Please note, this chapter of our anonymous contributor’s ‘Year in Review’ series contains discussion of suicide and eating disorders. In order to preserve anonymity, all names mentioned have been changed.
To put it frankly, the end of Year 9 was a mess.
Even now, going into Year 11 with a new, strong friendship group, I still revisit the events that concluded 2016 on a regular basis. I'm still unable to fathom how it happened, or how I can break the cycle inside my head. As mentioned in my introductory article, when I came to the school one of my classmates, Riley, welcomed me into their group. I didn't have much in common with their friends, but I was extremely close to them, as well as two other students, Taylor and Alex. During lunchtimes and before school we sat in a slightly smaller group, slightly isolated from the larger one as we debated books and discussed what we’d done on the weekend, forming very close connections to each other. This pattern remained throughout the entirety of 2015, and well into 2016. Although we rarely caught up outside of school, our group remained one of the best parts of high school, as I felt able to talk about anything to them and knew I wouldn't be judged.
Around the middle of 2016, Taylor began to sit with others most lunchtimes, for their own personal reasons. They still talked to us in class and spent part of lunch with us, however they usually left midway through to sit with some other friends of theirs. As the year wore on, it was becoming clear that we had all developed different interests and hobbies. Instead of eagerly debating whether Katniss should have ended up with Gale or Peeta every few days (obviously, neither; Katniss is an independent woman in her own right), the conversations became less friendly and more argumentative. Taylor developed a crush on one of their classmates, which became a major topic of conversation, and as I didn’t share interest in this person, it became harder to connect with them. Around the same time, Alex and Riley began to fight over various issues, both political and in concern to our other friends. I tried to stay out of the conflict as much as possible, occasionally joining Taylor at the other group to avoid making the problems between Alex and Riley worse.
As the group began to fall apart, nearing the end of its shelf life after a commendable 18 months, I became less and less social. I disliked arguments and wanted to help prevent Alex and Riley from fighting, however most of their discussions were conducted privately. During this time, as Taylor joined the other group more often, I would frequently just sit and listen to the others in the adjoining group, most of whom were Riley’s friends from primary school, and thus people I'd never spoken to.
This didn't mean my friends stopped paying attention to me - in fact, it was rather the opposite. Unfortunately, I was often made the punchline of many jokes regarding my food. Even though I didn’t bring much food - usually a single chicken wrap around half the size of their lunches - I was badly affected by Alex and Riley’s frequent comments about what I ate, but would often laugh along anyway (albeit uncomfortably) to keep the peace. As a result, whilst food was a point of insecurity for me, this became a daily routine. I occasionally joined Taylor in the other group to avoid these comments, however I wasn't close to anyone there and mainly sat on the edge silently. The longer these comments wore on, the more my self esteem fell and I stopped eating an entire wrap. Sometimes I’d have half a wrap, other times nothing at all to avoid their attention.
Meanwhile, Alex and Riley became less and less friendly towards each other. I never found out why this was the case, but the fact that Alex had just come out to us as bisexual led me to draw conclusions. Riley and Taylor both had beliefs that clashed with Alex's identity, and it didn't help that a rumour had spread around about Riley having allegedly made some biphobic comments. Hearing of these alleged comments made me very uneasy, however to this day Riley claims they never said them, and that they and Alex had had other issues as well. Alex left the group soon after this, declaring that it was a toxic friendship and they didn't want Riley to be a part of their life anymore, but I later found out that this was unrelated to the rumour. I'm not unused to conflicts between friends - my friends in primary school had fights like this every few weeks, although never on this scale.
My advice to anyone who may be caught in a similar predicament is to take some time out for yourself. I don't mean to distance yourself from your friends and focus solely on yourself; however, space is necessary to develop a perspective on the issues that have arisen, and whether it would be helpful for you to play the mediator, or give the others space so that they can resolve the fight themselves. In primary school, I usually played the mediator, which helped to resolve the conflicts slightly faster as we came to compromises. However, that isn't always useful as it can instead build resentment due to interference in what could be a very private fight. Taking space and time for yourself could be beneficial, not only to the resolution of the conflict, but also to see how it is affecting you. Are you coping well and taking time to find other pursuits? Do you have strong friendships that aren't constantly a source of tension? If not, my advice is to take some space and see where you are at. Perspective is difficult to gain without the distance, and it can be very valuable for conflicts in the future, as well as reevaluating your own health and mindset.
