New York City, NY

The Search for Compatible Female Friends

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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I used to share meaningful friendships with a group of fascinating women who I deeply cared for. We got together frequently, traveled the world and shared our triumphs and defeats. In so many ways we were tight, but when I identified disconcerting dynamics that caused me concern there wasn’t a whole lot of willingness from these women to self examine and evolve.

A simplistic, but clarifying example occurred with Linda, a woman I originally met at a yoga ashram in the Bahamas and shared a decade long bond with. Even when I repeatedly addressed no longer wanting to engage in hours long marathon phone sessions, she simply ignored me. Ultimately I had no recourse but to abruptly get off the phone amid her blathering on.The more nuanced issues with unsolicited advice giving and codependent maneuvering were too, either not acknowledged or met with outright disdain.

The bottom line is most people like to maintain the status quo. Self reflection is touted as admirable, but in truth it’s not all that popular. I couldn’t abide, even with two friendships that spanned almost twenty years.

Cutting my losses was not easy.

Given a history steeped in childhood neglect and abuse, the quest for a community of friends was tantamount to building a family. Unfortunately this fraternal family, although healthier than my biological one, was also dysfunctional. Discernment and discrimination are superfluous life skills when one is consumed with insatiable needs for connection.

It was inevitable that my survival fears and loneliness would set me up for power-submissive dynamics with women who offered not just companionship, but the sense of security and guidance I could never attain from my schizophrenic mother. I have no doubt there was genuine accord and intimacy, but unfortunately underlying these friendships were stifling constraints with equanimity and individuation.

Truth is at first I didn’t care. I was thrilled to just have people in my corner who I admired and cared for, and who offered me a sense of being loved and valued. My turning a blind eye largely related to my tortuous plight with being socially handicapped. In fact in my early years I was a selective mute. I had no friends outside of my older sister, who was also crippled by our daily traumas. We turned to one another especially when ‘mother’ kept us hostage in the house for weeks at a time. Sometimes my sister would risk a severe beating by facilitating our escape, so we could spend some time in a nearby park with other children. Not familiar with how to approach other kids, when I dared to try the rejection was brutal. So when I found girlfriends in my youth and adult years who actually wanted to ‘play with me,’ it was exhilarating!

When adolescence hit I was challenged with the grueling task to individuate at a time when survival meant belonging. Having few life skills and beset by insatiable unmet needs and complex trauma was a sure formula for destructive acting out. This took the form of wandering the streets of NYC at all hours, promiscuous escapades, and drugs. Lots of drugs, along with dancing the night away at new wave punk clubs.

Like most traumatized teenagers, the adrenaline rush was paramount. Ironically this period of reckless abandon gleaned many friends who like myself sought escape from difficult familial circumstance. NYC was a mecca for iconic music venues and we would glam out, dress up and go dancing. My primary stomping ground was Hurrah by Lincoln Center. As emotionally grueling as that period of my life was for me, the music alone makes me long for a time machine.

I harbor no illusions that without the kindred girls who joined me in those escapades, I would not have been able to survive.

With time and therapy I gravitated towards young women who like myself, pursued careers in the public sector of NYC and also were enraptured with the arts and travel. Although many of these relationships were enriching and life affirming there was a consistent co-created subtext of deferring to their lead. Self governance was not yet in the cards for me. I desperately needed to matter to others and deep down I still yearned to be rescued. In many ways I replicated with my female friends the role distortions and resentments that characterized my dynamics with my sister.

As I grieved the intangible and literal losses in my life, my relationship to myself strengthened. Concomitantly my ability to challenge the subtle ways in which I put others above me improved. I also came to recognize that I was a narcissist magnet. This was primarily so with men, but also occurred with women, albeit the malignancy was less severe.

A turning point ensued when I was jolted into reality by a major blowout with a narcissistic man I was dating. Unbeknownst to me he was engaged to another while he was sleeping with me. The enormity of hurt and rage that ensued catalyzed an intra-psychic shift. The scales fell from my eyes. I finally saw how I gave my power away in exchange for the illusion of ‘love.’This harrowing betrayal threw me into a dark descent, which after a five year hiatus from sex and dating, resulted in a reclamation of worth and a formidable ability to be intelligently guarded.

Still, the tests prevailed.

A breakdown is often a spiritual breakthrough.

In hindsight this aptly describes what I was experiencing. Although I am grateful that I made it through to the other side, who I devolved into in the midst of this metamorphosis was not pleasant. I was miserable to be around and so disillusioned with people that I initiated a complete relational overhaul. Consequently, long term friendships fell away and new connections formed, including that with a man I recently married.

On the tail end of assimilating decades of trapped grief and aggression, I created a therapeutic theatre project for at risk women and girls. This life altering endeavor prompted me to immerse myself in acting classes, a craft I dabbled in throughout the years, but shied away from due to stage fright. The vital stuck energy that was finally achieving release ignited an important new chapter in my life, replete with establishing new patterns and taking life affirming risks.

Ironically, the tables were turning and I found myself in the position of having to distinguish my function as a mentor from that of a friend. From the actresses in my theater project, the collaborators I worked with and folks from my past who suddenly resurfaced, I was tested with asserting my authority so as to define appropriate roles and erect healthy protective boundaries and limits. I also had to come to terms with letting go.

One of the newer connections that developed during this time was with a woman who was also a psychotherapist, reiki master and a trauma survivor. She was a wonderful musician, artist and human being. We shared a wholehearted rapport. Our camaraderie was profoundly reparative and enlightening. There were no hidden agendas or power plays to concern myself with.

Through our relationship I came to understand the sort of female solidarity that truly resonated with my spirit. Years into our friendship she was diagnosed with cancer. At 48 years old she died. I was given the honor of officiating her funeral service on a beach in Long Island where we dispersed her ashes. That loss was a pivotal moment of truth as it caused me to examine how I would go forward in this arena of my life.

I remained open to forming connections, but at the same time I was more discerning about what offered mutual nourishment and inspiration. When I cultivated a friendship with a truly ethical, warm and artistic woman I felt encouraged. We were good friends for over three years, but sadly her difficulties with opening up and our disparate interests created an irreparable rift. It became arduous coming up with things to talk about and I found myself consistently being the one to initiate difficult conversations.Although this was a painful loss it crystallized for me my need for consonant intellectual stimulation and emotional risk.

It’s fascinating how what seemed right in hindsight evokes antipathy today. The bar is much higher now, which is a good thing. Knowing what and is relationally compatible makes the pickings slim. Ironically with sheltering in place directives, the quality interpersonal stimulation I experience with those few who compliment what I seek, sustains me. Still, I imagine it sounds pretentious to require potential girlfriends to measure up to standards that encourage me to grow and open up, but at my age I simply don’t want to accommodate relational exchanges that feel empty.

Of course all relationships have their dull moments, low points, conflicts. On a fundamental level though I require a willingness to achieve a shared understanding of one another and and the courage to extend oneself through vulnerability, so that a healthy durable bond can ensue. Most critically I require a deep thinker who boldly plumbs the depths. Unless I feel that connection, as I did with my dear friend who passed, or as I experience with my betrothed, I’d prefer to go it alone.

I’m no longer like Percival searching endlessly for the Holy Grail. A greater quest has emerged; to accept who I am and be at peace with how things are.When I move to Montreal next year perhaps new connections will form. Maybe they won’t. The gift attained is that I’m no longer grasping. That alone is tremendously satisfying.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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