Friendships can be the best thing ever - but sometimes they turn toxic.
CONTENT WARNING: addiction, mental illness and toxic friendships.
Friends are the family you choose. It’s a theme that’s explored and referenced throughout film and literature, from Charlie’s Angels to Harry Potter. Pop culture stereotypes of friendship can be fun: we look up to perfect girl groups just like Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte in Sex and the City, who solve any minor friendship drama through hugging and wine, while we laugh at the toxic teenagers in Mean Girls.
But what popular presentations don’t address is the complexity of real-life friendships and the emotional toll that friendship problems can take. The media is largely silent on the significant issues surrounding mental health and addictions in friendship – the effects of being friends with someone with problems like this can be life-changing.
Last week a university friend opened up to me about how the breakdown of a toxic friendship impacted her life so severely that she felt the need to cut off her other friends for three months.
My friend (who I will keep anonymous but refer to as Sophie here), was close with another girl, who was dealing with some pretty complex mental health issues. Their friendship was very intense and crossed boundaries most friendships do not cross.
The friendship escalated after a night out, when Sophie ended up looking after this girl when she overdosed on a cocktail of drugs. This was not a one-off event. By this point, Sophie had had enough and decided she needed a break from the friendship, but when she communicated this to the girl a few days later, she received a torrent of abuse via text. Sophie ended up blocking her for the sake of her peace of mind, but what had happened weighed heavily on her and led her to isolate herself from her other friends.
This story is clearly an extreme example of how damaging toxic friendships can be, and how, if mental health and drug issues are left untreated and unaddressed, they can have a very severe impact on the life of the person and those close to them. Both Sophie and her former friend are intelligent high achievers, studying at one of the top universities in the country. As well as being academic, they were both social and popular, and yet the demise of their friendship affected them both severely.
University can be a pressure cooker for issues in friendships and relationships, but that is not to say that most are not positive and healthy. An important part of university is finding your people, the circle of friends who you will (hopefully) stay in touch with for life. These people can be instrumental in helping you in difficult times, and a friend having mental health issues should never be the sole reason for walking away from a friendship.
Knowing what to do in a situation like the one Sophie experienced is difficult. In hindsight, she says she should have just walked away as soon as things got complicated and she realised the toll this friendship was having on her. That’s easier said than done and luckily Sophie still has her strong supportive network of people who didn’t give up on her when she fell off the grid.
There are no clear answers as to who you should or shouldn’t be friends with, but the lesson I took from Sophie’s story is that friendships should be both give and take, and real friendships that are going to last should never leave you feeling bad about yourself.