My best friend of more than 20 years betrayed me in an almost reality-TV scenario of sex, lies, and gossip. She was battling mental illness throughout. She has since begged me for forgiveness, and we have spent some time together. But five years later, I am haunted by her. I have weekly nightmares about her. We live in the same city as strangers. How can I stop thinking of her? Will I ever? Should I delete her from all social media? Stop communicating with her mother? Should I spend money on a therapist to try to get her out of my head? I feel as if she’ll be stuck there forever, no matter what I do.
E.W. / Boston
Yes, get a therapist. You need to talk about what your friend did, over and over again until you’ve pounded and sanded it down into some kind of story you can live with. You need to be able to talk without feeling self-conscious or as though you’re boring your listener. I understand your pessimism, and your resentment about having to spend yet more of your resources on this house fire of a relationship. But good therapy has fascinating side effects — you’ll wind up having insights and learning emotional skills that will benefit you in other areas of your life. I went to a therapist for anxiety and came out of treatment able to understand modern art. Go figure.
Your letter is going to provoke a lot of responses, E.W. Many people have been hurt like you have, but we don’t have a cultural bank of stories about friendship gone wrong. We have stories (and songs and quality cable dramas) about bad parents, bad lovers, bad bosses. Our culture doesn’t offer up many templates for “bad friend” stories or songs about breaking up with your best buddy.
This lack of story to reference makes it harder for you to heal, and so does your friend’s mental illness and the unexpected nature of her betrayal. You’ve not only lost a loved one, but the ability to make sense of your social world. You find your own past, and your judgment, difficult to trust. You try to tell the story to a new acquaintance or explain it to an old classmate and you see the look of wary frustration as the lack of sense registers: “But wait, why would someone do that? She did what? Are you sure?” and you see the shade being thrown back on you. So you stop talking about it — or you don’t. Neither feels like a satisfactory option.
This, see, is where a therapist would come in handy.
There are many different kinds of therapists. The most important thing for you, right now, is to find one you trust and feel simpatico with.
Then, think a little bit about what your therapeutic goals are. Neurologists can’t excise precise memories — yet — so getting her out of your head isn’t an option. What you need to do isn’t to get the whole nightmarish episode out of your head, but get it fitted properly into your head, into your story of who you are and what life has taught you. Do you want to learn more about the brain, the nature of post-traumatic stress and obsession? Do you want to become a more effective student of human nature? Do you want to go deeper into a spiritual tradition that focuses on compassion and forgiveness? Do you want to write the Great American Bad Friend Novel? You can’t unhappen your friend, but you can heal from her. I, and I suspect all my readers, wish you well in that.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.