By Brian Thornsburg
Friendship isn’t always a beautiful thing.
While it can sometimes be the most freeing and meaningful connection we make as humans, not everyone enters honestly. There are a growing number of people in our world that will give the illusion of friendship for nefarious purposes. Oftentimes the victim won’t realize it until it’s too late.
I had an encounter with this kind of person and it has greatly shifted my worldview. It has made me much more cautious about who I spend my time with online and offline. The experience has made me acutely aware that not everyone has a person’s best interest at heart. Some people just want to watch you suffer as comedic relief.
For me, that person was a man by the name of Chris. We met through a mutual friend and she helped me with a podcast show. She and I were becoming good friends over the weeks and I trusted her relatively quickly. That’s why when she told me she had the perfect co-host for me, I wasn’t very skeptical of her suggestion.
We talked on the phone one evening and the conversation went pretty well. Both of us had similar backstories and interests. Like myself, he was a Howard Stern fan and hell-bent on making people laugh at his outrageous humor. What struck me about him however was the fact that he was complimenting me the whole time.
He was almost milking it to a degree, but I couldn’t figure out why at the time. What was he hoping to gain from all this? The logic didn’t click in my head and wouldn’t for years. All I knew was that I had another person to do the show with and was very interested in learning more about him.
The girl, Chris, and I quickly became a group of three and regularly did the show together. We were always talking to each other and trying to figure out what we could do to make the show better. It seemed like he was genuinely interested in working on the project and wanted it to succeed.
There were two sides to Chris though. One side was kind, funny, and always had your back. The one you could talk about anything with. I remember getting into ridiculous conversations with him about politics and pop culture. We just had such a similar take on things at the time and it was nice to share that connection.
The other side of him was nothing short of argumentative, vindictive, angry, and someone that would make you the butt of his joke for his amusement. He always told me this was for the sake of the show and it would help us. In actuality, the effect had tremendously lowered my self-esteem for a decade.
The girl never really warned me of this and if she did, I didn’t take the hint. We both just kind of agreed that we were all friends and would look past each other’s faults. That was a somewhat nice feeling to have, but it gave Chris the excuse of getting edgier with our comedy sketches on the show.
One of the earliest bits was him making fun of my then-girlfriend. She didn’t have the best living situation and he was trying to exploit that on the show. I was trying to go along with it in hopes that she would understand, but it was a line-crossing experience. This was one of the first times I realized the bad side of my friend.
A friend who would expose insecurities and vulnerability to watch me squirm. He made the habit of revisiting uncomfortable topics on the show and during our regular conversations. For example, Chris exposed my fear of women and past experiences. His favorite story was about how I hid under a bed in high school when my mother tried to get me to meet a girl.
This was probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life and an overaction I regret immensely. Unfortunately, it was something I recounted every week in hopes of entertaining audiences. Chris would chime in with the usual, “Are you sure you’re not gay?”
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just leave. Why couldn’t I just say, “I’m done with this,” and walk away? The first issue was that Chris was a very vengeful person. If you even mentioned the idea of a friendship being over, it was the equivalent of shots being fired. He would start to throw insults at you and paint himself as a good friend.
The second reason stems from an incident we had a few years ago. We both suffered from mental illness and I was having a really bad time one evening. I don’t want to go into details, but he talked me down that night. In what I thought was proof that he cared about me. No matter what we went through, we always fell back together.
The third reason was that our female co-host had passed away after about two and a half years into the friendship. We were both pretty rocked by the news, but I think he took it harder. He was always in love with her and wanted them to spend their life together. Knowing that, it was pretty hard to just walk away from him.
I always took him back into my life without question. It was an unspoken pact that we would still be together. All this did was make everything more difficult. Now that he knew I promised to never leave, he used that against me every time he got the chance.
That’s why I let him do whatever he wanted to me. I let him embarrass me on the show. I allowed him to bring up my worst memories and gave him every opportunity to use them. I let him slip his cousin the number of my ex-girlfriend so he could go enjoy a night with her. His excuse was that he did it so I could get over her and I believed him.
The worst by far had to be the time he convinced a woman to be my fake girlfriend for a week to give me some confidence. I later learned that she already had a boyfriend. Even worse, Chris had made it out like I was a “special needs kid” that just needed some attention to give me confidence.
