As I sat in a café on an icy, January afternoon, I wondered idly whether my friend would greet me with a hug or a slap on the face.
The last time I’d seen Jess*, we’d bumped into each other at a mutual friend’s birthday several years ago. We’d had an awkward conversation about how we "really should meet up". It was a strange thing to say to someone who had, at one point, been my best friend.
She hadn’t moved country. I hadn’t lost her number.
We hadn’t seen each other because I’d ghosted my best friend.
Ghosting – when someone cuts you out of his or her life without explanation – is a phenomenon normally associated with dating. But with people increasingly moving their communication from IRL to behind a screen, this cold behaviour has become fairly common. A 2016 study revealed that, of the 1,300 participants, 25% had ghosted people and 20% had been ghosted themselves.
I know what you’re thinking because I’ve thought it many times since I stopped speaking to Jess. I must be a horrible person. Whatever the issue, there should be nothing two close friends can’t solve over a few drinks. Or, if things really can’t be fixed, you should at least be able to tell them straight they’re dumped. That’s just manners, right?
I met Jess through mutual friends. Our friendship grew slowly over a few years – a text here and there, hanging out and chatting at parties, then the odd lunch. When she went through a bad break-up we ended up spending more and more time together. By that point, I was convinced we’d be forever friends.
We’d go out for one drink and end up staying out the whole night, dancing to cheesy classics and flirting with boys. We’d hang out in her apartment, trying out new looks from YouTube make-up videos and setting the world to rights. We would tell each other everything – we’d talk through our body hang-ups, the ins and outs of her new relationship and she was really there for me when I broke up with a toxic ex. If anything good or bad happened, I’d call her first.
After four years of intense friendship, I realised that while Jess had lots of good qualities, like everyone, she wasn’t perfect. She’d get angry and snap whenever she thought something wasn’t going her way. For instance, if she had a plan and we didn’t stick to it, the mood of a night out would sour in seconds. I’d regularly find myself placating her or complimenting her to distract her from her bad mood. She’d roll her eyes at me, or just stay silent until we did the thing she wanted to do. At first I just put it down to the give and take of friendship. This is how it can be sometimes with those closest to us, right?
It was when my father got into financial trouble that things started to change. He lost his job and my family fell into severe debt. My parents' marriage became strained and, in the end, they split up.
I was in pieces. Although I was well into my twenties, the idea that my home life was so unstable and my parents were scrambling around trying to survive was deeply upsetting. I rarely made it through a day without escaping to the office toilet to cry.
Jess was one of the first people I opened up to about all this. At first, she was very supportive, calling me regularly to see how I was.
But after a few weeks that wore off and suddenly I found myself thinking how self-involved she seemed. Every conversation. Every. Single. One - would circle back to her problems. Even the ones where, in theory, she was trying to help me work through my family worries. Three minutes of ‘how are you doing?’ would be followed by an hour of ‘I just need to vent about my job (unfulfilling) / boyfriend (unsupportive) / house (wrong postcode) / other friends (uncaring)'. I would occasionally point out she might not be the only one with those issues, but it didn’t seem to register.
It started to drive a wedge between us. I’d tried to help her find new jobs, I’d suggested she rent her flat and live elsewhere but she never changed any of the things that annoyed her. I realised she just enjoyed moaning about them to anyone who would listen.
I began to see her as spoilt and needy - she had a lovely new boyfriend, a decent job and, thanks to her parents buying her a flat, a free place to live - what more could she possibly want? Looking back, I can see now the task of figuring out who you are in your mid-twenties can be stressful and daunting. But because of what was going on in my family at the time, I just didn’t feel like I had the emotional energy to help her. Worse, it just felt like every time I turned to her for support, it just wasn't there.
We’d been friends for about four years by this point – I’d seen her through two relationship break-ups and so many career changes, I’d lost count. She had been there for me too but I was upset I couldn’t rely on her when I was at my lowest.
