The Abject Horror of Doctor Who’s Confession Dial

One of many things I love about Doctor Who is how no genre is off limits.  The horror genre being a favorite, they visit it’s themes, traits, and tropes often and with great effect.  Of allllllllllllllllll the creepy, freaky, unnerving, and haunting scenes I’ve seen play out in Doctor Who – episodes watched or novels read – one scares me more than any other.  One disturbs me to the very core of my being.  As far as I’m concerned, NOTHING in the history of this show is ANYWHERE NEAR as scary as “Heaven Sent” (S9E11).  Recently I read a post Gemma wrote over on Books Beach Bunny titled, “Blogging Confessions: Fear” and it reminded me I had an idea for a post about this episode over the summer…an idea I presume I promptly forgot because it would take me places I’d rather not visit.  But, inspired by the courage of her confessional piece, I decided to tackle it.  And hey, what’s October for if not scaaaaaaaary things, right?

“Heaven Sent” begins in the moments immediately after the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), powerless to stop it, watches Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) die in an act of self-sacrifice.  The events that led to her death were orchestrated by Me (Maisie Williams), an immortal who, to protect the alien refugees in her charge, cut a deal to get the Doctor’s confession dial – a small device designed to allow a Time Lord to face the demons of their past as part of a ritual act of purification before their final death.  The dial procured, the Doctor, barely containing his rage, is teleported away.     

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The Doctor looks on, helplessly, as Clara gives her life to save a friend on Trap Street. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Doctor emerges from the teleporter in a deserted castle.  Mist covers the ground below and heavy clouds hang in the air above.  Monitors are mounted all over the castle.  He is impatient, edgy, spoiling for a fight.  “C’mon!  Chop, chop!” he shouts.  “The Doctor will see you now!  Show me what you’ve got!  I just watched my best friend die in agony, my day can’t get any worse.  Let’s see what we can do about yours.”  Wandering through the castle he sees a shrouded figure watching him from across a mist-covered expanse.  As they stare at each other, the Doctor notices the monitors show him what this figure is looking at.  Slowly stalking the Doctor through twisting halls, the closer it gets the more flies buzz through the air.  As it approaches the Doctor realizes, “I know you.  I’ve seen you before.”  When it corners him at a dead end, the Doctor admits, “I can’t actually see a way out of this.  Finally run out of corridor – there’s a life summed up.  Now this is new.  I’m scared.  I just realized that.  I’m actually scared of dying.”

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The Veil, the shrouded figure that stalks the Doctor through the castle. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

With that honest confession, the creature freezes and the castle shifts.  Taking advantage of this unexpected turn of events, the Doctor slips into a bedroom where he finds, among other things, an “old, very old, possibly very, very old” oil painting of Clara hanging about the hearth.  With the flies always preceding it, when the shrouded figure arrives again the Doctor understands why it was familiar, “When I was a very little boy there was an old lady who died.  They covered her in veils but it was a hot, sunny day and the flies came.  It gave me nightmares for years.  So, who’s been stealing my nightmares?  What am I here for?  You’ve known about me for a very long time, right?  So, what is it?  Is it a trap?  Is it a prison?  No!  Is it a torture chamber?  Am I right?”

Through the entire experience – running from the shrouded figure, exploring, trying to understand where he is, theorizing on how to get out and who has him here – the Doctor talks to Clara.  He sees her in his mind.  She stands with her back to him the entire time, writing to him on the TARDIS’ chalkboard.  He explains, “There’s a storeroom in your mind.  Lock the door and think.  This is my storeroom.  I always imagine that I’m back in my TARDIS, showing off, telling you how I escaped, making you laugh.  That’s what I’m doing right now…And I’m going to explain to you how I survived.  Can’t wait to hear what I say!  I’m nothing without an audience.”