I didn't take the space I needed when drama began to pile up toward the end of 2016. Along with friendship drama - Riley and Alex having completely cut ties at that point, and Taylor still spending a significant amount of time at the other group - I also had problems within my family to contend with. My grandmother, who I was very close to, had just been diagnosed with cancer in both of her lungs and the doctor predicted that she'd die within the month. Due to this, I was quite sensitive about death.
Fortunately for me, a slight reprieve was on the horizon. Taylor, Riley, some other friends and I were going to partake in a weekend-long extracurricular competition that we had signed up for earlier in the year. I was looking forward to a very enjoyable weekend, hanging out at a four star hotel and reconnecting with my closest friends, including my friend Max, who I hadn't seen much that year outside of preparations for the weekend.
Unfortunately, the weekend started to fall apart almost immediately.
The team met up on Friday afternoon to have dinner and hang out. By 8pm, Taylor and Max were making several jokes about suicide in relation to our upcoming exams, and Riley was laughing along. I asked them to stop multiple times as I was quite upset about my grandmother - although Taylor was the only one who was aware of the insensitivity of their jokes, since I'd confided in them about my grandmother prior to the weekend - I was mocked for my unwillingness to joke. Riley advised me that I didn't have to join in the conversation if it made me uncomfortable when I raised issue - unintentionally isolating me from the group - and Max and Taylor continued to make jokes for the rest of the evening. I was left to read by myself, the other two members of the team being in a room across the hall. At one point, Taylor took a picture of the drop from the hotel balcony, posting it on their Instagram story with the caption "should i jump??" to laughter from Max, and it was then when I spoke to Taylor in private. After that, they stopped and appear to look guilty - deleting the Instagram post - and they and Max reined in their jokes.
However, this didn’t end up being the end of their jokes, as a fear of isolation encouraged the three of them to engage in the social norm of this kind of dark humour. It continued for the entire weekend. I avoided Riley, Taylor and Max as much as possible, even though they were my closest friends there. Every time I did try to initiate a conversation with them on a topic I preferred, they would revert back to jokes about death and mocked my sensitivity. I couldn't blame Riley or Max, although they knew I dislike that type of humour generally, but I was incredibly hurt by Taylor wilfully joining in despite knowing how much it pained me.
On top of this, food was still an issue. The event organisers packed the meals every day, and everyone filed past to pick up an identical pack containing the meal appropriate to the time of day. This meant I couldn't be teased for what I ate and how it was presented, but I still felt Taylor and Riley’s judgement. They continually glanced at me throughout lunch, glances which I interpreted as judgemental digs at me about my food. I tried to eat as little as possible as a result, and ended up leaving halfway through lunch (to the others' confusion) so that I could feel okay with eating.
This lasted for about a month after the weekend was over. I eventually stopped eating at lunch altogether because I couldn't stand any of their comments. Even if it wasn't a mealtime I’d be teased; when there were rumours that a boy in my class liked me, there were a lot of comments about what our children would look like - more 'lighthearted' digs at me. At a time when my self esteem and self image were at an all time low, this innocuous comments affected me more than Riley and Taylor will ever know. I knew logically that I was allowed to eat, and that I was a healthy weight, and they themselves ate so it didn't make sense for them to make me uncomfortable about doing so. However, these thoughts didn't help, and I avoided eating anything in their presence. As they were my closest friends and I spent every lunchtime with them I realised that this was an unhealthy habit to get into, but the judgement I felt sprinkled into every other conversation with them - offhand comments and jokes - meant that I no longer had any defence.
I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable with myself as their comments lowered my self esteem on a daily basis. I started to dread lunchtimes, even more so than maths class (and trust me, I really hate maths). Every time I walked past a mirror or a window I had to avert my eyes so that I wouldn't focus on what I looked like. I've never been focused on my appearance, but my drop in self esteem provoked a change in my personality as I began to worry about what I looked like, as opposed to who I was as a person. I relied on them completely, as they were my best friends, and assumed they had only my best interests at heart. I honestly believed that they could see me differently, and were just trying to help me look like who I was before. In retrospect, I had not changed at all. I hadn't put on any extra weight, nor had I started eating more since Year 8. However, the scrutiny I felt combined with the weight I gave to their opinions impacted me in several damaging ways. I do not know how long that would have gone for, or if I ever would have realised how damaging their comments actually were, if not for what happened next.
As I mentioned before, the comments lasted for a month, until it abruptly stopped when I received two text messages on the same day. One was from Riley, and the other was from Taylor; both of them had cut me off. I was extremely hurt by this, as it was extremely sudden. Taylor claimed that I'd been talking about them to Riley, and Riley said they'd cut me off so that they could focus on their other friends. I thought I had tried everything to continue our friendship, but it hadn't been enough. I had tried everything at the cost of my friendship with Alex, who now sat with another group, one I didn't want to force myself into because I felt I didn't belong there. Suddenly though, I wasn't welcome in my usual group either.
