My best friend has let me down for the last time

She always said she'd be there for me, but when my son got sick, she wasn't.

Published November 8, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I grew up together and have always been like sisters. She has always been a needy person: Nearly every day of my life I've listened to her talk endlessly about her complicated relationships; I've held her hand as she freaked her way through countless crises and meltdowns, and done a thousand favors for her. Through all those years of offering hugs and help and sympathy and of taking her side, I never asked much from her. Frankly, I didn't need it. She always said that I was her best friend and she loved me, and if I ever did need her, she'd be there for me. And I believed her.

Then, earlier this year, I almost lost my beautiful 10-year-old son to a severe case of meningitis. The illness damaged his limbs, his kidneys and his hearing, leaving him with permanent physical disabilities. My husband and I needed all the support we could get to help our child through this heartbreaking experience. Lots of people came through for us, but my "best friend" was AWOL. I got the feeling she was beginning to distance herself. We had a bunch of lame phone conversations over the next weeks, during which she said that she knew I needed to give all my attention to my family, so she was going to give me my space. When I said I needed her help, she said that she was going through a difficult time herself and was sorry that she couldn't be there for me.

Months later, it's as if we were strangers. Occasionally she'll call and leave brief messages like, "I'm thinking about you!" and "I miss you!" Recently, we invited some close friends and family over to celebrate our son's birthday. He's still healing from his illness, but we are so proud of how far he has come. I think everyone else got how special the day was for us. That morning, my friend called and bailed, with this story: She and her husband had argued the night before and she was "too depressed for a party." She wants to see us, she says, when things in her crazy, crazy life settle down.

That was the last straw. Something in me snapped. I get it now: She is an appallingly selfish bitch. She only "loved" me when I was available for her to use, and then she let me down. I hate her so much now that I am afraid the next time I see her, I might hurt her. I am so, so angry. Our families are close and we have friends in common, so I will have to see her during the coming holidays. I fantasize about slapping her in front of everyone. I have dreams in which I beat her and draw her blood. How can I let go of this terrible anger and move on?

Reformed Sucker

Dear Reformed Sucker,

You're not a sucker. You just took her at her word and thought she would come through but she didn't and instead she broke your heart. You don't have to be a sucker for that to happen.

If there were a short answer to your question it would be that you can let go of this terrible anger by moving through it to what comes next, a shaking of the head and a bitter shrug, a sad perplexity, the uncomprehending Why? of the unaccountably injured, or perhaps what we call acceptance. But that would only be part of it.

People say there are definite stages to it, but I don't know. They say there are five stages of grief or whatever. They say it as if everybody knows. I don't know. I never memorized that. I think you make up your own stages. Whatever stage you need to be in, however your house is arranged, whatever you've got room for, that's where you go when you're done with the anger. The only thing certain is that you move from anger into something that is not anger. Anger is heat and it always cools. Anger always cools just like the evening always comes.

So why should I tell you something pompous and all-knowing like you will move from this stage to that stage? And why should I speculate about what calamities she has undergone, calamities that though tiny loomed so large in her life that she had this appalling failure of heart?

It might be a sign that you're gaining some distance if you find yourself one day, maybe a year or two from now or maybe 10 years from now, wondering in a not particularly emotional way just what little torments were consuming her that made her so useless to others. Did she have a pile of traumas to inventory? Was her husband burning her with cigarettes? But it would be a long time from now that you would be thinking about that. For now there is simply your anger at the bitter loss of your friend.

Aw, shit. People fail you, they do, they let you down when you need them, they get suddenly dense when you need them to be smart, they fold when you need them to open up, they close right before you get there and sleep through your honking horn in the snow. "I know she's in there, where else could she be? Why doesn't she come to the door?" People fail you, they do, they let you down when you need them. They don't say they're sorry because they don't even know. That's how dense they are. (And maybe wounded, too, in ways we can't see, but we're not in a mood for sympathy, are we?)

I say this speaking to you as a friend who himself has let people down from time to time but who will goddamn it be there in a pinch when it is really necessary, always always always, even if I am going through something. I will be there.

But that is so easy to say! "I will be there." That's what she said, isn't it? But she never had a clue how to do it! Yes, she was always promising to come through one day and then the day comes and you tell her in plain English, "This is your day! Your payment is due! It's time for you to be there for your friend!" and she can't hear it.

And then, when for one nanosecond it did indeed dawn on her that you really did need help she offered you ... space! Who in her right mind who knows anything about helping thinks that giving you space is helping? Giving you space is just being absent.

Are you planning to strangle her, really? Have you got a rope? You're not, are you? But you're afraid of how much you want to hurt her. So what are you going to do when you walk into the warm cocktail music evening and she comes tripping down the carpet loaded with a hug? It's going to make you angry, isn't it, when she aims that hug at you and starts to pull the trigger?

So maybe you'd better meet with her before any of these random occasions occurs. Maybe you'd better track her down and confront her so you get to say your piece the right way, in your own time. I know she should come to you and help you, for God's sake, but you're the one who has to do it. You're always the one who has to do it. I know that. This time, however, you are not tracking her down merely so she can fail you all over again. You are tracking her down so you can tell her once and for all what you need to tell her.

Tell her and do not apologize and do not forgive her and do not think about the future in which all is forgiven. It may be that all is forgiven in the future. All is not forgiven right now. Right now you just have to tell her.

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