We Were Different People Then

Honoring Those Friendships That Crashed and Burned

“How can I look at the photos from these adventures and not want to throw them in the fire?”

We’ve all got at least one.

A friend we used to be so close with. Someone with whom we’ve shared such beautiful memories… but if we passed them on the street today we’d scarcely know them. We might even try to avoid them, or they us. Maybe there’s anger or resentment where laughter used to be. Maybe the love is so broken and buried you’ve forgotten it’s there.

But love never truly goes away. Not if it was real to begin with.

So what do we do when those beautiful memories are tainted with whatever bad juju went down? How do we honor the past when the present seems to tell a very different story? Can we really move on while still cherishing what once was?

Of course we can. We just have to look at things a little differently.

In my case, I have more than one of these “old friends.” There are quite a few, actually, so I’ve had plenty of practice figuring out how to reconcile the past with the present in this way. It wasn’t easy. I struggled. I even blamed myself for a long time. But ultimately I realized that, due to experience and the inevitable passage of time, we had simply become different people.

Growing Apart

Take Bethany* for example. She and I had been best friends for close to a decade, sharing our heartbreaks and taking road trips and even living together for a while. But a couple of years ago, things began to shift. She got a fancy new job working long hours and I was still hacking away, barely able to pay my bills. She was unhappily single and I was first caught up in a deeply abusive relationship, then later slowly grounded myself in another much healthier relationship. And while I tried to reach out and be a friend to her, she put more and more distance between us.

I’ll probably never know exactly what it was that drove us apart, and I’ve accepted that. What is clear, however, is that we were on different paths at this point. We had different priorities. We were becoming different people. And we both made mistakes. In the end, I unintentionally hurt her and she unintentionally hurt me and we parted ways as civilly as possible. We just weren’t good for each other anymore.

Going Through Sh*t

Then there was Brian*. We were friends for about as long as Bethany and I. He was the only one there for me when I went through the worst heartbreak of my life. We were both creative individuals with analytical minds, and we partnered on a number of projects. We lived in different countries but could spend half a day on video chat, going on about life and love and spirituality and art and stories… He was one of those “anything and everything” friends. I even saved up to fly across the ocean to meet him in person and share in some adventures!

Unfortunately, he’d gotten romantically involved with another online friend of mine early on, unbeknownst to me until much later, and she was ruthlessly abusive to him. I only knew her on a surface level and thought she was a decent, sweet sort of person. I was wrong. After years had passed and Brian disclosed some of the details of their relationship to me, I was horrified. It took some time for me to replace my idea of her in my head, and I tried to be supportive as he muddled his way through his healing process, but his focus was on a sense of vengeance and retribution in a manner I could not condone. Still, he’d been there for me, and I wanted to be there for him as much as I was able.

As he sifted through his pain and experience, he admitted that he blamed me. At first this was just a matter of venting — an acknowledgment of my connection to his ex — but little by little, message after message, his stance snowballed into a venomous cascade of harassment. He blamed me for introducing them. He blamed me for not being supportive. He insisted that I’d taken her side. I had to shift him into my spam folder, though most of his emails I still read or at least skimmed. He’d initially asked me not to reply, to just allow him to sort things out and speak his piece, and I never did write back. Especially after the messages got bad. Even when he asked, “What do you have to say for yourself?” By this time I had nothing to say to him and was only reading out of respect, as a witness to his suffering.

After about six months I finally stopped reading the emails. After about eight months he finally stopped sending them. I knew he wasn’t in his right mind, and he’d admitted once or twice to having a psychotic break. I think he even apologized at some point. But the damage was done. Our friendship was over. He thought I was a monster; there was nothing I could do to sway him, and it wasn’t worth the energy to try. I had to accept that this was his reality… but it didn’t have to be mine.

Learning New Things

Kal*. Dear Kal. This parting was on me, even if he didn’t realize it. We started as friends, became romantically involved for a brief but potent time, until he broke it off and we were strangers for three years. Then he returned to my life and it all flooded back. We again became lovers, again briefly, still just as potent. Then it was back to being strangers. Then he reached out to be friends, followed by another stretch of silence.

For a long time I held onto the threads of what we’d had because our connection had been so deep and inexplicable. I promised I’d be there, no matter what, whenever he was ready. I sent birthday and Christmas cards to him and his son. I kept at a respectful distance yet made sure they knew I was still thinking of them. After a while, though, it hit me that this was very one-sided, and I saw the pattern that wove its way through my life: a codependent martyrdom. Kal meant well, but he was honoring his own needs and priorities. I couldn’t fault him for that. And me? I’d been anchoring myself to the past in the name of love, forgoing to some extent my own needs and priorities. So I cut the rope and left that anchor behind. No more cards. No more hanging on and waiting to hear back. In my constant endeavors for growth and healing I had learned what my unhealthy patterns were, I had learned how to set boundaries, and I used this new awareness to let go and move on.

Onward and Upward

Now how do I still enjoy looking back on those road trips with Bethany? Or those creative projects and my overseas trip with Brian? How do I still treasure my time with Kal? How can I look at the photos from these adventures and not want to throw them in the fire?

Because I acknowledge that we were different people then.

The same way that I can forgive myself for past blunders because I simply didn’t know better yet, I can forgive these beautiful people for the changes in their lives that pushed me out. I was a different person then. So were they. Who they were when we shared joyful memories is not who they are now. They have endured a little more, learned a little more, seen a little more. So have I.

Our changes and growth don’t mean that the story of the present has to get in the way of our appreciation and gratitude for the past. It doesn’t mean that the love is gone. It’s still there. It’s just buried a little deeper. “Who I was then” is a layer among layers, somewhere beneath “who I am today.” And it holds that same old love for the corresponding layers of those people no longer in my life, but still in my heart.

*names changed to protect privacy
Photo by Vladyslav Dukhin from Pexels

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J Haley Phillips

J Haley Phillips

I’m an editor/writer/coach with a focus on inspiring, empowering, and healing content. I love tea, travel, long hippie skirts, and diving deep into the Self.