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Photo Credit Doctor Who

Talking to Clara and continuing to move through the castle, the Doctor understands, “It’s following me.  Wherever I go, it’s tracking me.  Slowly though, scary lurching.  Scare.  These screens, everywhere, it’s showing me exactly where it is all the time.  How far it’s got.  How near.  Because it’s trying to scare me.  Putting its breath on my neck, that’s the point, that’s what it’s doing.  This is theatre!  It’s all about fear.  Working hypothesis: I’m in a fully automated haunted house, a mechanical maze.  It’s a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death.  And I’m trapped inside it.  Ha, [smiling] must be Christmas.”

The truth though is far more twisted.  The Doctor has been locked inside his own confession dial, his worst fears used to try and force him to confess what he knows about a creature, “the Hybrid,” prophesied to be the deadliest thing in creation.  Avoiding the shrouded figure all the while, eventually the Doctor finds a way out…behind a 20’ thick wall of Azbantium, which is four hundred times harder than diamond.  As the shrouded figure approaches the Doctor returns to the storeroom in his mind.  In frustration he says, “That’s when I remember!  Always then!  Always exactly then!  I can’t keep doing this Clara!  I can’t!  Why is it always me?!!?  Why is it never anybody else’s turn?!?  Can’t I just lose?  Just this once?  Easy.  It would be easy.  It would be so easy.  Just tell them.  Just tell, whoever wants to know, all about the hybrid.  I can’t keep doing this.  I can’t.  I can’t always do this.  It’s not fair!  Clara, it’s just not fair!  Why can’t I just lose??  But I can remember Clara.  You don’t understand.  I can remember it all.  Every time.  And you’ll still be gone.  Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.”  The Doctor realizes how long he’s been in this castle, alone and being hounded by his fear.  And his lamentation?  That resonates with me.  I’ve cried out similar sentiments often enough when life lands me on my knees weeping in frustration, exhaustion, and fear.

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The Doctor, in the storeroom of his mind, alone and despairing. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

In his moment of despair, Clara speaks for the first time.  She turns towards the Doctor and, placing her hand on his face, Clara says, “Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone.  It’s the story of everybody.  Get over it.  Beat it.  Break free.  Doctor, it’s time.  Get up, off your ass, and win.”

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Clara turns towards the Doctor. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Inspired, the Doctor refuses to reveal what he knows about the hybrid.  Instead, he begins to physically hit the Azbantium with his fist.  The shrouded figure arrives, finally touching him, and the resulting injuries leave the Doctor too wounded to regenerate.  On the cusp of death, he crawls back to the teleport room, knowing a perfect copy of himself exists within the machine.  He hooks himself up to the machine, burning himself alive to generate the energy needed to turn it on.  And as he dies, a new version of himself is teleported in.  The Doctor continues this process endlessly, for four and a half billion years, until he’s able to smash through the 20’ wall of Azbantium.

When I first watched this episode (as well as it’s second part, “Hell Bent”), I hated it.  I thought it was terrible.  I thought it was confusing and complicated and it made no sense.  I had no desire to watch it again (which is the exact opposite of my reaction to everything Doctor Who).  Unconsciously, I think it partially put me off the Twelfth Doctor.  However, this summer I found myself revisiting Peter Capaldi’s time as the Doctor and I realized I absolutely adore him!  I also realized “Heaven Sent” is so damn brilliant.  Watching the episode again, after having been in therapy for over a year, I understood my initial reaction to “Heaven Sent” had nothing to do with the episode itself.  Rather, it had everything to do with what it touched in me.

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The Doctor explores the castle. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

I am a hyperverbal extrovert by nature and I live deeply within my relationships.  Through regular phone calls, texts, emails, FaceTime, and all the like, I work very hard to be sure those I am closest to who live out of town are as present in my life as those who I see in person every day.  My time in therapy has shown me, with new depth and clarity, how important my relationships are to me.  On that note, one of the most fascinating things I’ve learned about myself in therapy is I have serious abandonment issues.

