Discover more from Led by Stories. | Tarzan Kay
the privilege of friendship
on losing the ones we love
There is a single name pinned to the top of my messages app, a portrait of everything that I have lost along the path of recovery from cults and coercive control.
There used to be nine names in three neat rows of three circles, a mix of friends, lovers and family. Nine names representing a tangle of pleasure and pain, love and mistreatment, curiosity, confusion and rejection. I have loved all nine of those names ferociously, oftentimes in willful ignorance of who they really were and all they represented. Every so often I would rearrange them, replace their pictures, unpin one contact, pin someone new, maybe delete one row, reorganizing myself into a more loveable arrangement of Tarzan, twisting my parts into a pretzel in order to make myself worth loving until only one contact remained: my best friend.
Anyone who finds themself in a group with me, whether it’s a business group, a family group, a friendship group or something else, would do well to ask themselves, “Does this feel like healthy belonging?” Or to put it more bluntly, “Am I in a cult?” Because the truth is, as each name is removed from the list and another is added, I am untangling and retangling myself from a lineage of abuse and control in which I have been a full if unwitting participant for most of my life.
I belong to a category of cult survivors who are referred to as “born in.” The adaptive behaviors I developed as a child growing up in the Plymouth Brethren are alive in me today. Because of those experiences I have walked through life scared and not knowing who to trust, and I have trusted many of the wrong people.
Even in full awareness of my history and patterns, it is intolerable to imagine that someone is mad at me or blaming me unjustly. I experience a strong sense of shame even in situations where I know I’ve done nothing wrong. When people are unkind to me, my impulse is to overpower them with kindness so as to prove myself worthy of even the most basic consideration. I have always thought that if I could be nice enough, brave enough, beautiful enough, and well-behaved enough, that no one could hurt me. Someone should award me an honorary Ph.D. in asshole conversion therapy. Sometimes I worry this behaviour will be permanent.
Young brains are extra malleable while they are in formation. The impact of coercive control on the developing brain is especially toxic and long-lasting. The brain is establishing a frame of reference with which to understand the world, and my frame is built on a foundation of emotional manipulation and spiritual abuse. I am a textbook “cult hopper.” No sooner have I freed myself from one high-control group than I find myself smack in the middle of another. Even today I cannot easily recognize abuse for what it is because to me it feels like love. Surveillance, constant feedback, and punishment for crossing invisible boundaries or breaking unspoken rules—it’s not even a blip on my radar, not even when the punishment is carried out by my own friends.
Being my friend is a complicated business. I keep a lot of secrets, sometimes even from my best friend, the one person in the world who I know will take my call in the middle of the night, drive to wherever I am, and tend to my aching heart, a heart that these days seems perpetually blown open and needing to be caressed and bandaged with bowls of soup, cans of cider and king size Belmonts.
Secrets are another of my adaptive strategies, a way of protecting myself from the ever-present threat of punishment for rules I didn’t know existed. As a child, secrets were shared freely among those we considered our safe people, and kept by mutual unspoken agreement from those who would harm us if they found out. I still do this today.
I count myself lucky to have a best friend with a high capacity for complicated. She is a born-in too. Her story is brutal and ugly and represents a lineage of abuse so awful that honestly, sometimes it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be this messed up since by comparison my childhood seems okay (even though I also know that it was not okay).
We are figuring out life together. We are so complicated we have to talk on the phone for hours every day to try and make sense of our complicatedness. It has been the most healing and important friendship of my life. I love how much she loves me.
Sometimes she makes me so mad. Like the other day when I was driving home from canoe practice, soaking wet from falling in the water three times in the middle of October, cold and cranky, and she wouldn’t let me get off the phone. I kept saying, “OK I’ve gotta go now,” and she kept saying, “Just one more story,” and I kept saying, “OK fine,” because even though I was mad at her I still wanted to hear the story.
My best friend loves it when I get mad at her. It’s basically her favorite thing and makes her do extra annoying things. I think she loves me getting mad because there was a time in our relationship when I never got mad at her and never disagreed with her because we were caught in some very unhealthy patterns that involved both of us acting out perfectly-matched adaptive strategies from our messed up childhoods. I didn’t know what a trauma bond was before I met Kathleen. We had to figure that out together too.
For a while we couldn’t be friends. Neither of us knew how to be in a healthy relationship so we had to retreat to our separate corners for a while and take some classes. Also I had to get divorced. In the interim of our friendship we both spent enough money on therapy to probably pay for a downpayment on a small duplex in Brooklyn that was recently reno’d by hipsters with really good taste in wallpaper.
These last few weeks my bestie and I have reached a whole new capacity of being able to disagree with each other and hold each other through discomfort. I’m learning to say, “It hurt me when you said […],” or “When you did [...] it upset me because it made me feel like [...].” We are growing in our ability to listen to each other, repair when we make mistakes, and figure out how to be in a healthy relationship.
The other day I went to her house crying because someone told me that being my friend was too complicated so she couldn’t be my friend anymore, which might be the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me. I was hurting so bad and feeling like the loneliest asshole in the world. My bestie sent me home with three mason jars of homemade food (she is the best cook ever) and she countered with maybe the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
“Being your friend is a privilege.”
She was right. Being my friend is a privilege. I am generous and kind and my heart is so big it could stretch around the world two times. I am a really good friend. (Unless you’re an asshole, in which case I am an even better friend. I will do everything in my power to convince you to be nice to me because asshole conversion therapy is my specialty, remember?)
I am the kind of friend who can hold a lot of complicated. I give people a lot of grace and I forgive easily. I sometimes keep secrets but I am incapable of lying. When I recognize safe people, my heart is wide open and I share freely and honestly. My house is always open to friends and my freezer stocked with mediocre frozen food from Costco that I will heat up and not send you home with since reheated previously-frozen food from Costco is gross. I will do you the courtesy of eating the gross leftovers.
Even if I think your new boyfriend is shitty I will still invite him over for dinner and ask him thoughtful questions and try to figure out why you like him so much. I may not notice when you change your hair but I will notice when you are making brave changes in your life. I will hold you through the hard parts and remind you that you are worthy of being loved. I will send you a sweet text message when you are least expecting one, and I won’t get mad if you don’t text me back right away because that’s just the kind of friend I am.
I am also really fckn complicated. I have a complicated past and an even more complicated present. Not everyone has the capacity or the patience for it. I’m learning to be okay with that.
One time, about a year ago, I accused myself of being complicated in a conversation with my bestie. “That feels a little judgmental,” she said. “Maybe you could use the word ‘complex.’” Kathleen is a writer too and talking about words is one of our favorite things to do.
For a while I tried to use complex but it never quite fit, so I am reclaiming complicated. I love complicated things, and I love how complicated I am. I am like an annoying 1000-piece puzzle that will frustrate the shit out of you until you find a piece that locks in perfectly with another piece, and the more pieces you fit together the more you start to see that the sum of these hard-to-make-out, hard-to-understand, hard-to-put-together puzzle pieces is something so remarkable, so beautiful and so special that it is worth squinting for hours in the dark just to make out three square inches of the puzzle.
To my fellow complicated people: please keep on being your wonderful, complicated selves. May your friends, your lovers and your family see, appreciate and love you in all of your serpentine glory. May you have the courage and fortitude to excavate your exiled parts, the ones you deemed too complicated or confusing to be worth loving, the ones you had to banish for the privilege of belonging. Without those parts you will have to walk through life as your half-self, and I promise you that will be harder. Your complicated parts are your best parts. They are what make you interesting and special.
For the sake of all of us complicated, unknowable people, let them into the light.