The Words That Cost Me My Most Important Friendship

06/23/2015 10:42 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
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What happens when the person you most want to share good news with no longer takes your calls? How one woman got through being dumped by a friend.

By Annabelle Gurwitch

It was a gorgeous spring evening in New York City. A balmy breeze was blowing, the sky was beginning to darken and the lights of the city were twinkling. I was strolling down a cobblestone street in Greenwich Village. Having worked as an actress for several decades, I was making a career transition with a family to support -- a dicey proposition. Finances had been tight. The previous months had included a short but stinging stint of collecting unemployment insurance. But I'd just learned I was being offered a great opportunity -- a publishing house was going to option my book. I was elated and wanted to share the news with my closest friend of 30 years.

Natalie and I spoke to each other almost every week, sometimes talking every day or even several times a day. I speed-dialed and chirped, "I sold my book!" She answered with, "My sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer again." She was in a rush to get off the phone but I hurriedly blurted out the amount of money I'd sold the proposal for. I was just so proud and, frankly, relieved. I knew as soon as I heard the connection click off that I'd been insensitive. What I didn't know was it would be the last time we would communicate for seven years.

We were in high school when we met. I'd outgrown my group of childhood friends, and Natalie was smart, well-read and sophisticated, all the things I hoped I projected. Best of all, she attended a different school and brought a whole new set of pals into my orbit as well. We lost touch during our college years but reconnected at an airport in our mid-20s. Oddly enough, we were each working in television and theater, she as a writer and me as an actress.

We were both single, had dubious taste in men and fancied the kind of plays where a character might confuse a Thanksgiving dinner with an alien abduction. We regularly met up in New York and Los Angeles and even collaborated on several projects. I frequently crashed at her place as she usually had nicer digs. Once, she confessed that she thought some guy I was head over heels with, who had a habit of putting his hand up my skirt in public, was creepy. She was right, he was! When she landed in a run-down bungalow with a guy who cheated on her and treated her with an aggressive shabbiness, I sat her down over lunch and said, "This relationship is draining your life. You need to get out. Even your hair is dry!" Years later we could still find ourselves laughing about a relationship so terrible that it could give you split ends.

When her parents came to town, I was often included in their plans -- memorable evenings with Natalie; her father, a brilliant doctor; and her mother, an avatar in business, whose career and relationship advice invariably proved insightful. As we entered our 40s, Natalie and I were both married with children. I'd sublet apartments based on proximity to her place and stop in to play with her children who I adored, and were nice stand-ins for my own son, when work brought me to her side of the country.

So after that call, I emailed a contrite apology. Nothing. I left a pleading, self-effacing message. I didn't hear back. More emails and messages. When a few months passed, it hit me. I wasn't going to hear back from her. Not now. Not ever.

I got angry with her. What kind of cold and withholding person doesn't accept an apology? Then, I got sad. Unbearably sad. I was sure I'd been unmasked and revealed to be a fraud, unworthy of the friendship that had been at the center of my life so many years.

Six months later, still bereft, I found myself seated at a brunch next to a friend of a friend who extolled the benefits of a co-dependency support group she was attending. The idea of sharing intimate details of my life with strangers sounded like hitting rock bottom. But that's exactly how I ended up spending my Saturday mornings on an uncomfortable metal folding chair under florescent lighting in a church basement listening to people talk about the unhealthy attachments to people in their lives, in a TMI way that I found embarrassing. After about a month, though, I started to recognize myself in their stories. Like them, I'd grown up in a family that had been unstable, financially and emotionally, and, like them, I'd desperately tried to fill that gap. Most of my close friends, like Natalie, came from tight-knit families, and I'd fostered relationships with their parents and often their siblings as well. Did I think sometimes that I was almost family? Well, yes. Was it possible that my self-esteem was so fragile that I was depending on them for validation? Yes -- yes, it was. As sudden and startling as my friend's abandonment seemed, I asked myself, "What part of what happened was I responsible for?" It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was too busy with my own needs to recognize that she needed support. Determined to respect her choice, I stopped trying to gain her friendship back. It wasn't just a phone call. It was a wake-up call.

Instead of wallowing in what I'd lost, a very tempting prospect, I began keeping gratitude lists and adopted a meditation practice. A week rarely goes by where I don't interrupt myself mid-sentence with my new favorite acronym: W.A.I.T. "Why am I talking?" And when I find myself complaining about how I've been wronged by someone, I give myself a "time out." (If you've never said, "Mom's in a time out!" I highly recommend it. That phrase can stop even a snarly teenager in their tracks.) In a nod to Natalie's largess, I've opened my guest bedroom to young writers and performers in need of support.

I am still working on this -- I might always be working on this -- but as hard as it is, becoming more self-reliant brings me one step closer to becoming a more compassionate, better friend to others.

Here's the kicker. It was a gorgeous Manhattan evening as few weeks ago when Natalie unexpectedly turned up at one of my readings. The evening ended with us laughing about how much effort it takes at our age to find a ruffled (tie neck) blouse that covers "the gobbler" but doesn't make us look like Queen Elizabeth I. The next day we exchanged emails on the chance that we might squeeze in some time to grab a cup of coffee before I left town. In the past, I would have moved mountains to hold tight to that connection, but I had a busy day scheduled and I stuck to my plans, trusting that we'd get together again in the future. Or not. I've learned now that, sometimes, letting go can be the best way to be a good friend.

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