In the first essay of her co-edited and co-conceived series, Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19, Sumaya Kassim reflects on the breakdown of a friendship, exploring feelings of abandonment, rejection and grief that led her to self-evaluate and cultivate new intimacy and care.
In the middle of the pandemic, I fought with a friend. She’d hurt my feelings and I’d decided to confront her. This was different to previous conflicts in that, for the first time in my life, (as opposed to going quiet, turning away, or keeping my distance, or just pretending everything was fine) I shared with them my real feelings and allowed them into my thought processes. It was painful, but it felt necessary. In the past I rarely gave anyone a chance to truly apologise to me. But now, everything had changed; the world was ending. Faced with the death of a friendship, I looked inward and examined my instinct to run away, to ‘cut her out’ and wondered if there could be another way.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, I’ve had more reckonings with my friends than at any time in my life. And I suspect I’m not the only one. This may be due to miscommunication in the purest sense: we are relying on technology to connect us, more than ever before. Communication is suffused with a surreal quality. Without bodily proximity and the cues of physical presence, it’s easy to forget how vulnerable each of us is, how our social contracts are maintained, how easily feelings are hurt (there’s an essay to be written about how the solipsistic monologuing of the voice note can really get you into trouble).
But there’s more to it than this. Relationships feel different now; the pandemic has led to a reappraisal of friendships. On the one hand, we are reaching out and appreciating the depths of connectivity and interdependence not only of those dearest to us, but of key workers, neighbours and strangers. On the other hand, though our connections may feel all the more important, they also feel newly tenuous. It’s led to the death of friendships, the birth of new relationships and the rebirth of old connections at an accelerated rate. We find that people we considered close were not so or that someone we haven’t heard from in years actually really cares.
Both my friend and I have been mostly alone during the pandemic. Soon after lockdown began, we started exchanging voice notes, which grew increasingly long and frequent as the months progressed. It felt wonderfully pedestrian to bear witness to the everyday ways we were surviving the collective stress and grief whilst living alone. We talked about feelings of loneliness and abandonment, about love, about how the pandemic was impacting our work, what we were eating, our successes and our losses. We talked about our families. I sent her a book on toxic parents (Toxic Parents by Craig Buck and Susan Forward) and she recommended Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Warming the Stone Child. We talked about skin hunger and the strangeness of missing solitude. I missed the feeling of having chosen to be alone. I missed the passive socialisation of sitting in a café and working. I missed being alone in a crowd.
Lockdown forced me to contend with the ways I was left and neglected, the ways I have been abandoned, the ways my boundaries were transgressed
However, though solitude is comfortable when chosen, lockdown had me wondering whether my pre-pandemic solitude was ever chosen. How much of it was simply something I’ve gotten used to out of necessity? Lockdown forced me to contend with the ways I was left and neglected, the ways I have been abandoned, the ways my boundaries were transgressed and how I have replicated these behaviours with others. Once the illusion of choice had been shattered, I couldn’t do what I’d always done and avoid conflict.
Another friend and I had a long running joke during lockdown: ‘hey abandoner’ we’d say if either hadn’t responded in a while. This friendship became the space to talk about family in a way I never had before. We talked about our experiences of being left behind and how we used work to cope. It is always difficult to state that my family rejected me. People automatically assume I must have done something “wrong”. This is despite the fact there is nothing a child can do to warrant ostracization. Nevertheless, there is something monstrous about the abandoned child. We who hunger for love, a hunger that will not satiate, a ravenous hunger for intimacy. All combined with an almost hysterical fear of getting too close because yet another rejection is almost too painful to bear. I realised I’d cultivated an illusion of self-sufficiency. Friendship was meant to be a place I sought care and understanding from but I’d been recreating many of the unhealthy dynamics I’d seen and experienced growing up.
Solitude had felt rational and controlled, a carefully constructed, tight box filled with habits and routines that created an illusion of efficient self-sufficiency
When I confronted my friend with my feelings of hurt, I had already decided to forgive her. I wanted the space to express how I had felt wronged, and have that acknowledged and experience acceptance. At first, we had a productive conversation where she heard me out and apologised, but then things took a turn. After her apology she launched into the ways she’d felt hurt, by my waiting for a few days before talking to her as well as other ways she’d felt hurt by me throughout our friendship.
Her barbed comments, directly after her apology, left me speechless. I’d never seen this side to her. I immediately shut down and asked to talk at another time.
Even in the moment, I knew she was scared of hurting me or potentially losing our friendship. I know that I exude an energy that can make people fearful of my displeasure. It’s as though I am just waiting to push people out. I even related to what she was doing; we all have an inner protector. Mine is a lawyer adept at winning the argument, settling a score, with scintillating intelligence and cool rationale. I know this.
And yet…no matter how hard I try to be even-handed and understanding, things were said that were so hurtful it made me question if our friendship had ever been real. And I’m still struggling with the desire to distance myself forever.
I felt abandoned. Solitude had felt rational and controlled, a carefully constructed, tight box filled with habits and routines that created an illusion of efficient self-sufficiency; a dedication to discipline and work, an aversion to talking outside of appointed times, a tendency to expect to be reached out to but never reaching out myself. I was safe in solitude.
But now, in this new place, I was not safe. There was the pandemic, that had destabilised everything, including my internal sense of equilibrium. And now this argument…Both made me feel like there was no one there to hold me.