I never made a conscious decision to ‘ghost’ her. I found myself exhausted by the idea of seeing her and dodging meet-ups, blaming work and my sister coming to town. Slowly, I stopped texting her back – once, twice, three times. Before I knew it, weeks had passed and then it was months since we’d seen each other. I’d get a text from her wondering where I had been. And I’d ignore it.
It’s obvious that I should have told her how I felt but I knew it would be emotionally difficult and potentially lead to more confrontation. With everything else going on, not speaking was just easier. And I was happier for it; at this stage, I didn’t miss her at all.
I was in the middle of a meeting at work a few months later, when my phone flashed.
“Why are you ghosting me?” read the message from Jess.
I was shocked. I’d been ignoring her for months and all of a sudden, the feelings of guilt and shame that I’d been trying so hard to silence flooded in. I had been a bad friend and she’d finally called it. But I still wasn’t ready to deal fully with the situation.
“I care about you,” I typed back. “But I don’t think we are helpful to each other right now.”
She said she was sorry I felt that way and wished me well. And that was it – our friendship was over in three WhatsApp messages.
After the anger faded and my family situation improved, I started to wonder how she was. I felt bad for how I behaved and on reflection, I could see more clearly the things which frustrated me were a sign of her own struggles. Every time I would walk through her area, I would scan the streets, imagining what it would be like to bump into her. Occasionally, I’d sneak a guilty look at her social media profiles to see what was happening in her life.
I knew, deep down, that I owed her an apology. Three years later, I was on Instagram and noticed she’d posted a photo near my house. It felt weird to think she was so nearby and I found myself typing her a message.
“Hi Jess,” I typed. “I know a long time has passed but I am sorry for what happened all those years ago. It wasn’t the right way to end our friendship and I’d really like to meet to talk about it. If this is a bad time to message, you don’t have to get back to me.”
“Hello, thanks for your message,” she replied. “Are you in touch because you want me to forgive you? Well, I have.”
Nervously, I asked her if she wanted to meet up and was surprised when she agreed. So I was sat in this café, fidgeting and texting a friend to distract myself as I waited for her. When she arrived, she looked exactly the same as the last time I’d seen her – naturally pretty and dressed in pastels.
We sat down and I focused on the drinks order to hide my nerves.
After a few awkward minutes of getting used to sharing the same air again, we started to catch up on the last three years. She was married now, she was working as a PA to her dad and she was moving out of the city. I updated her on my new job, the highs and lows of online dating and saving for a deposit. We were strangers and friends, at the same time.
It was weird but it also felt strangely ok.
I knew it was up to me to get things started.
“Thanks for coming,” I said. “I wanted to see you in person because I felt a text message wasn’t a good enough apology. I’m really sorry for the way I behaved, it was a difficult time for me.”
“I just don’t believe that’s it,” she said.
She told me how she’d spent weeks analysing every text we had sent each other in the last year we were friends, and went over all our nights out in her head to see if she could work out what had offended me so much. It sounded like all the thinking had made her feel like there was something wrong with her that she didn’t know about. I felt terrible.
“It really was that,” I reassured her. I explained, instead, that I couldn’t cope with her neediness at a time when I needed help myself.
She confessed that she too had felt drained at times by our friendship and apologised too for not realising how distressed I was.
Occasionally, I’d look at her and feel like no time had passed at all and that maybe our friendship could just restart again.
But in reality, I knew this was probably the last time I would see her. The trust in our friendship was gone - on both sides. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people might forget what you said and did but people will never forget how you made them feel – and I had made her feel awful.
As we stood outside, waiting for her cab, I said: “I just wanted you to know that you were an important friend to me and I’m sorry about everything.”
She smiled and said something vague about us meeting again. But we both knew it would never happen. I gave her a hug and, finally, said a proper goodbye.
*Names and some details have been changed.
This article was originally published on 20 October 2018.