I was completely isolated and had no idea how to fix it. I had been friendly with some guys in one of my classes, however they were very geeky, and as such, had no clue how to socialise at lunch. For a time, I sat with Alex. Although the group was friendly, I still felt didn't belong there. Sometimes I'd go to the library to study for the final exams of the year that were rapidly approaching, but I was always distracted and missing my friends. I couldn't think of who to go to - I didn't feel I could talk to Riley and Taylor, and my other friends didn't invite me to sit with them or show support, due to their shared friendship with Taylor. I thought that I was completely alone.
Every day was torture. Contrary to most, I am actually the sort of teenager who likes school - sure, the homework and assignments are annoying and can be stressful, but I do really enjoy classes. I like seeing what new topics we'll cover, learning and exploring new things. Although maths was an abomination, my other classes were all really interesting. However, with the destruction of my friendship group, I grew to hate waking up each morning. Even on the weekends, it was yet more time that I wouldn't spend hours on the group chat, sharing writing and ideas and debating. In the time I did spend at school I dreaded lunchtimes, that feeling of despair that overwhelmed me every single day. I couldn't even distract myself with eating anymore, hearing their comments constantly in my head and fearing that whoever I sat with would be thinking the same thing. This feeling persisted until I couldn't focus on anything else. As I walked to school from the bus stop by myself and sat and waited alone until class started, all I could think about was Taylor and Riley's comments, and how I didn't feel I had anywhere to go. The hopelessness pervaded my thoughts each and every day, until I was suicidal. I never actually hurt myself, but I took careless risks that I never had before that point. Every time I went to cross a road, I was tempted to just get run over and end it all; not caring if I made it across once I stepped out onto the road. I couldn't bear the thought of facing another lunchtime in isolation.
I didn't tell anyone about how bad it was. My parents knew what had happened between Riley, Taylor and myself but they trusted that I'd figure it out and I was better off without them. Alex was growing closer to their other friends, and I didn't want to burden them. I thought that it might eventually get better, and they'd take me back. Riley apologised for what they said, and said they regretted cutting me off. Unfortunately, it was too late, by that point I firmly thought that there was no longer a way in which our friendship could continue. We both knew I didn't fit in anymore; I began to doubt that I ever had. Despite occasionally texting them, we had very limited contact and our friendship didn't feel real to me. I had become a lot closer to the guys in my humanities class, but I couldn't tell them anything too personal, and they were usually busy with handball (I didn't play). The only times we talked was in class, and these conversations quickly became the highlight of my day. As the end of term became nearer, I was hopeful that I could continue those friendships and finally move on. I was still suicidal and took stupid risks, but I knew I could wait for the holidays and the end of lunchtimes was in sight.
I've learned since then that reaching out is always the best option. I've built up a support network over the past year, building a stronger friendship group with the guys and gaining more friends. I'm no longer dependent on just a few people for my entire sense of self worth, and in the long run, I’m much better off. Despite this, I’m still affected every day by the judgment I felt from Riley and Taylor. I don't always eat every meal, because I picture them standing beside me, joking about my weight. I stuck with them because I thought they knew me better than I knew myself, and I shouldn't have believed that.
If you're reading this, please remember that no one has the right to make you doubt yourself. No one has the right to look down on you for anything, not your family, appearance, race, sexuality, nothing. I am still trying to get over the blow to my self esteem, and it's been over a year. Luckily, I've made a lot of progress since then. If you're experiencing a similar situation where your friends are persistently making derogatory comments, they aren't your friends. Take a step back, and reevaluate. Remember who you are, and go to those people who will respect you and know your worth. Similarly, if your friends are fighting around you, try to get some distance and figure out if it's better for you to interfere or to let them come to conclusions themselves. Sometimes when friends are fighting, it's hard to maintain your own personal wellbeing as worry for them consumes you and you neglect to take care of yourself.
I hope this can help anyone who's going through a similar situation, or if you know of someone who is. To this day, I'm still trying to overcome my low self esteem and problems with body image, but I know that it's possible. Toxic friendships are so common, and so hard to get out of. If you know someone who is experiencing that, please try to show them that they are loved and they aren't alone. In my next article I'll be going into further detail about body image, and how to help when you have loved ones who have mental illnesses. Thank you for reading this, and please share it with others who may benefit from reading.
If this article, or any of the mentioned material, has triggered you in any way, please contact the following services:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Headspace: 1800 650 890
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800