When you’re in middle school and high school, you think your best friends will stay your best friends forever. Maybe back then, you were too naive to consider that you’ll likely end up going to different colleges. Maybe back then, you thought you would always have things in common; or maybe back then those differences didn’t matter as much.
I had a close-knit circle of friends in middle school back in northern California. I met J (I will be referring to them with initials to protect their anonymity) during my first couple weeks after transferring schools in seventh grade; I liked her sweetness and excitability. I met L in English class after we were assigned to sit next to each other; she was just as shy as I was. And I met E in P.E., where we bonded over our shared interest in books and mutual disgust for compulsory exercise. Like with most childhood friendships, these weren’t well-considered foundations to form years-long friendships upon; rather, it was circumstances and the ease of having plenty of shared interests to talk about that brought us together at the time.
Then I moved away for my first two years of high school, only to move back again two years later to live with my dad while I took courses at a local community college. I had taken a proficiency exam offered by the state of California called the CHSPE in order to graduate early and make all this happen. I’d managed to stay in contact with two of the three old friends throughout those two years, but L was elusive, claiming illness whenever she texted me back after a long period of silence. However, my friendships quickly rekindled in person once I moved back.
I was absorbed with being a student, planning to get my associate’s degree and transfer to a university by the time I was 18 — my plan to get ahead academically and escape the rural, isolated setting of my childhood. Yet the same rigor that I applied to academics, I applied to my friendships, wanting to be not just a perfect student, but a perfect friend. I wanted to be there for my friends no matter what. I once drove L to a hair appointment in the city nearly an hour away and waited four hours for her to have it cut and styled. Her mom didn’t want her to cut her hair short, and L didn’t have a license, but I made sure she got there on time and I waited. I would do anything for my friends’ approval.
In the loneliness and anxiety that resulted from my thirst to prove myself through academic accomplishment, I also built my self-esteem upon my friends’ perceptions of me — their outright admiration and encouragement. I revealed my deepest insecurities to them in my darkest moments. I allowed myself to believe that as long as my friends thought I was good enough, that maybe I was.
While I grew closer with L and her high school friend M, I failed to realize that the trajectory of my plan could separate us. I ignored that my friends weren’t as driven as I was to leave Northern California; they weren’t as driven as I was in general. But at the time, it didn’t matter — or so I told myself — and I continued to glaze over what would eventually push us apart. I preferred to keep the focus on what we had in common or what was positive, away from things that could remind them of our differences.
At the end of what was my best friends’ senior year of high school and my own sophomore year of college, I decided to transfer to the University of Michigan. J was more aligned with my goals than my other friends. She was determined to escape Nor-Cal and broaden her world. As I accepted my invitation to the University of Michigan, J accepted her admission to the University of California, Merced. E, L and M started at the county’s single local university.
I held on tight to my bond with my old friends, texting with L and M daily despite my busy schedule. When J got her first college boyfriend within a week of starting school, L and I judged her impulsivity. The truth was that we were jealous. Neither L nor I had been in a truly serious relationship before. I was too shy to flirt with boys, and definitely not girls. It was easier to keep my head down and study, which was hard enough on its own. But I told L and M everything, the major and minor happenings of my life. I relied, perhaps unhealthily, on their perception of my identity to ground me in this period of time that my life and identity were in flux.
Even if I didn’t believe in myself, my friends did. They thought I was more brilliant and talented than I thought of myself. Or maybe I just wanted them to think that of me.
In the summer of 2019, during the couple weeks I spent in California between my two study abroad programs, L, M and I were closer than ever now that we were able to spend time together in person once again. But there was something beneath the surface that I was blind to: jealousy. L and M had dated briefly in their freshman year of high school, and L was jealous of how close M and I had gotten recently. I also began to worry that there was perhaps more behind M’s adoration of me than friendship.
I had a secret, too. I was falling in not-quite-love-yet with an older man. He wasn’t a college student. He was a doctor. When I told L and M this, I was shocked by their adamant and vitriolic disapproval, something they seemed united against me in feeling. It struck me as hypocritical; they knew better than anyone that sometimes you can’t help who you love or how you love them. Those factors like gender and age shouldn’t matter.
I was, of course, an infatuated idiot at the time, trying not to talk about the object of my affection to them and failing to censor myself enough to please them. I was desperate for their validation, which I felt receding from me like a helium balloon I had let go and watched float into the sky. I thought I could convince them to come back. I couldn’t see what was fueling their judgment, couldn’t fathom why they would be anything but happy for me. When they pulled away from me in the months afterward, I couldn’t believe that they would hold it against me. But they did. They held the moral high ground. They couldn’t condone my behavior, my decisions. They refused to justify their reasons for their disapproval. In their minds, just the fact that it made them “uncomfortable” was reason enough for them to leave me behind.
In the case of our friendship, we didn’t grow gradually apart through our differences. At least, it didn’t feel that way. One moment, it felt, I held the string in my hand. The next, the balloon was floating away from me. And I couldn’t get it back, though it took me months to come to terms with this fact. Months in which I forged ahead in school and struggled with other problems in my life, not knowing that I didn’t have the approval of the old friends I thought knew and adored me best.I didn’t have the identity or role that those friends created for me to fill anymore — the steadfast and reliable friend, one they could always trust. Not only did I feel rejected and villainized, but my identity was compromised. Who was I if I wasn’t a perfect friend?
After months of little contact, I confronted them through text. I apologized and tried to explain. I still didn’t understand what I had done. I was told that it was my fault for stepping over the line, and was simply put in my place and then blocked by M. Then I texted L, knowing already that L would side with M.
I was tired of yelling at the damn balloon to come back, to forgive me and try to understand me. I pulled out a bow and shot an arrow, feeling as if I were shooting at my own heart. The balloon popped loudly and definitively, a sound like a gunshot.
I killed those friendships, fully and completely. All that was left were scraps on the ground, no longer able to be put back together, never able to hold air again.
I had encouraged L to join E’s Dungeons & Dragons group, wanting my friends together even if I had to be apart from them physically. E had never been friends with L and M, but then they were. And I was not. Because my heart of sad scraps couldn’t feel that as anything but betrayal, I let that balloon go, too.
At this time, J is the only old friend that has remained in my life consistently throughout the years. I know that I am safe from her lashing out at me in jealousy or simply following the majority, but only because she has the life experiences and the capacity for self-reflection to prevent that. I’ve never had to make excuses for her.
I had clutched hard onto those childhood friendships, made space for them in my life and my mind and my heart. I didn’t want those relationships to end — they were ripped painfully away from me, shredding the parts of me that held them close. Perhaps I held them too close. I was reliant on our friendship to fill me and tell me who I was, and I realize now that I was the balloon, not them. And all of their thoughts of me were air that I didn’t need, because I can shape myself into whatever I choose to be. I only chose to be a vessel designed for others’ amusement.
It was time to say goodbye to my childhood friends and grow beyond them. Beyond the safe little comfort zones their friendship provided, beyond the confines of their boundaries, and most of all beyond their conceptions of me. It was time to stop holding on, and to start letting go.
Statement columnist Rachel Mckimmy can be reached at email@example.com