When my therapist told me this I was shocked!  I’ve always felt blessed to have my loving natural supports as a central part of my life.  But, as Katherine explained it to me, despite all these beautiful relationships I’ve had several very close friends abandon me over the years.  In each of these instances they were there…and then they were gone.  After years of being a regular, loving, trusted part of each other’s lives they just disappeared.  It was traumatic.  All of a sudden calls and texts weren’t returned with nothing said.  No explanation was given or, in one case, a weak rationale offered.  I’m not sure which was harder.  In each instance I tried for about a year to keep the friendship alive, calling or texting or emailing at least once a month, because they were important to me and I don’t give up easily on those I love.  But eventually it becomes masochistic to keep trying.

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The Doctor dines alone. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

This left behind “a nexus of wounds,” to use Katherine’s phrasing.  Because of this, distance – real or perceived – in my relationships is a trauma trigger.  Feeling like I’m drifting further/apart from those I love sends up all sorts of red flags.  My mind goes, “Hey!  We’ve been hurt terribly like this before!  This feels similar so you have to get your shit together or we’re going to experience that pain again!  Be careful!”  All this is to say what the Doctor experienced, being trapped alone inside that confession dial – conversing with the memory of a friend forever lost to him – is a nightmare unlike any I could ever imagine.  It is my literal definition of hell.  If hell is real, that’s what would be waiting for me there – alone, forever, with all those I love lost to me.

I remember being at dinner with a friend once and, as conversation turned to the past, we told tales of break-ups and losing old friends.  Once she’d listened to me tell the stories of my losses she quietly asked, “What makes it so easy for people to leave you?”  There was no malice or sarcasm behind her words.  Rather, they came from a place of sadness and concern at the losses I’d seen.  Still those ten little words cut deeply.  They hit something real and something painful and they’ve haunted me in a way nothing else ever has. 

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The Doctor, alone, speaks to Clara in the storeroom of his mind. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

This is why I hated the episode at first!  I couldn’t watch the Doctor go though this!  Thinking of the Doctor being trapped alone for FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS was a major trauma trigger.  I couldn’t watch without considering and contemplating and internalizing this.  So I get, now, why I initially hated this episode.  It tapped into raw fear, very real personal trauma, and opened deep wounds I’d not yet acknowledged, owned, or dealt with.

Watching this episode again, after being in therapy, I was able to appreciate it’s brilliance.  And I wanted to write about that connection buuuuuuuuuuut then I quickly forgot the idea because, I’d wager, I didn’t want to examine this any closer.  Then I read Gemma’s post.  I was impressed by how open she was and how many fears she explored in her writing.  So I decided to try and do the same.  And I decided to try and push myself, to not just write about the abandonment issue and how the Doctor’s isolation scares and affects me, but to try and go deeper.

If I was in the Doctor’s place, if I was trapped in this inescapable castle maze with all my greatest fears constantly chasing me, always closing in, what fears would I find waiting for me?  What would be lurking inside my own confession dial?

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Hell yes, I’m scared of clowns (and don’t even get me started on mice and rats).  But the confession dial goes deeper than that.  They aren’t my greatest fears.  They don’t touch the core of me nor shape all of who I am.

The flies which constantly buzz around the Doctor as he navigates the castle, in whatever form they’d take for me, would have to be my limitations.  Limitations are natural and knowing and respecting them are essential to living a healthy life.  Yet so often I find myself thinking of that scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred advises Bruce, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.”  Bruce replies, “Batman has no limits.”  Alfred rightly replies, “Well you do, sir.”  To which Bruce says, “Well, I can’t afford to know ‘em.”  I have this conversation with myself ALL THE TIME.

I don’t want to see my own limits.  In fact, I wish they didn’t exist.  All I can’t carry on my shoulders, all I can’t hold, all I can’t heal for those I love feels like a failure.  Because of my limitations, I feel I fail those I love.  I can’t help them.  They are knowing pain I can’t protect them from.  And that terrifies me.  So the constant, buzzing reminder of my limitations would have to be my version of the flies that are always circling the Doctor – scattered throughout the castle, sometimes I’m mindful of them and sometimes they’re just out of my perception, waiting to be noticed.

