I’m a huge nerd. I’ve seen Pride & Prejudice (2005) about 6 times, I never miss out on the weekly “Batman and Superman” comics every Wednesday, and I’ve written fan fiction about various John Green books. Suffice to say, my “intellect” (I never thought that having a big crush on Jane Austen counted as intellect, but whatever) has led me to a group of people that I am more or less expected to be friends with. They are people in my classes who do really well and are incredibly smart, people who take AP Chem and actually pass somehow, people I feel I could never compare to. But they’re not entirely perfect, and I’m not entirely some girl who stays at home every Friday night eating ice cream and crying into one of my three copies of Looking For Alaska.
I have bipolar disorder. I smoke, I hook up with people, and I drink, probably more than I should. I was the only one drinking at my friend’s 4th of July party, to the point where I started vomiting. I sang “Phantom of the Opera” after two drinks, with my friends staring in judgment instead of cheering on my flawless soprano. The next morning I apologized to my friend and told her that I was very sorry and that I don’t think I’m going to drink anymore because the problem runs way deeper than me trying to have fun. In fact, I didn’t tell her the real truth: I only drank so much because I was sick of the way my friends were always judging me.
I’ve been vocal about my mental health, but my bouts of mania and downward slopes of depression have not been very welcomed by my friends, nor have they tried to make much of an effort to understand. Because of my mental health, I struggle to get passing grades, even with test scores that are up to par with theirs. I am hurting a lot, but they don’t seem to care. As of the whole 4th of July fiasco, they have started making plans behind my back and not inviting me. I understand that these are bad friends, I know that, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s all my fault.
I and every teacher in the universe find them to be the most valuable peers at my school, and these same valuable peers fail to find value in me. That kinda sucks, I’m not going to lie. So I have a clear option, right? Leave my toxic friends! But that also means being alone for who knows how long, and also I have to start new relationships from scratch, something that requires a lot of effort and emotional energy, and taking a chance on people who may end up the same way. Everything seems so scary and I don’t know what to do. I know this isn’t the usual letter, and I know this is a lot of baggage to unpack, but I really do need some advice.
Fortunately, Sparkler, it was easy to identify your proble—because you identified it yourself! It’s right there in paragraph one, where you explain that you feel weird and different and like you can’t compare to these “high value” peers of yours.
And from the sound of it, that dynamic defined your friendship from day one… and with the expected results. You were always deeply insecure about your place within this friend group (and maybe a little resentful, too, that their lives seemed so much less challenging and complicated than yours). You felt so different, and so sure that you were being judged for your differences. And because you were convinced from the get-go that you’d never fit in, you made it a point to stand out, right? You talked at length about the mental health problems that set you apart from your peers. You got wasted, sang songs, and blew chunks at a party where nobody else was doing any of those things. You flouted the norms of your social circle on purpose, daring your friends to get weird about it—because if they were going to judge you, then you’d give them something to be judge-y about.
So when they finally started to distance themselves, it probably seemed like a confirmation of everything you’d always suspected, anyway: that your friends are toxic people who never really accepted you. And could that be true? Well, sure—but it might also be true that things would’ve been very different had you not made such a belligerent point of positioning yourself as an unacceptable person who does unacceptable things.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s all your fault, or that you need to rethink things and change your approach with this particular group (you certainly can, but it’s hard to tell from your letter whether you ever even liked these people, or whether you just fell in with them because it seemed like you were supposed to). But if you walk into every friendship like you’re expecting to be rejected, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and if you keep advertising yourself as a misfit who barfs at parties and can’t play well with others, the unfortunate truth is that people are eventually going to take your word for it.
That’s why the best thing you can do, before you do anything else, is to stop letting your insecurity lead you around by the nose. So you’re bipolar, anxious, a little attention-seeking—so what? You’re also free-spirited, curious, smart, and creative. Your personality doesn’t make you unfriendable or worthless; it might not even make you as different as you imagine. If you’d gotten to know them better, without the burden of all those assumptions, you might have found that your “high value” friends struggle with similar challenges, if not the same ones. You might even have found that you had more in common than not.
But that only happens if you give yourself that chance—if not with these friends, then with the next ones. Realize that you bring plenty of good things to the table. Be confident in your ability to get along with people even if you don’t have everything in common. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’d like to get along with you. And realize that everyone has moments where they feel weird or different or like they can’t measure up, because that’s part of the human condition—but that because it’s part of the human condition, it’s one struggle you’ll never be going through alone.
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