Many years ago I ended a relationship that had become toxic. It was painful, as those endings are, and I was very young and did not do a great job of making a clean break. In fact, I really screwed it up. I left behind a closet full of clothes, an antique mirror I’d had stripped and restored that made me feel close my grandmother (there’s a picture of the two of us sitting in front of it from my third birthday party, the last birthday my Nanny got to spend with me), and a gorgeous piece of jewelry my mom had given to me that she’d received from her great-Aunt. For months after I left, I kept asking my ex when I could come and retrieve my belongings. It was never a good time for him. We would meet for tea occasionally, because in those days I thought it was essential to somehow remain friends after a breakup, even if it was ugly. I’d ask about when I might show up with a van, and he’d always delay with stories about business trips, or trying to sell his place and needing those things around for staging purposes.
Eventually, I made plans to move to Los Angeles and he moved somewhere else (he’d never tell me exactly where, all I had was his cellphone number and email address at this point), and said he’d put everything in storage. He said once he’d landed somewhere for real, he’d have it all shipped and make arrangements to send me my stuff. He kept me on the hook like this for a couple of years, calling with promises that it would be soon, stories about how he might also move to L.A. and talk of huge projects in the pipeline that were going to change everything for him. I tried to convince myself that this was a good opportunity to practice patience, compassion and non-attachment (after all, it was a mirror in storage and not my Nanny), but the interaction was making me sick, because it was a lie. Somewhere inside I knew I’d never see that mirror again, and that the necklace was also gone.
One sunny day he called as I was driving to my Ashtanga class and I simply told him never to call me again. I was shaking as I spoke, but I told him I realized he’d been keeping me on the hook and that I’d been allowing him to do that and I was now taking that power away from him. I let him know in my book, friends didn’t steal from each other or play mind games or exert control over one another, and he was now out of my life. I told him if he had a shred of decency he’d send the necklace back to my mother, but I expected he did not. I don’t think he believed I’d really cut him off, because I hadn’t up to that point. But something inside me cracked open on that drive and I understood the that truth was more valuable than any inanimate object, no matter how imbued it might be with feelings of love for someone I’d lost. Just like that, I set myself free. Some people do not belong in your life. You can forgive them (and there’s no doubt when you forgive, you liberate yourself. The other person still has to live with who they are and what they’ve done, and do their own work to heal themselves or not), but that doesn’t mean they belong in your world. In cases like this, there’s a line where compassion for others becomes abuse of self, and that’s not a line you want to cross. The price you pay is simply too high.
I understand it’s incredibly difficult when those toxic relationships happen between family members. All kinds of issues can lead to that particular heartbreak; drug addiction and abuse top the list. Disregard, disrespect, neglect, arguments over money, and/or a failure to show up can be issues that tear families apart. No one wants to be in the position of having to cut off a member of their own family. I feel when it’s a relative, you do everything humanly possible to mend the rift, but some people make it impossible, and refusing to accept that will cause the worst kind of betrayal there is – betrayal of self.
Losing people is the most brutal pain I know, especially those we’ve loved, but loss is part of life, and some people will be taken from us too soon, others will fall away from us for other reasons. Human beings are complex, and life brings everything, and not everyone handles it well. Whenever possible, accept that most people are doing the very best they can with what they’ve got. Few people are intentionally trying to hurt you or let you down. And yet, you absolutely must love yourself first. You cannot allow yourself to be abused, to shrink so someone else can shine, to lose trust in yourself. That’s the well you draw from for everyone else in your world. If you let that well dry up, you won’t have anything left for anyone.
Toxic relationships are called toxic because they make you sick. They drain you to the middle of your bones. As sad as it is, excising them from your life frees up an incredible amount of energy. And by the way, there are many instances when the cutting off of a person becomes the catalyst that makes them take action. (But not always, so don’t do it for that reason). Do it because you must. You can’t save anyone else, but you can save yourself.
Sending you love, and a little antivenin if you need it!