French philosopher Jacques Derrida was fascinated by Aristotle’s apparently paradoxical statement ‘my friend, there are no friends’. During lockdown, as the weeks turned to months, I felt like my friend and I were repeating this phrase over and over. It was as though we were exploring what would happen if either of us truly abandoned the other (.i.e. what would happen if either of us died). There are multiple ways to interpret Aristotle’s phrase. One way is to consider how friendship always contains the chance for betrayal that causes it to breakdown. And betrayal doesn’t necessarily have to look like being spoken ill of. It can look like a friend moving away, having children, getting a romantic partner or a new job, etcetera. All of these can feel like betrayal, like abandonment.
Derrida found the paradox of Aristotle’s phrase compelling for a different reason. He felt it reaches a deep truth that people usually face towards the end of their life: as friends pass away you are tasked with living on, tasked to live on with ghosts, with memories. In this way, friendship is inherently tied to both mourning and justice. ‘Will you remember me?’ is a question that lies beneath all friendship. For Derrida, friendships are transformative precisely because they force us to face how we will be remembered when we are gone.
My friends, there are no friends…As we mourn our former lives, we usher a rebirth. How will we proceed differently? How do I think about my personal abandonments in a collective sense? How do I imbue it with purpose, with politics? Our world needs more right now than the sad words of a lonely woman living on her own, feeling abandoned in relative comfort. Then what does it need? How do we honour each death at a time when death is everywhere? What walls do we build internally and externally that support oppressive structures? Even though our lives and relationships are messy and complicated, an examination of our inner selves, our patterns and prejudices, has to happen at some point. And if not now, when?
Pandemics create peculiar forms of abandonment, ones that are especially cruel because of how everyday death becomes. A number count that rolls on impervious to our tears, our grief. It was already a fight to keep each life precious, to affirm that each death was felt and mattered. We can consider the pandemic a pause, an interruption, of memory making, because in many ways it is. We weren’t eating together, meeting our friends and family. But in reality this only highlighted existing inequality. The pandemic doesn’t force us to contend with death in the abstract; it exposes the inequalities of who is dying, who is suffering and the drastic differences between different demographic groups. It forces us to remember death through the framework of structural inequality, through class, race, gender, disability, sexuality, through our bodies and lived experiences.
Witnessing death made me think about how we look at Black lives through the matrix of white supremacy. Who is mourned and who is memorialised? When we look at the protests, consider how much of the rage, grief and energy emerges from the injustice of being abandoned and oppressed by legal systems, by fellow citizens, by history. What kinds of friendships we would like is intimately tied to what kind of society we would like to live in. This is not simply because friendships built on a foundation of mutual care will lead to a more caring society, but in our desire to be remembered favourably by our friends, we will want to build our own lives around principles of generosity, love and joy.
…smart people are often really good at talking about stuff that they’re actually not willing to do. Rationalising emotions rather than actually feeling them, letting people go rather than letting people get too close.
I’m aware that these are worthy ideals. And that our reality is filled with confusing emotions, complex traumas and contradictory demands. At the heart of my dilemma is how hard it is not to walk away from someone who has the capacity to break my heart. I’d never thought of myself as fearful of intimacy. If anything, I’d considered myself a connoisseur of closeness. I prided myself for my capacity for vulnerability and emotional availability. I’m smart. I can talk endlessly about emotions and tie it neatly to grand schemas, structural inequality and institutional processes. And I’m surrounded by other very smart people, the friend I fought with being one of them. But smart people are often really good at talking about stuff that they’re actually not willing to do. Rationalising emotions rather than actually feeling them, letting people go rather than letting people get too close.
But I am scared of intimacy, real intimacy. What I was doing before the pandemic now seems like a kind of pseudo-intimacy, pseudo-vulnerability, revealing myself only to boundary test, probing others and waiting for any sign that meant they weren’t worthy of my time and attention. I’d always been afraid of confrontation and avoided conflict as much as I could. I struggle to trust people and have a tendency to push people away before they can reject me.
To face loss again, to continue opening ourselves up to the possibility of hurt, takes courage. When you find the right person to talk to and experience acceptance, the feeling of being held lightly, it can be life changing. I made a decision to stop analysing and start feeling.
It’s really scary because it means opening myself up to the possibility of getting hurt. But this is a reckoning I must go through. I’ve been trying to make myself accountable for my tendency to push people away and examine patterns in my behaviour and others: Why were many of my former friends withholding? What do they fear? What do they fear in me? How have our childhood traumas impacted our relationships? Above all, how can I be a better friend?
It was against the backdrop of the pandemic that I fought with a friend. We agreed to have a meaningful conversation in person, whenever that might be. But, in writing this essay, I sent it to her and she edited with her usual generosity, kindness and gave me permission to be more honest with my portrayal of our disagreement. I was moved by this. It is in this spirit, of sharing honestly, that I hope this project will create a space where we will openly consider the different ways people have and have not been there for us, and what we have learned about ourselves and each other.
About Sumaya Kassim
Sumaya Kassim is a writer, curator and critic based in Birmingham, UK. She writes fiction and critical essays on art and culture and speaks regularly at universities, art galleries and museums about decolonising histories and the power of storytelling. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction project on autoimmunity as well as her first novel. She tweets @_SumayaKassim
This essay was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment – and sometimes a mixture of both. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced in particular during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented in television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until February 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.