friendship

"I've abandoned every friend I've ever had. Except the most toxic."

People think I’m a serial ghost.

I disappear from friendships on a regular basis. I stop answering calls, stop meeting up for coffee and even deactivate social media to build an invisible wall. I’d rather be known as the callous ghost who just drops people than have people know the truth, but here it is, I’m confessing. I am not a ghost; I have social anxiety and have lived with it since I started primary school, so roughly 40 years. No wonder I’m an expert at vaporising.

The first time I ghosted a friend was in Year Three. He’d been my best friend for three years. I was overweight, intensely shy and prone to panic attacks, although I didn’t know what they were back then, they were just something I tried to avoid.

One way to avoid them was to ghost my best friend, which is no easy thing when you’re in the same class. The fact he was a ‘he’ saw all manner of teasing aimed at me, the taunts that he was my boyfriend seemed never ending and I didn’t like standing out like that. I still remember the first day of school that year when his freckled face broke into a grin as he greeted me. And I walked straight past him, sat at my desk and pretended I hadn’t heard him. He got the idea by the end of the day.

Anxiety is a fickle beast. If you remove what it’s feeding off, it just changes its diet. And so in a few more years I noticed I became anxious every time I saw my friend in secondary school. This time it was easier as we’d been sent to different secondary schools and given this was before social media I simply stopped answering the home phone, something teenagers in my era rushed to do.

Eventually she stopped making an effort and I saw this as a success. I never stopped to think how I might have made her feel. The confusion at why someone she’d spoken to daily was suddenly always busy. I knew I was a terrible friend, but I also knew that when the anxiety started it wouldn’t be long until the panic attacks and the agoraphobia kicked in, which was something I’d sell my soul to avoid. In the end I practically did.

By Year 12 I found myself in a rather toxic friendship. She controlled who my friends were, she talked behind the other girls’ backs so I knew she had to be doing it to me too. This brought on the anxiety, but instead of just ghosting her I became terrified of offending her, of giving her reason to ghost me. I dropped everything when she called, gave her answers to homework problems, ditched school to keep her company when she ditched, listened to her problems, which were endless, petty and mostly in her head.

I couldn’t walk away.

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I wanted to walk away.

Where had my ghosting abilities gone and why was I crippled with panic attacks so often now?

Fast forward this narrative to my daughter in Year 12, and I’m ostracised from every friendship I’d ever had, besides the toxic one. Panic grips me day and night. Migraines are frequent. I’m often faced with hard decisions to make regarding my daughter but never fear toxic friend is here with advice: ghost your daughter, leave your husband, quit your job, drop out of study, change your doctor, ditch your religion!

I’m exhausted from all the middle of the night panic, from the all day Monday to Friday inboxes on Facebook about her problems, her daughter, her manipulation of her elderly mother, of her other friends, of her husband and his family. I rant back because I know she likes the drama. She loves the drama.

One day I left the doctor after being told I most likely have cancer and I must prepare myself to face this battle. In my mind the exhaustion made me think just let me die quickly, I have nothing left to fight this. I’m not ready to face sharing this information and I’m on my way home from the appointment when toxic friend sends a message, ‘You know the world doesn’t revolve around you!’

It suddenly occurred to me that this friendship isn’t worth it, if I am going to die soon I don’t want to spend my final days in a knot of anxiety over her.

I didn’t have cancer. I’m so proud of my daughter, but sad for the period of time we fought spurred on by toxic friend giving advice, dobbing my daughter in for things I wasn’t even worried about but she pressured me to make a scene – her entertainment at the expense of the most important relationship, mother and daughter.

This is the first time I’ve ghosted someone and not felt a shred of guilt. In fact, I felt happier as the days went on and now, a few years later I can’t understand why I didn’t find the courage to do it as a teenager. I’ve apologised to my old friends in the wake of my cancer scare, but none of them have replied, I didn’t expect them to and my social phobia is the best it’s been in years. I credit this ghosting to saving my life.

Joanne Penney is a freelance writer and journalist. Recently published in the Guardian Australia and Independent Australia, Joanne has a MA in writing from Deakin University. Areas of interest include mental health, feminism and 50s fashion. 

You can find more from Joanne on Twitter, @penneywrites. 

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