I had other friends in my first few years of university, but there was one particular friend who pretty much held a monopoly on my time. I’m not going to use names in this post, so lets call them Janet. (Apologies to any Janets out there)
I met Janet in my first week at Queen’s. We’d both been given timetables with the wrong information, and found ourselves sitting in a random politics seminar instead of our introductory English in Transition seminar. We both got in trouble for this, which seems a little unfair as there was no way for us to know our timetables were wrong until it was too late. Our drastically different personalities meant we took this injustice very differently – I was a little upset and embarrassed, and didn’t talk in the module for the rest of the semester. She developed a real dislike of the tutor who scolded us and took every possible chance to create arguments with him. And somehow we ended up becoming firm friends.
Somehow it became my responsibility to make sure she was on time for every class, find all the right classrooms, alert her if we got any emails worth reading. It helped that we ended up in the same class group for every single module. When we were together, I became almost this sidekick-type character, gentle and silent except when it was necessary for me to make a joke or – as was growing increasingly common – summarise the week’s reading into a few sentences so she wouldn’t be in trouble for not doing the work. I figured it made sense – I did all the reading but didn’t have the confidence to actually make any points in class. It seemed fair that at least one person should benefit from my work.
By second semester, Janet was still my only friend on my course. We had to take this “skills” module basically designed to make our anti-capitalist degree appeal more to the neoliberalist university (the module has since been scrapped, but so has the School of English so there really aren’t any winners there). Much of the assessment for the module was based on group work, and Janet and I found ourselves at a table with the other groups who didn’t quite have enough people to complete a group project – one boy who seemed much happier to work on his own, and a group of three friends. One of the three friends was very organised, level-headed and a natural leader, and Janet automatically felt a massive competition grow between her and this girl. She decided that the other members of the group could be friends with us but we’d have to get rid of the leader, as they wouldn’t be able to get on. We completed the group work over the course of the semester, but Janet’s plan to edge the other girl out and secure friendship with the others never worked. She went back to only having me, and in return I could only have her.
That summer, I found myself without a home and became very good at my new hobby, drinking.
Sometimes she let me sleep on her kitchen floor. Once, she had me sleep in her bed with her boyfriend and herself, because she was fighting with her boyfriend and wanted to show that she liked me more than him. I got uncomfortable and slept on the floor under someone’s coat. I didn’t stay there much after that.
When university started again, I took to meeting her before class every morning in front of the main university building. I have a weird memory where I was running late one morning and passed my lecturer (Dr. Kelly, of whom I was terrified at that stage, for some reason) crossing the quad towards our meeting place. Seeing me, Dr. Kelly didn’t ask why I was walking in the opposite direction from the lecture, he just said “She’s waiting for you.”
There were a lot more incidents like that. We were known to be inseparable, though it was also pretty clear even to me that we had more of a master-and-pet relationship than that of friends. I’ve since found out that a few of the people who I now consider to be my closest friends wanted to talk to me sooner, but always felt like they weren’t allowed to talk to me with Janet there.
After a particularly stressful assignment season, I ended up building tentative friendships with some of the other students on my course. We planned a boardgames night for after assignment, and all the while I very much felt like I was going behind Janet’s back. Even once I’d invited her, it felt very much like I had betrayed her by talking to anyone else about it first.
On the night, she turned up late, stayed for an hour and then insisted I walk her home. Shortly after that, rumours started floating back to me.
Some months ago, I’d opened up to Janet about the sexual abuse I’d been through as a minor. I hadn’t ever spoken about it before, but she’d sensed that I was upset about something and got me drunk to get it out of me. I was embarrassed the next day, of course, but mostly felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d been keeping it a secret for so long, and it felt good to finally have someone I could trust with this part of my past.
Then, one night, I was walking one of Janet’s friends home from a night out. Janet had been out with us but had disappeared with her boyfriend, so that only two of us were left.
The friend, Áine, was explaining to me that she felt embarrassed about still being a virgin. I told her that it wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, and that if she wanted to have sex she would have it sooner or later, and that if she didn’t want to have it at all then that was fine too.
“That’s easy for you to say,” she said. “Janet told me you lost yours years ago.”
I didn’t know what to do at that point. I denied it. I hadn’t done anything consensually in my life. While I tried to be ~liberal~ and ~sex positive~, the truth was, I found that difficult given A) I hadn’t had any sex education in my life and only knew what I’d managed to find out from movies and B) any experience of sexuality I had had been incredibly unpleasant. I still feel bad for having such a shameful reaction to someone suggesting that I, an adult, had had sex. But at the same time, it’s not all that surprising.
And now other people knew too. And if one part of the group knew, the rest definitely knew as well. There are no private discussions in a group like that.
I texted Janet as soon as I got home, and she denied it instantly. She demanded an apology.
I told her that I was sorry if it wasn’t true, but that I could only go by what Áine had told me.
She told me that didn’t sound like an apology to her.
Then she broke up with me. Like, friend-broke-up.
I went into one of the worst depressions I can remember. Missed a week of lectures, missed work. I stayed in bed in a darkened room for most of that time.
The person who, by now, was my only friend had officially retired me as her lackey, and I didn’t know what to do.
The weird thing is, I had an almost identical friendship in primary school. That one got to the point where teachers would make worried phone calls to my mother, or make it a rule that I had to play football like I used to at least a few times per week, or sit me down and tell me about bullying. And for some reason, none of these things made me walk away.
Between these two manipulative friendships and one abusive relationships, it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that I am the common denominator. That there’s some weird part of my personality that makes me seek out people who will hurt and control ultimately ruin me.
I know that if a friend told me this same thing, I’d tell them that’s ridiculous. But then, I haven’t watched my friends fall for the same thing over and over. They’re not the ones lowering themselves voluntarily into quicksand every couple of years. That’s me.
I don’t have a conclusion for this post. I can only hope that I’ve had enough CBT and grief counselling and regular counselling and pills and pep talks by now that I’ve worked the weird urge to be sad out of my system. Or that it was never in my system. Maybe it really isn’t my fault. Seems unlikely, though.