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The Doctor inspects the flies buzzing around him. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

My fear of my own limitations is writ large in a major experience of trauma that came during a formative time in my life, as I was becoming an adult, and as a result it shaped much of who I am.  One of my best friends became pregnant when we were in our early twenties.  We were always so close and, as a result, I naturally became very close with her son, too.  I learned how to change diapers and work a car seat and soothe young tears with him.  She was a single mom and they lived in the same town as me from when he was about three until he was seven and, due to the crazy and unpredictable nature of life, there was a time where my friend was living here with her son and working in another state – with weeks at home and weeks at work.  When she was away, her son would often stay with me.  I’d pick him up from school, take him to religious ed., and we’d do homework, build forts, brush our teeth with lightsaber toothbrushes, and he’d climb in bed with me when he’d have nightmares. 

I don’t have children of my own but I can’t imagine I could love them more than I loved him.  I’ve never loved anyone like I love him.  My whole heart was his – parts I didn’t even realize I could give away.  For a lot of years the three of us were very close.  They were good years – some of the best of my life, in retrospect.  Ultimately, they’d move.  I tried to keep in contact.  I called.  I’d text.  I wanted to keep that relationship alive but they drifted away.  Eventually I stopped calling because it hurt too much to not hear back.  In the almost ten years since they left, you can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them.  What I’ve learned in therapy is just how traumatic this was for me. 

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The Doctor digs for answers. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Here was this beautiful, brilliant, perfect little human being and all of a sudden I was gone.  I was unable to love, care for, and protect him anymore.  As far as he knew, I was the one who disappeared.  When we opened all this up in therapy what I found in the depth of that wound was the resounding feeling that I failed.  He deserved better.  I wasn’t strong enough to carry the pain of so many unreturned calls so I abandoned him.  I should’ve been stronger.  But it was too hard for me so, for self-protection, I stopped trying.  I lost that connection because I wasn’t strong enough.  I failed.  And I’d just like him to know I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger.  I’m sorry I abandoned him.  I’m sorry I failed.  He deserved better.  I’m still haunted by my failure in losing him.            

This would be my oil painting.  For the Doctor, it was Clara.  He was unable to protect her.  He’d just seen his “best friend die in agony” and her picture hung above the mantle to haunt him.  For me, it would be this beautiful boy I loved so very much whom I failed.  I wasn’t strong enough to keep fighting to remain a presence in his life.  I should’ve been stronger.  With all the work on this we’ve done in therapy I know I didn’t fail because I had no control.  There was nothing else I could do.  But if I found myself trapped inside a confession-dial-turned-torture-chamber, I know it would pick at that all the same.  It would tear until this trauma was exposed again and that wound reopened. 

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

So, that just leaves us with the haunting, shrouded figure that would be slowly yet relentlessly pursuing me through the castle again and again and again and again for four and a half billion years until it either killed me again and again and again and again or I confessed.  What is my greatest fear?  What is my deepest trauma?  What is my most open wound?  Thanks to therapy, if I found myself trapped within a confession dial now, I’d no longer be surprised as to what this figure would be.  Writing this piece led to some fantastic conversations in therapy and some AMAZINGLY CATHARTIC sessions.  I now clearly know what shrouded being would be pursuing me through that never-ending maze of a castle.  I know the face it would wear under its hood.  I know the falling tears that would stain its cheeks.  And I know the feeling of absolute hopelessness it would leave in its wake, what would kill me in its touch.

