It is part of my series on Growing Up Platoniromantic.
platoniromantic – unable to distinguish “romantic” from “platonic” feelings and/or experiencing “friendship” and “romance” as the same thing
On the last day of high school, I walked home over the field near my house with my freshly signed yearbook. I stopped at a park bench and sat down. And cried and cried and cried.
A lady stopped and asked me what was wrong. So I explained, awkwardly, that it was the end of high school, that my friends and I were all graduating, and that I would probably never see them again. She spoke kindly to me, telling me she knew things must seem hard right now, but that they would get better. That I would make new friends, that I would have new experiences after high school, and that someday this would all be a distant memory.
How could I explain to her? How could I make her understand that my heart was broken and I had no idea how to put it back together? It wasn’t that I didn’t think she meant well. It wasn’t that I didn’t think she was speaking from experience. It wasn’t even that I didn’t believe what she said. But, at that moment, I couldn’t think about how things might one day get better. All I could think was that I was in unbearable and invisible pain.
When I was growing up, I didn’t really have friends. For most of my elementary school life, I was the kid who got picked on and nobody wanted to play with. Then, in high school, things started to change. People weren’t so much jerks and were more willing to hang out with me. I started spending time with a loose group that included a lot of people from my old school. And, gradually, I formed an especially close attachment to a half-dozen boys and girls that turned into a solid group friendship.
Throughout Grade 10, we were inseparable. We got the bus together, ate our lunches together, worked on class projects together, hung out on weekends and holidays. At the end of the year, we sat down and planned out all the activities we would do together over the summer: when we were going to this person’s cottage, when we were celebrating that person’s birthday, when the cultured among us were sitting the uncultured down and introducing them to Monty Python.
I had different relationships with the different members. One was my band partner; one I dated briefly. Some I felt personally close to, some I knew mainly as members of the bigger group. I won’t tell you about all our cute nicknames, all our inside jokes, all the secrets we shared or the philosophical discussions we had. The point is, we were close. They were my community, my companions, my family. They were, to borrow a phrase from Frankie Addams, “the ‘we’ of me”. And, on some level, I assumed they always would be.
And then slowly, inexorably, it all started to unravel. Some of us found new interests. Some of us found new social circles. The couple who were at the centre of our community broke up. Another couple started spending more time off on their own. No longer inseparable, we were increasingly living our own lives and developing our own identities, apart from each other.
Not me, though. To me, the group was my life and my identity. Without them, I didn’t know who I was or what to do with myself. I tried desperately to hold on, first to the group, then to a smaller group, then to the individual relationships. But I didn’t have the gravitational pull needed to keep our system together. One by one, my friends slipped away.
Eventually, I gave up. I stopped trying to pressure people to hang out with me. I stopped planning all my time around them. They knew where I was, and they knew how much our friendship meant to me. If they wanted me, they would come get me.
They didn’t. By Grade 13, we had almost completely dispersed into our own separate spaces. No one seemed interested in rekindling the group dynamic. I thought maybe we would at least all get a table together for prom, but we didn’t. I ended up sitting with the new group I had started hanging with, all the while thinking, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Each signature they left in my yearbook was a knife in my heart. Re-reading them twenty years later, they all seem like lovely sentiments, full of kindness and nostalgia and requests to keep in touch. But what I wanted at the time wasn’t kindness; it was to feel wanted. I didn’t want affirmations about the past, but commitments to the future. And I didn’t want to once again be doing all the work of “keeping in touch” without any reciprocity.
I moved away for university. My first year, not one of them made any effort to contact me. And I made no effort to contact them. Our relationship was over.
With one exception, I’m no longer in touch with any of those people. Oh, I’ve seen them all, at one point or another, over the years, but our interactions, though amicable, have been brief and shallow. We’re not a part of each other’s lives anymore, so conversations about how we’re currently doing can’t do more than scratch the surface. And I’m not interested in reminiscing about a time I now associate more with pain than with happiness.
What happened? Did I try too hard? Did I not try hard enough? Was I unlovable? Or did I simply want too much out of the relationships? I spent more than a decade asking myself those questions. And then, twelve years after graduation, I finally figured it out.
The problem was that I don’t make the relationship distinctions that other people take for granted. People are supposed to divide their relationships up into “romantic” and “platonic” ones, to devote a certain amount of emotional energy to one and a different amount of energy to the other. But, as a platoniromantic person, I didn’t understand that. In high school, I invested the same amount of energy in my friendships as other people do in their romantic relationships. And, when the relationships ended, I experienced the same amount of pain.
Looked at that way, there was nothing very unusual about my experience. Lots of people go through heartbreak in high school; mine just happened to be platonic. But there was one thing that set my experience apart and made it especially difficult to deal with. You see, when someone breaks up with you romantically, there’s generally an expectation that they will tell you they’re doing it. Or, if they don’t, you can at least count on your friends to be appropriately outraged on your behalf. But I didn’t get that courtesy. No one ever came to me and said, “Hey, Ice, I think you’re a really great person, but our relationship just isn’t working for me.” They just left me to figure things out on my own. And, in the excruciating aftermath, I couldn’t tell anyone my story and expect sympathy, because stories like mine weren’t in the conventional narrative. People understand the pain of losing a significant other. You’re not supposed to feel that pain for people who are “just” your friends.
But in high school I didn’t have a significant other. I had six. And slowly, quietly, without malice or intent, they broke my heart.