He didn’t love me back, but he couldn’t bring himself to end our more-than-friendship. Later on, he became my caretaker as I tried to recover from an eating disorder and severe depression. He forced me to trust him with everything — from listing off what I’d eaten to how I was feeling at every moment — because he said I couldn’t be trusted to take care of myself. I believed him.
What began as study buddies evolved into him controlling my life. He wanted to know: What did I talk about in therapy? When was I getting off work or coming back from lab? Two years after my psychiatrist continued to tell me to end the relationship, I finally understood that our dynamic was destroying me. I wrote him a letter saying goodbye.
At the time, I lived with my college roommate in a beautiful apartment in Uptown Chicago. We’d been out of college for about a year and a half. That weekend, we sat in our kitchen and Skyped with our two former roommates from our last year in college.
Sobbing, I told them I was no longer speaking with our mutual friend who was causing me so much pain. “I couldn’t do it any more, ” I said. “We were fighting all the time. We weren’t even in a real relationship. I couldn’t do it any more.”
They soothed me, saying that I had done what was best for me. My roommate told me she was proud of me for taking care of myself, even though she was almost as close to him as I was.
Everyone knew things were rough between us: We fought constantly; he degraded me in public; he didn’t let me touch him, even though he hugged my roommate and other friends openly.
“You don’t need to stop talking to him,” I told our mutual friends, although I secretly wished they would. “He needs you guys.”
That was my first mistake. In encouraging them to stay friends with us both, I signaled that I was okay with what had happened. I opted out of our group conversations, saying my presence would make him uncomfortable. I opted out of telling my side of the story, even though I knew he was sharing his.
In that first year of freedom, I stayed in tangential contact with our mutual friends. It took me months to understand that the problems I had in college — the eating disorder, the suicidal thoughts — disappeared once I was no longer speaking to him.
On the one-year anniversary of our “breakup,” I told my friends the truth of what happened. The support was incredible from people who didn’t know the two of us together, who barely knew me, who didn’t know him.
What I didn’t expect was the silence from our mutual friends. I waited for the texts and emails that never came. I waited for them to say that they had no idea things were that bad, that they couldn’t believe what had happened under their noses. I hoped that, now that they knew, they would stand up for me by coming back. Instead, pictures of him with our old friends kept going up, one by one, on social media.
Abusers aren’t abusive all the time, so it might have been easier to think that I was crazy. It might have been easier for them to drop my friendship than his. After all, they saw the wreck I was in college: They sat with me in the dining hall during the worst of my eating disorder; he handed them the razors and sharp objects that were in my room to prevent me from self-harming. If I was in such a state, how could they believe I was telling the truth? Their silence made me doubt my own experiences.
I always thought friendship guaranteed a “through-thick-and-thin” fairy tale. But this breakup made me realize how fragile friendships can be. When confronted with something that was uncomfortable, they turned their backs on me. I resigned myself to the loss, tried to forgive them and move on.
This past fall, I sent out a newsletter about going through emotional abuse. I received an email from a mutual friend apologizing for not being there for me. I wasn’t there when you needed the support the most, she wrote. I’m stopping all contact with him and standing by you.
I spent the whole day in tears. Finally, someone believed in me enough to value my friendship over his. And most importantly, that someone was one of our mutual friends.