Silence has always been golden.
In a city filled to bursting, noise overrode all else. During the day, one could hear the roar of the highway and traffic. At work and school, the constant buzz of electricity within the walls was a constant force. People talk, never quietening for a moment. The juggle of being here, being present, at all times of the day, it becomes a chore.
The reality, however, is that I cannot simply walk away.
A pencil rolls beneath my fingertips as I watch the teacher drone on about one subject or another, not quite listening. Selective listening is something I’ve had to learn to do for the sake of my own sanity. The same conversations, day after day. It’s getting to the point I already know what’s going to be said because the same conversations have happened on a regular basis. Attempting to pull away only results in more headaches. It’s better to pretend, really. Sometimes one’s personal feelings, or thoughts, on the matter are as good as meaningless when the other parties keep pushing.
“Can anyone tell me the difference between a high-maintenance relationship and a toxic relationship?” The question catches my attention and I look up from my desk. The pencil stills beneath my fingertips, no longer rolling as it had moments before. I eye the students sitting in front of me, one scribbling furious notes in her notebook while the other rests his chin on his knuckles in apparent boredom. My attention shifts to the teacher as he says, “Miss Falkenrath, you seem a bit interested in this. Do you know the difference between the two?”
I did know the answer to the question. After a moment, I said, “Yes, sir.”
“Why don’t you enlighten the class,” it wasn’t a question and we both knew it. I pressed my hands flat against my thighs, absently trying to churn the information in my head. It wasn’t a simple answer, not when you had to deal with both kinds of people. Or, worse yet, had to interact with someone that was both high-maintenance with an undercurrent of toxicity. I swallowed, wetting my mouth, before saying, “It’s not a simple answer.”
And it wasn’t a simple answer. I made a sweeping gesture as I continued, “Both have their own traits. Someone who is high-maintenance, for instance, tend to talk a lot, they focus a great deal on the past wrongs, they’re rarely satisfied and they tend to be high-strung. They often seek continuous attention, often clinging to a person or a group of people with little regard for that person, or those peoples, feelings.”
Images of a few of my own friends jumped to mind. I went silent for a time, fingers biting into the fabric of my shorts. I reached for the bottle of water beside me, taking a drink as I thought out what I wanted to say next. After a moment, I said, “A great deal of the time, they only want to talk about what they want to talk about even if the other person in the conversation is showing a lack of interest of desire in the conversation at hand. In that case, they tend to get…defensive.”
I could think of countless other issues with someone that would be classified as “high-maintenance.” Their lives are always filled with drama, they handle money poorly, always obsessed with details (their own and mine) and tend to be critical or judgmental of others. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been online or on the phone and the first question to pop up every single time is “what are you looking at” or “who are you talking to?” Interactions with such people tend to get a tad difficult.
“And what about toxic relationships?”
A good question, that one. I mused the question over. There were many ways to spot an individual that has a toxic affect: negativity being one of the largest indicators. Constant drama was another. I mentioned both of these before saying, “Someone who is toxic is also inclined to want to spend every moment with another person, giving little or no space. There’s often very little privacy. They tend to talk more than they listen and will ignore the fact that, if someone doesn’t want to do something…well, they’ll push them into it without caring about the fact the person doesn’t want to do it.”
It wasn’t only sex that fell in that last category. One person might have a habit of wanting to do everything with the other even if the other isn’t as inclined. There could be resentment of family, a dislike of other people in that person’s life.
“You’re always going to your uncle’s place,” Garland sat on the couch across from me, hands tucked between his knees. He leaned in, elbows resting on his legs as he said, “I didn’t know you were going. I thought you’d have told me. I would have liked to go with you.”
“It was a family matter, Garland,” I told him as I flipped to another channel on the television. He huffed, slung one arm over the seat of the chair. “Aren’t we a family? It’s almost like you don’t want to hang out with me.”
“That’s not true,” I turned my gaze on him, eyes narrowed. “I like hanging out with you, but I don’t see why you have to go to my uncle’s house with me every time I go to see him. I like to spend time with my cousins, you know. Just them and me.”
“I still want to go…”
I shook my head, turning my attention back to the teacher. “Someone who is toxic tends to manipulate others to do what they want. They’re self-absorbed, wanting everything to be centered around them and what they want. They also have a habit of treating others poorly. What one person might consider toxic will be fine and normal for another.”
My teacher nodded. “You have quite a bit of experience in this, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do,” Garland popped into my mind again, his bleach-blonde hair falling in soft waves around his face. His laughter, when he was happy. His eagerness to make me happy or proud, his attention to all the details in my life – he was a good guy. However, on the same end, he also tended to ignore the fact that I simply don’t want to do a lot of the things we used to do. I offered a half-smile as I said, “One of my best friends is both high-maintenance and has a penchant for toxic impulses.”
“Well, I’m trying to get in shape,” I said, mind shifting back to the last conversation I had with Garland. I could almost see him sitting across from me, looking upset about the fact I was going out to jog.
“I want to go with you.”
Garland was making his way towards me, aiming to grab his shoes as he closed the door to his apartment. I paused, lips pressed in a thin line. I shook my head. I turned to him, meeting his eyes as I said, “You were just complaining about your leg last night. Anyway, I’d like to clear my head a bit anyway and I can’t do that when you insist on filling our every moment together talking. You’ll be here when I get back. I’ll make us breakfast.”
“I want to go with you,” Garland insisted. “My leg’s feeling fine, now.”