I’m a confessional storyteller by nature.  I’ve just always been a very open person.  And I don’t know how to teach without stories.  That carries into my writing as well.  I’ve often thought about adding a “Cast of Characters” section to the “About” page of this blog so readers can put faces to the recurring names.  It’s just who I am.  But this experience, this fear is a story I’ve never told – not in its entirety anyway – to anyone but my therapist.  It’s mine and this one, this one story, I keep close to the vest.  Still, I appreciate it. This is part of me. To say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced is also to say it’s important. This has touched and shaped everything in my life. It has made me who I am and I have learned much from it. So while it hurt and it hurts and I’d prefer to never have to relive it, I love and appreciate it for all it’s taught me and how it’s shaped me.  All this is to say, I’m not going to share this story here.  I will describe the feelings in detail but the actual experience is for me alone.    


That’s what it was.  Once in my life I faced absolute hopelessness.  Everything in my life – everything I’ve read, everything I’ve watched, everything I’ve heard, everything I’ve studied, everything I believe and profess – has assured me that nothing is ever truly hopeless.  As I just quoted in my last post, “One thing that comes out of myths, for example, is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation.  The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come.  At the darkest moment, comes the light.”[1]  But I learned that isn’t always true.  Things can be truly hopeless.  Once I leapt into the abyss and found nothing waiting to catch me.

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The best way I can describe it is it was as though the light went out in my soul.  As someone who’s always taken his faith very seriously and who has spent his entire adult life studying and teaching theology, I don’t use that phrasing lightly.  But I made a choice and, in the wake of that choice, there was no purpose in life.  There was no meaning anymore.  I’d lost it, willingly.  I’d turned my back on it.  I’d given it up.  Even now, on the other side of it, I look back and the rest of me wants to say, “Now, that was just what it felt like.  That wasn’t true.  Look at us!  We survived!  Of course there was hope!”  But the knot that grows in the center of me when I think of it, that part of me that remembers knows that is a fanciful fiction, a story told to reassure me now, not the truth of what I lived then.  I would freely take feeling every heartbreak, every loss, every traumatic moment I’ve ever experienced a dozen times a day for the rest of my life as opposed to ever feeling that hopelessness again.  It was only with me for four days…but it has touched and shaped everything in my life since.  Those four days held an eternity of darkness, emptiness, and unrelenting pain.

And again, as I write this now, the rest of me wants to say, “That’s an exaggeration.  You wouldn’t really want to feel all your other pains, losses, heartaches, and traumas a dozen times a day over feeling that same hopelessness again.”  But I know that’s just another protective fiction. 

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The shrouded figure catches up to the Doctor. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

So that’s my greatest fear – that sense of hopelessness, that moment meaning was so completely stripped form life that the light went off in my soul – and that is what would be under that shroud, haunting and hunting me through the twisted maze of a castle inside my confession dial.  As I write, I have to make the conscious effort not to summon those feelings nor imagine them bearing down on me in a corridor with nothing but a brick wall at my back, reaching for me, threatening to consume me, leaving me to die in the inky blackness of true hopelessness.    

The idea of feeling/experiencing/seeing that hopelessness once more in my life is enough to literally bring me to my knees sobbing in fear.  Contemplating it, in fact, has.  The idea of my living alone with it incessantly hunting and killing me again and again and again for four and a half billion years is…it’s unimaginable.  I don’t think I could survive.  The Doctor has done many, many heroic things over the course of their 2,000+ years of life.  The Doctor has inspired hope in so many hopeless situations.  But, to me, everything else pales in comparison to the strength and courage he needed to survive inside that confession dial.  Pounding away at 20’ of Azbantium as your hand shatters until your worst fear kills you only to reboot the whole cycle for billions of years?

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The Doctor collapses in despair and exhaustion in front of the wall of Azbantium. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Doctor was right.  That is a torture chamber.  I don’t think I could handle it.  I don’t know that I’d survive.  As the Doctor tells Clara when he tries to rally the strength to go on, “I’m scared and I’m alone.  Alone.  And very, very scared.”  Because the Doctor’s the hero, of course he preservers.  But I don’t think I could.  I think it would break me.  I’d confess or die or both.  It would be a living nightmare, my own personal hell.

