope and promise of that day and of their marriage, but I’m not really counting on it.
I remember her moments of confusion during some of my conversations with her early on in their relationship, and I now see that her husband’s ideas of loving and caring about someone are very different from the ideas most of us have about how love and care actually look on a day-to-day basis. I remember her trying to make sense of his behaviour, trying to make excuses for him as he told her that the Christmas gift she gave him was lame or that she spent too much time on her craft projects. As the years go on, I see how he is attempting to isolate her from her family, who’ve been a loving, stable part of her life for as far back as I can remember. I see her social circle getting smaller, more superficial, more transient. I see her wardrobe changing, and she’s wearing name brands that she’d sworn she’d never wear. She half-jokingly told me a couple of years ago that her husband remarked that she’s boring unless she’s had a few drinks, so nowadays she drinks much more than she ever did before.
And on some scale, this effects me, too. After all, my friendship with her goes way back, and I can’t help but think, “This isn’t at all what I thought things would look like after she got married.”
I remember some of the conversations I had with her husband in the early years of their marriage, before I knew a thing about narcissism, and I remember how uninterested he seemed, no matter what type of anecdote I shared — funny, sad, surprising, thought-provoking. At the beginning, I just brushed his reactions (or lack thereof) aside, thinking that maybe he was shy or unsure of what to say; now I see the complete lack of empathy that is an indication of NDP. I think, too, of how incredibly upset he was when I wasn’t “appreciative enough” after dinner or when I stayed on the phone just a bit too long with my friend and he desperately needed her to get off the phone and … what? There was no urgent matter to attend to. There usually isn’t. But it was yet another time when his needs and wants outweighed hers. As they almost always do.
When my dad passed away last year, I still — perhaps stupidly — figured my friend would be there in a heartbeat. The friend I knew a decade ago would’ve been there in a heartbeat. But she just barely showed up for me. There was no logistical reason she couldn’t show up. There was a husband reason she couldn’t show up. His wants and needs required attending to, and even a death in anyone’s family wouldn’t eclipse that.
Sometimes I wonder how, if given the chance, I would do things differently, right from the start.
Should I have questioned things a bit more, when she stayed home from another friend’s birthday party so she could hang out with her new guy? It was kind of a bad friendship move on her part, but isn’t that also par for the course early on in the dating game (even though it shouldn’t be, really)? Should I have questioned her when her spending habits became frugal, even though she’d never been frugal as long as I’d known her? When her husband made unkind comments about others, perhaps I shouldn’t have brushed them aside for the sake of keeping the peace. When I saw my friend slowly become quieter, less expressive, more uptight, more isolated, would it have helped if I pushed a bit more instead of backing off the instant she expressed that she was done with the topic?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s hard — impossible — to talk someone out of being in love (or infatuation or lust); when someone’s head over heels with a new love interest, there’s not a lot of room for reasoning. We’re good at ignoring red flags, even if they’re being waved right in front of our faces, because it’s uncomfortable to face the truth sometimes. We’re good at denial, at convincing ourselves that X didn’t mean Y, or that Y isn’t such a big deal, really, and even if Y continues, it won’t lead to Z, and if it does lead to Z, well, surely we’ll figure out how to fix that, right?!
I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned that my friend doesn’t want a heart-to-heart. She doesn’t want to talk about how things have seemed “off” for so long. I’m sure she wants to fix things, but in her way, which is not the way recommended by professionals or those who’ve been down a similar path. She’s hopeful — she’s so darn hopeful — that if she just tries a bit harder, gives it a bit more time, wears a different shade of lipstick, spends less time on her hobbies, her relationship will be restored to the fairytale it was in the beginning.
My approach has changed as time goes on. I’m no longer trying so hard to be available, sympathetic and empathetic, armed with the most appropriate phrases and book recommendations, should she happen to ask for that (which she never has done or probably won’t do anytime soon). It hurts me, too, to be brushed aside, like anything I offer isn’t worthy of consideration. I’m no longer trying so hard to find how I’ve been responsible for our friendship falling apart and fixing that (because that’s only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself). I’m backing away. I still care, but I’m doing it from a distance (not how I prefer to do it). I will always be just a phone call away from her, but I’m not the one picking up the phone nowadays to make that call anytime soon.
In my wildest dreams, she and I are talking easily over lunch or as we’re walking by the lake. We’re true to ourselves, not walking on eggshells, not hiding a sad face behind a happy mask. Her face lights up as she talks, and she laughs and makes the best puns, like she used to. Maybe someday that will happen. Not because her husband will change (because he likely won’t change), but because she’s gotten her voice back and she’s standing up for herself again. She’s gone to counselling, by herself or with her husband. She’s tried some other approaches. She’s taken the huge, brave step of getting divorced. Or maybe she has separated from him for a year to figure things out, open to the possiblities of wherever that might lead.
I saw my friend unexpectedly a few weeks ago when I was getting gas before returning a rental car. It’d been close to a year since we last saw each other — it’s just been too hard for both of us, I think. We chatted briefly and somewhat awkwardly, and then I went back to the car and she headed into the gas station. In the past, I would’ve followed up later that week with a text message or a phone call, but this time I didn’t. For now, I’ll wait for her. She’ll still always be in my mind, and if she happens to reach out to me tomorrow or in ten years or in August, I’ll reply right away.