Recently I had to say goodbye to a friend I love dearly.
I don’t make a habit of saying goodbye to friends. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that in my life. I’m loyal to my very core, so once you’re in my life, you’re pretty much in it for good. But things with this friend had escalated to a point where they were no longer sustainable.
She is an addict who is unwilling to confront her addiction, and worse than that, I’m an addict—addicted to pleasing people and “saving” and to cleaning up messes.
So for a time, she and I were the perfect fit.
Her with the messes, me with the needing to clean them.
The only problem was I was ready to change.
So we had a conversation where we both cried and she tried to understand. Of course, she couldn’t understand. She couldn’t understand how much I loved her. She couldn’t understand why on earth—if I loved her as much as I said I did—I would leave her to herself.
She made sweeping, dramatic promises to change—something she had done thousands of times before. I wanted to believe her.
But I had been around this merry-go-round before.
This was not my first spin cycle.
So, with barely enough confidence to get the words out, I told her I couldn’t do it.
I needed out.
And I spent the entire rest of the day crying and thinking about how painful this whole thing was, what a terrible struggle it was to watch someone you love so deeply self-destruct and how I wished it could be different. At one point—right on schedule for my little co-dependent heart—I began to question everything.
Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe I was being under-supportive. Maybe I was expecting too much.
So I called a friend to get some advice.
On the phone, my friend told me that I most definitely was not over-reacting or under-supporting and that I was doing exactly what I needed to do—that this was me doing my part.
She also said something that has really helped me to be at peace with my choice ever since I made it. She said:
There are two kinds of struggle in life.
The first kind of struggle was the one I was experiencing right then. She called it The Work. The Work is the painful process of growing and changing, the decision to do things differently than we’ve done them before. The Work is not easy—as was clear from the entire box of tissues lying crumpled in heaps all over my living room floor.
But The Work was a good, good struggle.
A really amazing, important, undeniably meaningful struggle.
The other kind of struggle, she said, was the struggle I had been in with this friend for as long as I had known her, not to mention the dozens of other relationships I had been in like this one. The promises to change. The soar of hope. The incredible gift of energy and time and compassion and grace… and the inevitable crash on the other side.
The other struggle was this terrifyingly familiar roller-coaster of a thing. She asked if I wanted to go on that ride one more time.
I couldn’t, I told her, crying.
Then you have chosen your struggle, she said.
On the one hand, this should be an easy decision… right?
But of course it’s not. As heartbreaking as that roller-coaster struggle is, it is also, at the same time, stupidly familiar. For those of us who have been on this ride, more than once, we know exactly what to expect. It’s safe. It’s “normal”. It’s all we know. No wonder we have been choosing that terribly unproductive kind of struggle for YEARS.
For our whole lives.
The struggle of The Work is no less terrifying or painful. In fact, maybe more terrifying, in a way, because it is so new to us.
But it is productive. It is meaningful. It is the only way forward.
None of us get through this life without struggle.
That is the terrible and also miraculous thing about the time we spend here on this planet. Struggle is inevitable. But the great news, I am coming to believe, is that we get to choose what kind of struggle we would like to have.
We can choose the same old struggle—our addictions, compulsions, old bad habits and patterns, relationships that aren’t good for us, people and jobs and situations that make us feel terrible about ourselves.
We can stay on that same old spin-cycle.
Or, we can choose a different struggle. A new struggle. Our own inner-work. A more terrifying but also more satisfying kind of inner-battle.
We can find a new way forward.