I Used Her: Being the Toxic Friend

Catherine Anne Howell
6 min readDec 11, 2020
We loved each other. It wasn’t enough.

I met Sarah (name changed) as a freshman in high school. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but I remember knowing immediately that she was different from everyone else I knew. She had just moved to my hometown from a different state. She was an artistic outsider who spoke her mind with a soft but strong voice. She loved Gustav Klimt and Audrey Hepburn. We bonded over art, photography, writing, Fiona Apple, and a young adult novel called Surrender by Sonya Hartnett (major spoilers to follow — I highly recommend reading this book regardless).

Surrender, with gorgeous prose, follows the rapidly deteriorating Gabriel as he recounts his childhood memories. The book points out in the first few pages that Gabriel is only twenty, and he is dying. From his deathbed, he recalls his childhood friend, a feral boy named Finnigan. They make a pact: Gabriel will be only good, and Finnigan will be only bad. Finnigan becomes an arsonist who burns down the homes of anyone who wrongs Gabriel. But after riding the emotional roller coaster of complications and tragedy in the book, you find out that Finnigan and Gabriel are the same person.

After years of regret, reflection and therapy, I’ve found that this beautifully dark book encapsulates a lot of what was wrong between Sarah and me.

We were creatively compatible, but our friendship was rocky from the get-go. Sarah wasn’t afraid to let me know when I had upset her, and I never got used to that. I thought she was just mean. But over and over again, she proved to be there for me in ways that others never were. She helped me move, loaned me money, comforted me during hard times, celebrated with me during good times, made me mix albums and artwork, gave me rides…

And over and over again, I either betrayed her to prioritize my boyfriends, or, even worse, I dragged her down to my own toxic level.

The root of the problem may have been that I was insanely jealous of her and had little to no self-worth. She was thin and athletic; I was overweight. She went to a four-year university and got a great job right out of high school; I meandered through community college, dropped out a few times, and couldn’t hold down a food service job. She was a phenomenal artist and good with numbers and finance; I knew of only one skill I possessed (writing) and had no idea how to make it a legitimate career. Attractive men were very interested in her; when even the sleaziest asshole showed any interest in me, I leapt at the chance.

I compared myself to her at every opportunity. I felt like a failure. I wanted to feel superior in any way I could.

Immediately after I graduated high school, I met a boy online and we immediately decided to get married. Sarah was the only one who made it clear that she thought this was a terrible decision. She didn’t come to the wedding.

But when we inevitably got divorced, Sarah was there. We became extremely close during that time, and not necessarily in a good way. We hit the bars practically every night and drank until closing time. She paid for every single one of my Hamms and PBRs. I have no way of knowing how much of a tab I racked up with her, but I know that I made it a point to drink enough beer to get sloppy drunk every night. We smoked, drank, and flirted with strangers at every major dive bar in the city. She always drove me home.

It was during this period of rock-bottom abandon that I met the narcissist who is now my ex. I was immediately enchanted with him. Sarah and I hung out less and less. When I did make the effort to actually see her, I was so obsessed with my partner that I could only talk about him and things he was interested in.

She told me in so many small ways that she was lonely and needed a friend. I was too wrapped up in myself and my relationship to notice.

Finally, Sarah called me out. She said that I was insensitive to her needs and that I wasn’t putting the effort into our friendship. I became extremely defensive. We stopped talking for a while.

Then, one day, I wrote her a letter. I vomited every single insecurity I ever felt and every jealousy I had onto the page in sloppy cursive. I turned it around on her. I said that we were bad influences on each other. I said I felt like I was walking on eggshells whenever I was around her, that I could never do anything right. I blamed my family for my “usury tendencies.” I told her that if she couldn’t accept me for who I am, I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore. I said that if she ever wanted to come back and hang out under these terms, I’d be here waiting for her. I dropped it in her mailbox.

With each passing hour, regret crescendoed inside me. I called her. She immediately rejected it. I left her voicemail (a half-apology). She never called me back.

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

A year or so later, I broke up with my manipulative partner. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life. Only then — only when I realized what manipulation, usury, and narcissism really looked like — did I realize how unbelievably shitty, manipulative, and downright abusive I had been to one of my best friends.

I texted Sarah after I had finally gotten my head on somewhat straight, reprioritized my life, and gone to a lot of therapy. I asked if we could talk. I’m pretty sure the only reason she responded is because she got a new phone and didn’t recognize my number.

She said talking wouldn’t change how she felt.

For once, I chose to actually ask, “How do you feel?”

She said that we were toxic. She said that she didn’t hate me or think I was a bad person. She said she was sure that I was relieved for our friendship to be over too. She said we just weren’t good for each other and that it was better if we moved on.

By the time I was ready to take responsibility for my actions, it was too late. She had finally liberated herself from me. No apology, no matter how sincere, would make a difference.

Years later, I see that when she stood up to me, she taught me how to stand up for myself.

Often when I think about her (which is every day), I recall a time in high school when we were out late at night driving down the back roads outside our wealthy suburb. We were blasting Fiona Apple with the windows down. I was driving. We took a turn onto a dark street, and it was like we entered another dimension.

A wildfire had ripped through the area a week or so before, and everything was dead. It was eerily quiet. Spindly, charred trees were silhouettes in the headlights.

It reminded us both of the wildfires in Surrender. We wondered aloud which one of us was Finnigan and which was Gabriel.

Then we descended into one of the strangest silences I’ve ever experienced.

Two things happened simultaneously:

First, we realized that we were running out of gas, had no cell service, and that no one knew where we were.

But also, right at the exact same moment, we both silently wondered if we were actually the same person. In one ephemeral lapse in reality, we considered an alternate universe where we were doing all of this alone, acting out our teenage rebellion through each other, exploring our morality through an imaginary friend.

When we looked at each other, just for a moment, we couldn’t tell which one of us was real and which was imaginary.

I turned the car around. We drove home in an uneasy quiet.

Names have been changed.



Catherine Anne Howell

Writer, podcaster, and creator exploring psyche, meaning, and self.