One of the things I love most about Doctor Who is how the show effuses hope.  In a time of so much darkness, both in our fictional stories and our real world, Doctor Who never ceases to show us our highest potential…and then be bold enough to affirm we’ll reach it, no matter what missteps we make along the way.  The first time I watched “Heaven Sent,” my own unrecognized deep fears and traumas kept me from seeing how brilliant this episode is let alone finding any hope in a story that felt so oppressive.  Watching it now though, I feel hope.

I feel hope because I can recognize how it affects me and why.  Those fears, traumas, and wounds are no longer hidden inside me.  And I feel hope because I’m working to heal them, too.  Despite those few friends whose losses have left a nexus of wounds behind, I am blessed with a loving circle of natural supports to stand by me in my life’s struggles and to celebrate my life’s joys.  And anyone who’s talked to me for more than fifteen minutes knows I’m in therapy and how central it’s become to my life :).  No matter what fears hound me, unlike the Doctor in his confession dial, I’m not facing them alone.  So I know I’ll always get through that Azbantium wall because I don’t have to chip away at it by myself.  Realizing that, “Heaven Sent” can’t haunt me as it once did.  With loving natural supports (and all the beauty, power, insight, and strength that comes with regular therapy!) there’s always help and there’s always hope waiting to meet the fear.

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We must always be mindful of – and thankful for – the ones in our lives who don’t just give us strength and inspire us but who also stand beside us in all our struggles and help us face all we fear, just as Clara did with the Doctor. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

As I discuss in this piece, therapy is an invaluable part of my life.  Katherine was there to help save me when I desperately needed it and I’ve only grown stronger, healthier, and happier since our work together began.  I’ve learned, therapy is not just for “triage” and some of the most amazing growth comes when you’re “feeling alright.”  If you’ve ever considered therapy or if therapy feels like something you need or even something you’d just like to try, I offer this link to Psychology Today so you can browse detailed listings of mental health professionals in the U.S. and all over the world :).

[1] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.  (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 46.

9 thoughts on “The Abject Horror of Doctor Who’s Confession Dial

  1. This was such a moving, personal post! And, to an extent, I can relate. I, too, value my friendships very closely and I will keep on writing/calling/emailing people for a year after they cease contact with me. I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years and it always hurts. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that these broken relationships are not a comment on me or my friendship. Rather, I think they reveal more about what the other person believes about the nature of friendship.

    My friendships pretty regularly break up after one of us moves on–to a different job, to a different state, to a different stage of life. For some people, I think friendship is primarily about convenience and proximity. We have great times when we’re able to see each other all the time, but, once that’s gone, they move on relatively quickly–usually once they’ve had enough time to establish friendships with other people in their new stage of life.

    This can make me feel pretty bad. Here I thought we had this wonderful relationship where we understood each other on a deep level and would always have each other’s backs, and then I come to realize that I’ve been replaced just because I’m no longer in proximity! Was I NOTHING to them? Would they have hung out with literally anyone who happened to Be in proximity? It’s hurtful, yeah.

    Additionally, I feel pretty used by some of my friends who have this tendency to bounce back to me only when things aren’t going well for them. Like they’re happy to hang out with other people until those people are no longer in their lives, and then suddenly they’re calling me up again because they’ve got no one else. I’m their last resort friend because they KNOW I’m a loyal friend and I’ll still answer the call when no one else will.

    My point is, there’s nothing about YOU that makes people leave you. People leave because they don’t share your understanding of what true friendship is. For a lot of people, I think friendship is just having someone to go to the movies with or something so they can have a good time, but they’re not going much deeper than that. If they find other people who can fill that gap–a new boyfriend, new coworkers, whatever–and those people seem more convenient, they’ll move on. And they’ll do it to everyone they’re friends with, not just you.

