The shock of Mali’s revelation hit me hard, and the next two or three days were painful and strained
As told to Devorah Grant
When Mali moved to my school in the middle of seventh grade, things changed. Mali’s family life was challenging: After her parents divorced, Mali and her siblings moved in with her father, and Mali’s older sister stepped in as the mother of the family, creating a complex home situation. Still, despite our background differences, Mali and I instantly connected, excitedly discovering the many things we had in common and building a bond that got stronger every day. Before long, we were speaking on the phone daily, learning together for every test, and spending most of our spare time in each other’s company.
Mali was different from my other classmates. She was warm, open, and vocal about her emotions, confiding in me about her life and encouraging me to do the same. Our relationship strengthened over hours of intense conversation, and as time moved on, all other friends and classmates paled into oblivion as we spoke, shared, and cared. The power of our relationship was so strong it was often hard to tell whose opinion was whose: If Mali hated a teacher, I found myself thinking badly of the teacher, too, and the same with classmates, clothes, and life in general. We influenced each other’s thinking, and often marveled at the similarity of our opinions.
My mother wasn’t so comfortable about this relationship, and tried to convince me that it wasn’t great how much time we were spending together. I didn’t have the headspace to hear it. Other people also began to comment on the unhealthy dynamic between us, but by then we were too close to be pulled apart by other people’s words. One day, we broke a serious school rule, and were summoned to the principal.
I stood in that tiny office, scared and confused as the principal told us both that our relationship was an issue and we needed to separate from each other. She showed us how our unhealthy influence on each other played a huge part in our breaking such a serious rule, and told us we needed space to make our own decisions, apart.
But we couldn’t hear her.
Instead of separating us, the whole incident brought Mali and me closer, as we endlessly discussed the event and the punishment, and supported each other through our horrible feelings of having messed up.
Yet the seas still weren’t calm.
One random Wednesday, Mali came over and told me we needed to talk. Telling me first how much she appreciated our friendship, Mali told me her therapist had explained that our relationship did not sound healthy and that we needed to calm things down. I couldn’t even respond. The shock of Mali’s revelation hit me hard, and the next two or three days were painful and strained. Yet somehow, despite everyone’s warnings, and the little part deep inside both of us that knew all along they were right, we soon started speaking again, and our relationship reignited once more. Mali even confided in me how hard it had been for her to tell me what her therapist said, and how she’d practiced it and role-played it, over and over, before she did it. Our conversations were back, and more intense than ever.
Then came summertime. After being together all year, Mali and I went to different camps. And then, after four weeks at camp, screaming myself hoarse, making new connections, and too many sleepless nights, I returned home ready for school, and ready to see Mali.
But it wasn’t so simple.
Mali had made new friends in camp, and was now spending more and more time with them. When we got back to school, instead of hanging out together at recess, Mali was with her new friends, and when I asked, she explained that she needed to take “a break.” With our relationship slowly fizzling out, and my efforts to keep it going becoming totally one-sided, I was at a loss, unsure of what had hit me and what on earth to do next. All these years, Mali and I had had each other. What now?
School became increasingly challenging. I was alone. I often lay in bed at night wondering what I had done, what had happened to make all this go wrong. In the middle of an English lesson, with my mind elsewhere, I decided to simply ask. In a quick, messy scrawl on a tiny orange sticky note, I wrote: What’s going on? You haven’t called. Are you still my friend? I watched the sticky note get passed to her, get read, and then get ignored.
The awkwardness grew.
At this point, more people tried to help me get my head straight. My older sister Esther was one of them. “Mali’s moving away from you, Chevi. Maybe it’s time for you to do the same?” A teacher I confided in echoed Esther’s sentiments, helping me to see that it might really be time to make new friends. And surprisingly, I did. Somehow, despite the pain and rejection, it seemed there was still hope for my social life. And more than that, it was almost as if a whole new world had opened up, as I realized that all these years I hadn’t even seen my other classmates as potential friends. One new friendship flourished, then two, and I gained security in the newer, healthier relationships I was building.
At Purim time, our class was drawing lots to create something for a classmate. I drew the name of a girl I didn’t know too well; Mali drew mine.
On Taanis Esther, I received a beautiful, elaborate, cellophane-wrapped gift, with a note attached. “Don’t read it until you get home,” Mali warned me, and despite the bows and wrapping, something churned inside.
The note, when I first read it, felt harsh; Mali explained that she hadn’t been able to sleep since she read my note, all those weeks before, but all she’d really wanted was a break and that she hadn’t really dropped me. She shared her hurt that I had told others the whole story, but ended with saying that what happened showed her that there were other friends for her, and she was actually much happier now. Her words, in fact, echoed my own feelings exactly, but they were still painful to read, and I once again found myself floundering.
I was noticing more and more shifts in myself, as I was also happier and more secure. My new friends allowed me to have my own opinions. We were different — and that was okay. And although I missed the deep relationship I’d had with Mali, there was also some relief in the healthier, less-open relationships I’d already begun to make.
Perhaps friends didn’t have to share everything, after all.
It was time to write back to Mali. With the help of a good friend, I drafted a new letter, apologizing for having hurt her, but also gently explaining my point of view. I wrote how hard the situation had been for me, but how I was beginning to see how it was bashert for both of us, as we both were making new, healthier friendships. I signed the letter and gave it to Mali the following day.
A string of letters went back and forth for a while, as we ironed out the disagreement. But as we grew and matured, things changed. By the time we began 11th grade, we were able to have open, face-to-face conversations. We both spent time with our new friends; the awkwardness between us dissipated, and we were able to find a new way of being friendly, which allowed us both the space to grow and change. Like everyone told us all those years back (and as we’d instinctually known ourselves), we needed to let this friendship tone down, which in retrospect was the best thing that happened to both of us. And while I don’t think I would ever end up in such an unhealthy dynamic again, both Mali and I learned a lot from this experience — about what being a true friend means and also about healthy relationship boundaries and listening to yourself when you feel uncomfortable.
From what I’ve heard, seen, and read, unhealthy relationships are pretty common for many of us, and often, it can take time to untangle ourselves and change the way we relate. And yet, if there’s one thing I learned that can help someone else, it’s this: Deep down, you know how a healthy friendship feels. Use that, and the adults around you, to help you make choices that allow you to grow and flourish.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages., Issue 967)
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