As I entered my darkened office early in the morning, the message light blinked ominously. The call had come in at 7:00 pm the night before and I recognized my friend’s number. That’s odd, I thought, as I pushed the button to listen. I was home last night and she knows I never work at night. As soon as I heard her voice I felt a pang of both annoyance and relief.

In a mumbling, scattered way, she said she needed to step back. Needed to take care of herself. This hurt her but she needed to do it. She couldn’t be “available” to me anymore though she valued our friendship. I held the phone limply in my hand for a moment and let out a sigh. No surprise, I thought, after her e-mail several weeks ago, when she’d matter-of-factly listed the topics we could no longer talk about. Those forbidden topics comprised most of my life.

She’d been my first, and for a time, only friend in a remote, small town that was my new home. We’d met at work and I was so grateful for how her friendship eased my adjustment. But, soon, my discomfort signaled that our trip down the friendship highway was approaching a fork in the road. Her need-to-be-needed had dominated our relationship.

She always had to do things for people, giving superfluous gifts and performing gratuitous favors for people she hardly knew. This was unsettling since we were both social workers by training, so “giving” and “doing for” were constant issues in our work. A common misconception about social workers is that we are nice people who are helpful. That’s somewhat true. But, more often we do difficult things such as pushing people to change or to face their responsibilities. She was running her personal life as if it was a charity; this was my first, up-close experience with how boundary violations can also impact a private life and a personal relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. It was really nice when she took a former co-worker to every one of her cancer treatment appointments. And, it was very thoughtful how she donated some of the proceeds from her jewelry-making hobby toward a massage or a mani/pedi for someone having health problems. But it’s how she swooped in to almost anyone’s life, becoming their guardian angel/chief advocate, that seemed way out of whack.

For example, I watched in disbelief, when she completely took over the life of Irene, a neighbor she hardly knew. When Irene’s husband had serious health issues, my friend made darn sure the couple fully discussed a secret that had endured for over thirty years in their marriage. They must talk this through, she insisted.

Then, when Irene became a widow, my friend was busy, oh so busy getting Irene’s life in order. This went so far as arranging for long-estranged family members to meet and talk and selling and disposing of the deceased husband’s personal effects. Hearing her tell it, it was obvious who was in charge. Where does it end! Well, it didn’t end until she’d told me, a total stranger to this couple, many intimate details of their life. I couldn’t help wondering what she told people about me.

Early on, our relationship was fun. We shopped, liked movies, loved to go for coffee and talk. But as her private social service agency grew, there was less time for me. And I adjusted, finding other friends and expanding my social life without her. Hearing the latest tales of how she’d eased another hard life became tedious. Funny how her topics weren’t off limits.

Another quirk was her need to be sure everyone knew just how kind and thoughtful she was. Prime example, I was at her house with several other women for a movie. In the living room, off in the corner, I noticed a small chair, handmade from the branches of a white spruce tree. These are lawn and front porch decorations quite popular in the area. And expensive. Once everyone was seated (the audience in place), she dramatically presented the chair to one of the women.

“When I saw this I thought of you right away, Barb, and just knew you’d love it.” Barb, who could have bought the chair herself had she wanted it, looked embarrassed. The other women in the room looked puzzled (why her and why now) and everyone was quiet. Lots of looking down. I was relieved when the movie started.

Between her taking over people’s lives and giving, giving, giving I began to think of her as the Mother Teresa of our small town. That led to seeing her as a hybrid of Mother Teresa (caring for the sick and poor) and Oprah (giving a prize to everyone in her audience). And that’s the thing about small towns. Her reputation ballooned as she became known far and wide as that saintly woman who did so much for those poor, needy people.

Some years back, I’d worked at a large inner-city hospital operated by the Daughters of Charity whose mission is to treat the poor. They regularly held employee seminars to address the role of the helper. What they taught is that it’s necessary for helpers to understand that, in helping, their own needs are met as well. It’s when helpers are seduced by those warm fuzzy feelings that the helper/helpee relationship can become unhealthy and unequal. Everyone knows the “feed a man a fish” story. True success is when people become self-sufficient and helpers are no longer needed.

I related this learning experience to book club during our discussion of “Eat, Pray, Love” since the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, had decided a young mother she happened upon in Indonesia absolutely must have a house. Gilbert tells how she recruited friends to put money into a house fund. Long story short, the young mother never did get a house because that wasn’t what she wanted. And Gilbert had never bothered to ask the young mother what she wanted. As I was telling this story, I glanced over at Mother Teresa/Oprah, hoping she’d see the similarities. Glassy eyed, robot stare. No acknowledgement.

When I ended my marriage, I located, moved to and decorated a new apartment, filed for divorce and then called my friend from work to tell her my news. She was flustered and unbelieving. She abruptly said she had to hang up. Within a half hour she called back saying she’d gotten into her car and drove out to find my new address. She said it looked nice. Was she giving me the approval I wasn’t asking for? Clearly, I’d broken a major rule.

“How can that be?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me before now?”

“Well,“ I replied in a light, matter-of-fact way. “I just didn’t want to be a project.” She didn’t miss a beat, asked no questions and we never talked about it. Though she didn’t get it, it felt good to tell her the truth.

When she came to see my new apartment, I said how happy I was in my new home. All I still needed was a scarf for a bedside table. Next time she visited, with a dramatic flair, she presented me with a box of, not one, but three lovely and expensive scarves. So I’m not capable of picking out a scarf by myself? Sad thing is we’d now missed out on a friendship-building opportunity of going to lunch and shopping for a scarf. I guess it was more important for her to hit the caregiver jackpot.

Our friendship was distant after that phone message which I didn’t even respond to. We never did talk about it. I accepted the obvious: there had been very little balance in our relationship. As always, it’s the Buddhist in me that wonders what I’m meant to learn from this.

Being dumped causes pain regardless of the circumstances. And as anyone would, I felt a twinge and went through the usual deliberations. What did I do wrong? Is there something I could have done to prevent this? Then I came to my senses.

Maybe I wasn’t needy enough. Yet I valued the friendship and I did need her, but on a smaller level. We were both outsiders in this closed up, small town and I’m glad we were able to support each other through that. I’ll always remember how I relearned the valuable lessons in giving and receiving.

For a year and a half after the phone message, I only saw her at group activities. We were cordial, superficial. Then I heard she was selling her house and moving out of state. One week prior to her move, we had lunch. As we’d exhausted her moving news and all other trivial topics, suddenly tears welled up in her eyes.

She said how much she valued our relationship; she hoped we could stay connected. I said: “sure.” I thought: “whatever.” She said she was sorry for how things had turned out. I’m not sure what that even meant. And I didn’t ask because it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Long after her move, mutual friends who still heard from her excitedly passed on her hello to me. I’d nod, say, oh that’s nice. And that was the end of it. I don’t miss those blinking message lights.


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