My first toxic relationship wasn’t even romantic.
There was this mesmerizing girl – the kind who emits coolness. She was pretty in an edgy, gritty way. She wore heavy black eyeliner and highlighted her hair in dramatic streaks. She smoked Marlboros by the fairgrounds after school and even knew a guy at the daiquiri shop who gave her free Mudslides. She talked to boys with total ease, and probably wasn’t a virgin either. People gravitated to her energy, and my purity faded just by proximity. In my sheltered naiveté, the thrill of escape was addictive.
Over time, I began to resemble her – first my hair, then my clothes, and ultimately my behavior. I was risky, cocky, and basically her carbon copy. But while I was definitely her sidekick, there was a depth others missed. I saw something in her beyond the act she played. But my newfound cockiness led me to being grounded for a month. In the depths of solitary confinement, I faced the mirror. I didn’t like much of the reflection staring back at me. I missed the certain playfulness that had been my hallmark. When did everything get so complicated? Mostly, I was embarrassed by the focus on my poor judgment. Regretful and in an attempt to relieve myself of the eyes of those who judged me, I very dramatically cut the girl out completely. Still, something didn’t feel right. But I kept her in that very private place where poorly managed relationships never exactly die, where they fester and haunt until you realize a more obvious possibility.
It fit the description of a toxic relationship. I felt pressured to do the uncomfortable. She was emotionally dependent. I walked on eggshells, skittering her control of most circumstances. And while I don’t disagree that she wasn’t exactly a great influence, there was another relationship far more toxic, one that pushed bigger boundaries. Beneath the veil of toxicity, my intuition – that particular voice that whispers wisdom into my ear – was ultimately being stifled by me. I was my own poison.
Call it a conscience, a moral compass, or the universe, that little voice always has our back. It’s the voice that says, “Don’t gossip because you’ll feel guilty.” “Don’t go home with that person because you’ll hate yourself in the morning.” Or, “Don’t accept another drink because you’ve had enough.” Intuition doesn’t just prevent trouble; it is also our dignity calling. It’s the caller that says, “Speak up!” “Tell your truth!” “Be your own advocate!” But, in spite of all that we accomplish, ignoring it can be a perpetual weakness.
Juggling how we appear to others and how we appear to ourselves is complicated. We want to appeal, but we also have to like ourselves. The instinct to accommodate others is easier because it’s rarely met with conflict, that is until it’s habitual without a second thought and we hit a brick wall. Maybe we lose ourselves? Get played? Get a DUI? We boldly label it the wrong crowd, a toxic relationship, a drinking problem, whatever, and we find ourselves angered that our lesson is one in which we should have known better. Meanwhile, buried deep in the degradation is the real lesson: we compromised ourselves. Again. And, it’s time to listen. In total humiliation, we still have dignity.
The healthiest relationships work not just because they welcome our voice but also because we actually introduce our voice to the relationship. It’s when we stop being a sidekick and become a friend, or we give more than just sex and demand a deeper relationship, or we stop intimidating and listen to our children. Admitting our toxins is embarrassing. Losing the trust in ourselves is worse.
I thought that girl was the coolest person going because she helped me escape me. What restrained me was the identity wrestle between who I was and what everyone saw me as up until that point. By not listening to myself, I lost myself entirely. But I also abandoned an opportunity to grow. Today, the coolest people I know are willing to be different to their friends and their foes for the sake of integrity. And they don’t allow fear of losing someone to block integrity, either. They trust themselves enough to listen to themselves first.
I know enough to know that my intuition is a pledge of allegiance to myself. When I compromise it, I am my own abuser. My intuition is usually spot-on and remains the truest form of me, not equated with the desires of others, but rather completely invested in my welfare.
That girl is actually one of the strongest people I know today. We reconnected over a tragedy. Once again, I was in awe of her, but this time because of her resilience in the face of heartache. I found myself wishing I had known her in between the years. I would have if I had been bold enough to not drink the poison.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.