    I’m still learning to deal with this by trying to let people go. I don’t enjoy being the last resort friend, like I’m only good enough to hang out with when there’s no one else. So my goal this year has been to try to stay less in touch with the people who do this to me. Maybe we’ll be on Christmas card sending terms, but I don’t see why I should write and call regularly when my efforts are barely acknowledged. It’s not fair to me (or you) to be in a one-way relationship. And I like to think there are still people out there who value deep, lifelong friendships, so I’d rather spend my time and effort trying to find them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so, so much for such a beautiful comment Krysta. It rings with support and validation. That means so much and I’m receiving all of it. Thank you.

      Reading this, and what you’ve shared with your own experiences in less-than-mutual friendships, it feels like many of your examples came right from past journal entries of mine.

      When you say, “My point is, there’s nothing about YOU that makes people leave you. People leave because they don’t share your understanding of what true friendship is” I get it. You’re completely right. But, when I say I get it…I may get it intellectually but that’s different than always understanding it in an emotional way that resonates in the core of your self. You know? So I so appreciate your reminder. I need to hear this and it’s something I need to be mindful of. Thank you.

      When I read through your comment I found myself saying, “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” after all of your points. But I do want to speak directly to what you said about feeling used in friendships. It made me think of ‘Elizabethtown’ (the movie not the city). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but there’s a scene where Kristen Dunst tells Orlando Bloom that they are “substitute people,” filling in for others when they need them, before they move on. I’ve always felt like that was me…even when I wished it wasn’t. But that’s a role I feel I’ve played often and I’ve struggled at times over the years to figure out how to not be that person.

      So, in that regard and just in general, I am absolutely taking your closing points – about learning to let go, mindfully staying less in touch with those who don’t mirror my efforts, and seeking out relationships with people “who value deep, lifelong friendships” as I do – into therapy with me. Because those are ALL goals I’d like to work on for myself.

      So thank you for all of this – the validation, the solidarity, the reciprocated honesty and openness. Writing this piece was such a cathartic experience but it’s also…a lot to share and put out there. So being met with this after I’ve done so means the world :). Thank you.


      1. I can definitely relate to understanding something intellectually, but not emotionally. It is still difficult for me not to be that “substitute person.” Even when I’ve been burned time and again by past friends, when they come calling, I want to be there for them. After all, isn’t that what nice, kind people do? They are there when others need them? Intellectually, I know that going down that path is just going to end up with me feeling used and hurt again, but I somehow still feel like I owe it to our past friendship. It’s an ongoing journey, but maybe one a lot of us are on together, based on the comments here.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve found a lot of strength in the solidarity of the comments here. I wasn’t expecting that at all when I wrote the post but it’s certainly been an unintended blessing. Even while I may not know how to fix these issues there is great strength and comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this and that, as you say, many of us are going through these sorts of struggles together.

        Again, reading your comment I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh! Krysta’s quoting from my journals!” ‘Elizabethtown’ came out in 2005 and I identified with the “substitute person” immediately. I knew that was me. That was my role in so many relationships. But I also knew I really didn’t want to be that person…yet here we are, fifteen years later, and I still often am. Because you’re right! I can recognize I’ll end up “feeling used and hurt” but I do it anyway because “that [is] what nice, kind people do” and because I feel “I owe it to our past friendship.” I’ve had this exact conversation with myself so, so many times! And when I try to reframe that “owing” with a “what I, too, deserve” in a friendship, I almost always hit an emotional wall of selfishness and/or guilt which stops me. So recognizing what I deserve in a friendship and trying to own and voice that is something I’m trying to learn to do. It’s hard and I fail more than I succeed. But I’m hopeful, in time, I can get better at it.


  2. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt post! I can really understand and relate to how you feel. I also really value the honesty, insight and strength you’ve shown in sharing all of this.