Did he not just hear the fact that I want some ‘alone time’ or is he simply ignoring that? He stood just across from me, face smooth. I propped one hand on my hip. Why does this man have to be so difficult? He shrugged one shoulder as he said, “Anyway, after we get back from our run, we can pick up where we left last night. We need to start working on the designs for another home. Just don’t walk out in the middle of it this time. You said you’d do it, so you’ll do it.”
Leaning back in my seat, I ran a hand through my hair. I wasn’t looking forward to school ending at all because of that. Pressured into working on a project I don’t even want to do – why do I even let him talk me into these things. Then again, why would he push after I told him I simply didn’t have the desire to do it anymore? I used to like doing interior design. I eyed my teacher as I said, “The thing about someone who has toxic impulses, they pick a subject one person likes and then they want to do it with them. At times, that one subject becomes the topic of every conversation. Then you loose any desire in what used to give you passion because you’re no longer doing it for yourself.
“Passions are supposed to be done because a person enjoys it,” I grabbed my water bottle a second time, chugging down half of it in one go. I set it on the desk, voice light as I pressed on without pause, “When that passion is being intruded on by another person, who only wants to focus on what we’re doing, then the passions we harbor start to fizzle and then they die.”
This was something I’ve experience far too much of. I’m not the most creative person in the world. I like to read history and science, dabble with basic math equations. The only “artsy” thing of interest is designing the inside of a home. However, I do have interests. I like to read poetry, watch crime on the TV and I’m interested in jogging and walking.
Had I known my life would be overrun by Garland, one of the kindest yet saddest souls I’ve ever known, once I suggested painting a home together, I would never have done it.
All the projects I had going were gone, dropped and forgotten.
I certainly missed doing those projects but I wasn’t happy doing it with another person, no matter if that person was one of my closest friends. I would rather learn to be happy not doing something that brought me joy than being forced into doing it with another person and being unhappy doing it. Art, be it design or music or writing, is about happiness and a desire to express thoughts and dreams.
Interior design was the same, at one point.
“The moment any person starts to rekindle an old passion, a toxic individual won’t say ‘I’m glad you’re doing it again’ without saying ‘we have to do this work together.'” I paused to take a breath, cheeks flushed. How long had I let this rest on my chest, silently stewing away? I finished off my water and said, “Someone who has a toxic undercurrent can’t be happy doing it on their own unless they can push someone else into doing it with them. Once that happens, they won’t let the other person doing it alone. There has to be a joint project. It doesn’t matter if one person in the equation doesn’t want to do it.”
Even now, I could see the future getting ready to unfurl in a spiral of misery. I didn’t want to go home because the exact same conversations were waiting for me. I didn’t want to go to a studio and start figuring out how to set up an abandoned home, or figure out the layout, because I no longer was doing it for myself. My passion was no longer my passion. Leaving it behind was truly the best way I could go, at this point.
Why pursue a passion that wasn’t my passion, the one thing I could claim for myself, and it no longer held any meaning for me at all? Why step into an old home, cast aside by the world, and feel it come alive in my head when I have to turn around and say ‘this is what I see. What do you not like about it?’ The thought of doing that again…it makes me sick.
It hurt, really. My chest was tight, aching. I felt heavy and a bit dull on the inside.
But, in the end, I’d rather be numb than miserable.
I’d rather abandon a passion I’ve cherished…
I’d rather let it die than watch it burn.
I turned my attention on my teacher, whatever burning rising in my eyes dying away as I said, “I know about people who are both high-maintenance and toxic. When it’s a combo of the two, not only do they demand all your time and want everything to be about them, you have to go out of your way to make them happy. You have to set boundaries because, unlike a normal person, they’ll think they can go into your home, or into your family’s home or another friend’s home, without invitation. They won’t knock. They won’t call in advance.”
My attention shifted to the clock. A few minutes left. I unzipped my backpack, gathering my belongings as I said, “Frankly, if you spend the night at a different friend’s house, someone who has a mix of the two might be inclined to simply go over to that friend’s house and drag you out because you have plans later in the day. Or you might not be home and you share a ride to school. They let themselves in, even if the gate’s closed.”
I stood, slinging my backpack over my shoulder as I said, “However, if you’re trying to keep such a person in your life, because you actually value the good sides of the relationship, then handling someone who is high-maintenance or toxic becomes a chore that evolves into a nightmare. In that case, if you have something you once loved but can no longer do on your own…you abandon what you did like and find something new that will have as much meaning but isn’t being overrun by someone else. Some people can just walk out of such situations, but if it’s family…
“Well, in that case, you’re stuck,” I grinned as I made my way towards the door. “You have to live with them, or deal with them, because you love them. They won’t change. They won’t let a passion simply return to the person, to burn like an inferno of life and love, because they cannot let it be singular. It cannot be my desire and their desire. It has to be our desire. So the person who is keeping such a relationship has to change. They have to become someone new, who can manage that relationship while keeping their sanity.”
The teacher was out of his seat, reaching for me as he said, “Nami, no one should have to change themselves in order to be happy. They shouldn’t have to give up something they enjoy because someone else is making it difficult for them to love!”
“Then what would you do, sir?” I looked him in the eye. He held my gaze as I asked, “If you truly enjoyed doing something that you do for yourself, a passion that has always given your life a meaning, that let you express yourself, and then you have to share that same process and world with someone else…what would you do?”
He didn’t have an answer, right then and there. Not one that would matter.
Most people would drop that source of stress, opting to cut the problem out of their lives by the roots. Me, however? I’d rather keep a friendship that has merits, that has meaning and I can depend on in my times of difficultly. If it means dropping passions I hold very dear, something that defines me as a person, if it means leaving behind my studio, the one in the real world and the one online, behind…
…then so be it. I would rather embrace the cold.
I would rather be numb than miserable.