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Childhood friendships gone bad can affect us for life

The journey back from losing a childhood friend taught me how to be a better one

By Cecilia Galante

My husband reached for my hand as I finished relaying the sour details of yet another difficult situation with a good friend of mine. "Is it me," he asked, "or are friendships in general really hard for you?"

I watched a little brown bird alight on the lilac tree outside the kitchen window, and tried to absorb the weight of his question. Was it the friendships themselves that got difficult or was it me? Two days earlier, in the span of 20 minutes, a small disagreement had turned ugly after I lobbed an unfair, personal accusation at my friend. She looked at me stunned, and then asked me to leave. She hadn't been the first one. The truth was that over the last 10 years or so, I’d had a string of similar friendships, which had all, for various reasons, eventually crashed and burned. Why, at 42 years old, was I still unable to sustain real relationships? What was it about me that pushed other women away, or kept unconsciously sabotaging things between us? And why, when it had used to be the easiest thing in the world, had it become so problematic? "I miss Ruthie," I said, my voice breaking.

But Ruthie, who had been my first friend in the world, a little pipsqueak of a girl with pale green eyes and gangly legs, was part of the problem. It hadn't always been that way; in fact, the only difficult thing about our relationship was the circumstances that surrounded it. Like me, Ruthie had been raised inside a fanatically religious cult, a small enclave in upstate New York that our parents had joined years earlier. We were born a month apart — she in May, me in June — and immediately deposited inside the mass nursery that all children in the cult were sent to and cared for, not by our parents, but by exhausted teenaged girls who had been assigned nursery duty. When Ruthie and I weren't sharing a crib, we would stretch our arms through the slats of another, always reaching for the other's tiny, star-shaped hands.

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The cult was the ultimate hypocrisy: sprawled out on lush, beautiful farmland in upstate New York, and led by a brilliant man with the ability to bring an entire room of people to their knees, while it also hid dark secrets and insidious abuse. As children, Ruthie and I learned to take both in stride, enduring long, drawn out punishments so that we could be released into the wide fields afterward to do as we wished. Ruthie rarely cried during punishments, but when we were alone among the tall grass, flanked only by stalks of cornflower and Queen Anne’s lace, she would wail like a wounded animal. I would hold her hand and close my eyes, listening as her howls drifted up among the silent skies.

We were 15 when the cult fell apart, scattering families in all different directions, in search of new lives. Having only ever known life within a bubble, trying to navigate in the real world was like being flown to the moon and told to learn how to breathe without a space suit. But my anxiety turned to shock when I realized I was going to have to do it without Ruthie, who was by then, the strongest link in my life, a solitary stone that I clutched amid the noise and whirl around me. "You don't have to worry," she said as I clung to her the night we left. "Even though we're apart, we'll always be together."

Ruthie and I remained one another's only ally well into our 20s, a singular tether to the world we had lost, and the last possible link to our futures. She would send me bus tickets in the mail so that I could come visit her in Manhattan. We took week long vacations together to the beach, nursed each other through numerous romantic breakups, and talked on the phone every single night. But slowly, as I began to rebuild my life, applying to college, studying to be a teacher and learning how to be a single mother, Ruthie's life began to splinter. Sordid images from the cult punctuated her days and invaded her sleep. She turned to drugs, a little at first, and then a lot. Despite my pleas to seek treatment, she refused. I was terrified that she would either end up dead or in an institution.

Instead, she disappeared.

For the next 10 years, the only word I had of her was through her family. She had hitchhiked to Maine, then to South Carolina, then again to California. She was waitressing, and then for a very long time she was homeless, her body ravaged, her drug-addled mind a void. It took me years to admit that she had finally dropped the cord that had held us together, and let me go.

I mourned her as though she were dead. Sometimes I missed her so much that it hurt physically, a closed fist in the center of my chest. But for the first time in my life, I began to reach out to other women. It did not go well. My only experience with friendship had been a birthright, there for as long as I'd remembered, and as far as I could tell, there were no real guidelines when it came to navigating new ones. I was needy and demanding, suffocating potential relationships in my desperation to find a similar connection to the one I had lost.

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Inevitably disappointed, I'd lose my temper. One woman said I had the mean streak of a rat. Another one compared my personality to a land mine — she never knew what would set me off or when. But it was the most recent situation in which my friend had asked me to leave her house that finally got my attention.

What was going on? I was patient with my children, generally sensible with my husband and a cheerful, easygoing person at work. Why did I become such a hot-head around other women? What was it that made me start acting like a crazy person whenever we disagreed or argued about the slightest thing?

I stood for a long time at the kitchen sink that night, thinking about it. And as I watched that little brown bird fly away, I realized that my frustration was completely misdirected. I wasn't angry with these women. I was angry at Ruthie. Furious, even. For breaking her promise. For leaving me. For not having the strength to get clean so that she could come back into my life and fill the hole she’d created. And because I couldn't tell her that, I was punishing the very women I wanted to get close to in her absence.

Ruthie had let go first. Whether it was a conscious choice or not, I'll never know. But it was time for me to do the same. It was time for me to reach out and be honest with someone — maybe for the very first time — so that I could move on. So that I could be loved again. So that I could love in return.

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I walked out of the kitchen and dialed my friend's number. My heart pounded as I listened to it ring on the other end. We hadn't talked since the horrible scene two days earlier. How would I start? What if she hung up on me? What if I stammered and sounded like an idiot?

"Hello?"

"It's me," I said.

"Hi."

"You mean so much to me." A knot the size of an acorn filled the back of my throat. "But I need some help with all this. And I was wondering if we could talk. If I could explain some things to you. About…me."

About the author: Cecilia Galante, who received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College, Vermont, is the author of six young adult novels and a children’s chapter-book series. She has been the recipient of many awards, including an NAIBA Best Book of the Year and an Oprah’s Teen Read Selection for her first novel, The Patron Saint of Butterflies. Her books have been translated into Japanese, Turkish and Polish. She lives in Kingston, Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. Her most recent novel, Be Not Afraid, will be released by Random House in 2015. The Invisibles, due out on August 4, is her first adult novel.

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