    I have experienced hopelessness before too. My confession dial comes when my autism and lack of social understanding lead people to seriously misunderstand me and accused me of things I would *never ever* do and I don’t have the social understanding or people skills to do anything about

    In fiction that sense of hopelessness comes up when Harry Potter is accused of being an evil, selfish, liar in Order of the Phoenix. Unlike Harry, I don’t have a friend like Dumbledore and I’m not able to speak up for myself when situations get too complicated. In the past I have found myself accepting punishment for things I haven’t done because there’s nothing else I can do. But the worst situation of all, the bottom of the pit for me, is when I begin to believe the things people are saying even though I know, factually, that they are false.

    I also find friendships really difficult. Like you I want very much to have real life-long friends, but my social skills often aren’t up to it and I need a lot of processing time to try to workout what to say and how to say it so I sometimes take days to reply to texts.

    Even here on WordPress it affects me. I was very moved by your post here today and would really like to be supportive to you, and explain how the way you shared your insight into your own traumas helped unlock understanding for me of my own issues but I don’t really know how to say all of that in the right way. Quite often I write all of this and then delete it and just say “thank you for a great post”. But since you were so honest I’m going to take a chance and post what I really feel.

    Thank you for what you wrote.

    (If any of this is socially wrong please just forget it and feel free to delete the comment if you want to – I won’t mind.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jo, thank you so much for your comment. For what it’s worth, I feel you said this all perfectly and I feel very heard, very validated, and very supported by you. That means so, so very much to me. And I hope I can offer you the same in my reply.

      Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly in your comment. I am as honored as I am humbled by it and I celebrate your own courage and strength in doing so.

      I like your use of Harry Potter as your analogy. Coincidentally enough, Order of the Phoenix has always been my favorite book…but it can be hard for me to read at times because of exactly what you describe. Journeying with Harry through that experience takes an emotional toll, even if he triumphs in the end. And, as you point out, in real life we don’t always have the wise and powerful wizard mentor or the calvary riding in to help us at the last moment. And that sense of isolation in our struggles can be a heavy burden to try and carry.

      I so appreciate the honesty with which you describe the bottom of the pit for you. And, in my own way, I empathize with you. I’ve had moments of despair like that myself, seeing myself inaccurately through the eyes of others. It can be so hard not to internalize those things about ourselves even when we know they’re false.

      I want to thank you, too, Jo for what you wrote. Thank you for taking the chance and posting what you really feel. It means more than I can say. Please know my love, prayers, and support are always with you and know how deeply I appreciate all of the same which I’ve always felt offered back to me from you :).


  3. Although I was aware of some of your post in advance, how you framed it before and after was beautiful and heartfelt. I too am a loyal friend who gives more than I receive at times. I have had friendships end with little to no warning, and being the person I am, I blame myself and wonder what is wrong with me for that to happen. In the last few years, I have been better at accepting that some people are flawed, and it is their issue, not mine when a friendship cools or ends. I also think in our disposable world, with people moving more than they did a few generations ago, friendships become more temporary. I’ve had family members comment to me on how many friendships I have maintained over the years, but it takes work on my end. Authentic friendships are worth it, but sometimes hurt goes hand in hand with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Nancy. I feel so much loving solidarity and support in your comment. That means so much, especially with a post whose topic left me feeling more open/vulnerable in my writing than usual.

      I’d like to think I’m getting a bit better at letting friendships that are no longer functioning in a healthy way go, too…but that isn’t to say it’s not a difficult struggle every time, too. And maintaining an authentic friendship like that is hard work! Mentioning your family’s comments made me remember Matthew once commenting something similar to me, as he watched me type out several lengthy emails over the course of an inservice day of ours. I think of the time I spend in the car talking on the phone instead of listening to music or podcasts or what have you or those emails written over work days or inservices or evenings. It’s worth it, but it is work. And when that isn’t returned, or when it is returned only to then fade away or suddenly snap out of existence, that’s a hard blow to take.

      Liked by 1 person

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