Sunday, April 25, 2010

At Arms Length

For a while now I have wanted to write about this particular topic and I haven't been able to get a handle on how to verbalize what I want to say. I've started it twice and abandoned it. I knew that something would happen at some point that would tell me EXACTLY how to handle this topic without forcing me to get too personal or too woeful about it. The event that finally got my creative juices flowing occurred when one of my friends told me that when we first met, she thought I hated her. My reaction to this news:




I've always been wary of women. Groups of women, talking about what women tend to talk about (all topics to which I generally have nothing to contribute) make me want to shrivel up and hide in some corner. I will gravitate to men in a group any day. The idea of a "girls night" bores me. It always has. One on one with one close friend is one thing but I will always prefer mixed company. I can't remember a time I didn't feel this way. I've always felt a lack of kinship with women. Especially new women. And I've always wondered why.

So in light of being recently told that I don't give off the most welcoming vibes on first meeting, I've done some reflection. I am going to tell one story to represent the MANY stories I could tell. And some of this story might be true, and some of it might be coloured with 24 elapsed years of additional life experience, and some of it might have elements of other stories I have chosen not to tell all mixed in. And of course, as always, it is my one sided version.  So, to begin, lets,


I spent a lot of time at the lake when I was a kid. I had a friend out there who was a year older than me and we were different from each other in many ways. I was a school geek and she was not. I loved to read everything I could get my hands on and she did not. She liked to cook and I definitely did not. She knew things and I was naive. But our parents were close enough to each other that their property was our property. Their stuff was our stuff. We borrowed back and forth regularly. My parents were her pseudo aunt and uncle as hers were to me. We were both water babies and sporty girls and she inspired me. I wanted to be able to do everything that she could do. She was just enough older and just enough more worldly that I wanted to BE her. I copied her openly. We had our own little world out there and we played well together. We told each other we were "best" friends but she lived in one town and I lived in another for the majority of the year so, really, we were actually seasonal and weekend best friends.

Being a year apart is not much of an age gap. We are actually a year and 3.5 months apart to be exact. But there comes a time in girls' development when that one year turns into about 5 years in terms of psychological and physiological maturity. I'm going to say that in this case, it started when she was 12 and I was 11. We were good with each other one on one even at that age, but that all changed when she brought friends from her real life into the mix.

Most of her friends that she brought down to the lake were really cool and just as fun as her but there was one that I could never figure out. I will call her Ruth-Ann.  Ruth-Ann was constantly pulling my lake friend over and whispering stuff in her ear or dragging her around some corner to tell her something and then never letting me in on the secret. One day we were all together playing some game or having some conversation in the guest cabin and out of no where Ruth-Ann pipes up, "Kim, I think I hear your mother calling you."

"What? Really? I don't," said I.

"I heard her too," said my Lake Friend. "You better go check it out."

"Oh. OK."  I didn't want to leave. I loved being with this person. She was my childhood idol. It was the best thing about being out at the lake.

So I ran through the worn paths between our cottages, I knew them so well I could walk them barefoot without a flashlight in the pitch black. I was thinking I would be right back. I found my mother and asked her what she wanted and she said, Nothing. She hadn't been calling me. And I'm not sure who had the insight, whether I realized on my own, or if after a conversation with my mother she told me what had likely happened.

I didn't go back. There is nothing more disheartening in childhood than to realize that you've been hoodwinked into leaving because someone didn't want you around. I knew it wasn't my Lake Friend who didn't want me around. It was Ruth-Ann pulling the strings.

Sometime later, the same weekend or on some other occasion, Ruth-Ann apologized to me and said that she didn't really know me and she'd been nervous of me but now that she had spent some time with me she thought I was really cool and fun. And I was relieved and I accepted what she said at face value and I was just glad it was fixed.  

***Fast forward***

Me, age 13. Them age 14. We are on a boat on a lake. This time there are boys. Was I really allowed on a boat on a lake with no parents at age 13? We were experienced water kids and I'd (and they'd) been driving boats for years. The guy driving the boat is Ruth-Ann's boyfriend and he is sooooo cute. But I'm 13 and I am terrified of boys and it is 1984 and the big hair trend is just revving up and it is windy on the boat and my hair looks like crap and I am completely out of control with self-consciousness.

Ruth-Ann's boyfriend seems to like me. He talks to me A LOT. At least, a lot more than boys at school talk to me. And I talk back, shyly and politely. I'm thirteen. I'm self-conscious. Boys don't like me. Ruth-Ann glares and is rude every time she opens her mouth.

Or maybe I wasn't so shy and polite. There are things I know now about myself that I didn't know then. Could I have been flirting? If I was, I did it without knowing it. Did I even know what flirting was at 13?