This was just what he loved to do for fun. All of it was a game to him, but I couldn’t leave. Doing so would break our agreement and be a betrayal. Chris’ mother had also passed around this time and I honestly didn’t want him to be alone. I thought that my presence would somehow help him and help me.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. By this time, Chris and I had been frienemies for ten-plus years. We had gone through so many ups and downs, even ending the show over our problems. We weren’t friends in the same way anymore, but we still clung onto each other for some reason.
Clinging was probably the worst thing we could have done. The Covid-19 pandemic only exaggerated our differing perspectives. Chris values independence and autonomy and pushed against the mandates and protective measures, while I thought the precautions were appropriate at the time. We clashed several times over this and still do to this day.
He always researched and presented evidence which he believed validated his claim, demonstrating the pandemic as an exercise in control. I would respond with data on the positive cases and impact on the healthcare system and professions. This form of arguing would continue until we neglected our evidence and began to respond with superficial remarks on each other’s character.
Our breaking point with each other came in the summer of 2021 as the pandemic was heading into its second surge. I had just recovered from the virus and was feeling its effects harshly. I couldn’t even eat for a week at that point without feeling sick and sweaty. Chris never seemed to care though.
His only words, “It wasn’t that bad and now you don’t have to worry about it anymore. Now you can join the free world and think for yourself.”
I couldn’t take it anymore, my limit was reached.
“Why are you always like this with me?” I shouted at him over text. “You always treat me as inferior?”
He tried to downplay it a few times in hopes that I wouldn’t press it, but I did. I don’t know if it was my week and a half of illness or just the ten years of anger boiling, but I laid into him. I couldn’t just sit there and let him act like what happened was no big deal.
Furthermore, I couldn’t be friends with a guy that treated me this way. I let him do whatever he wanted for years and didn’t leave. If I did, I always came back in hopes of fixing things. This time was different.
He eventually admitted that there were two versions he saw of me and that he treated me differently based on those.
My radio show persona made him come into our first meeting thinking he needed to impress me. That’s why there was all the complimenting and talking me up. He saw an opportunity and did not hesitate to get what he wanted. Then, after he buttered me up, he recognized the part of me he could push. Once he knew this side of me, I was just his play toy.
While I’d like to say we never talked again after this encounter, that would be a lie. We still keep in touch. Maybe hit each other up twice or three times a week. It’s nothing like it was when we were young, but an amicable middle. I learned to place limits on the people that come into my life. To not give people all the information I know.
Time is a very precious thing. There’s no way to reset it. You have to take it as it goes. That’s why you have to choose very carefully the people you give this time to and how much of it. You also have to assess whether giving them the time is a healthy decision or just a drain on you.
You might think you’re doing the right thing by trying to stick by someone. Trying to be an honorable friend and show them that it is good in the world. If that turns out to be the case, that’s fine. Just know, there are people in this world that will take that kindness and suck your energy like a vampire.
Don’t let these vampires into your life. If you do, be very careful how much you let them in. They sometimes have no conscience and will ruin your life just to watch your misery. Unfortunately, these people do exist and when you are approached by one it can be very difficult to know the difference.
For me, the idea of leaving my toxic friend became a sickening guilt. We had been through ten years of struggles together. We had made so many promises during that time, which were usually broken and weaponized. While I knew I didn’t want this person in my life anymore, I felt tremendous shame being the one who abandoned him.
My relationship with abandonment is intimate and deep. In the past, many friends neglected and abandoned me at times when I needed them the most. Solitude became my new lifestyle as I bonded with my loneliness while protecting myself from others.
Please understand that guilt isn’t a reason to stay in a friendship. The person may have helped you through a tough time; they might have helped shape your worldview in some way, but that doesn’t entitle them to your time. Things can change. People can change. You have a right to protect yourself if someone is being unkind to you.
For everyone in a toxic relationship, know you have options. I wish every day I would have listened to the people close to me and cut him out of my life. Instead, I sat through ten years of supposed friendship, when I was just his puppet. Someone he would torture when he felt like it; bonded by a promise that was essentially my prison.