***Fast Forward***

Me, age 15. Ruth-Ann age 16. We work together at a restaurant in the lake town. She doesn't work that often and she refuses to work night shift and she tells me in private, with superiority, that she could work night shift but she just gets her parents to say she can't so she doesn't have to. I think this makes her spoiled. We are sitting at the staff table and there are other staff around and a few adult staff including Lake Friend's mother, and Ruth-Ann is gushing over me. I have great hair, great clothes and a fast worker and she is so glad to be on shift with me and not with anyone else. I smile and I am glad for this because Ruth-Ann is actually a really nice person. But I haven't forgotten that day at the lake in the guest cabin when she lied and told me my mother was calling me. I don't trust her.

Thirty minutes later we are in the kitchen and we are alone. I say something friendly to Ruth-Ann. She snaps at me and is rude back. And this is how she treats me when no one is watching. She tells me I didn't do something right and I need to do it again. She criticizes me every chance she gets. She says she's sparing me from getting me in trouble because if she didn't tell me then she'd have to tell on me. The problem is that I could never see what was so wrong with what I'd done in the first place. I am stunned and flabbergasted by this audacious change and still I still prefer to believe in the version of Ruth-Ann that is sweet and charming when others are watching. But the REAL Ruth-Ann was alone with me in the kitchen.


I estimated once that it took me 7 years to warm up to women in my circle but once I warmed up you were in for life. I think now I've managed to narrow that gap. There was a period of time from about the end of high school until I began my spiral of catharsis while writing my novel and watching my marriage fall apart where I cannot think of a single woman that became a new close friend. That is about 16 years.

I came closest in nursing school as a student but once I started working, the atmosphere and experience of being a new grad only firmed up my stance on keeping women at arms length. Nursing in certain areas can breed this environment of continuous levelling and personal sabotage. And I don't know if I can talk about this. There has been a lot written about it as a problem in nursing and it goes by the name of horizontal or lateral violence or bullying. I met more Ruth-Ann's working in a hospital than anywhere else in my life. All I can say is I couldn't wait to get out. Sometimes I suspected it happened because I was more educated and a product of the university they despised and disrespected. And I was working on a Master's degree. It seemed that particular individuals were far nicer to me before they knew this information. It got to the point where I stopped telling people these things. Or maybe it was because I was smarter and more self confident. So being envious of that, they would exert their power over me with the one ounce of control they did have -- experience. I wasn't allowed to make newbie errors with some people. I wasn't allowed to have crazy days and leave things unfinished. And I wasn't allowed to ask for help. There were circumstances where I felt like I'd been set up to fail. I got yelled at in front of patients and other coworkers. It was only a handful of individuals but they were the ones that had me scrutinizing my schedule and losing sleep and dreading certain shifts. And I didn't become friends with anyone.

Everyone knows of someone who's suffered really bad heartbreak or went through a particularly tumultuous relationship with a crazy, difficult, or abusive person and they never allow themselves to get into another relationship again or, at the very least, never give themselves wholly and completely. Everybody seems to understand and excuse those that make that choice because of these experiences, I don't blame him, they say. But it is difficult to make people understand the roots of my reluctance to develop close friendships with women. I told one story, but it is definitely not the pinnacle story of stories that I could have told. Ruth-Ann was a minor blemish in my history of appalling and negative interactions with others of my gender.

I have learnt over time that women experience this kind of treatment from other women purely because of envy -- because you carry some unnamed X factor that the other person covets. They despise themselves and have no faith in their own gifts so instead of learning from you, they attack you and try and steal it away. Like the way Ruth-Ann thought I was stealing her best friend and then her boyfriend of which I was doing neither. But I guess she didn't like herself enough to be confident that our mutual friend could be friends with more than one person, or that her boyfriend was just being nice to the guest and would still be with her when I left. After all, reality was, I was a temporary problem. Soon I would be getting into the backseat of my parent's car and driving back to my own town where I had my own friends and my own teenage insecurities.

I have always been reluctant to believe that anyone could be envious of me, as if somehow thinking someone could be jealous of me speaks to my own arrogance and self-importance rather than acts as rationale for rotten unnecessary and hurtful behaviour. Jealousy is an interesting emotion. It's a taboo emotion. People would rather tell you they hate you than admit to being jealous.

And I'm not going to say all this from up on my high horse and then tell you I've never been jealous. I have been. And I'm sure I've been snide (my attitude of defence, I find), and perhaps occasionally snubbing. But I've never set anyone up, and I've never started rumors, and I've never tried to sabotage. I could never live with myself.

So if I seem aloof or difficult to access, its not you. I'm still feeling you out for Ruth-Ann-like traits. And I'm gonna scrutinize you for a long time before I decide you're safe. One of my best friends was my office mate for 5 years before I even had a significant conversation with her. And it happened because during one of my greatest moments of need, she looked at me and said, We should go for diner sometime. And we did. And I let her in. And its been beautiful.

And if I see any hint that you are not safe, rather than try and run the other way, as I should, I will probably go to great lengths to win you over. I'm a nurse after all. I am, by nature, and by career choice, a rescuer. I've been fooled too many times but I still have too much hope in the deep-down goodness of other people that when I see deliberate sabotage now, I still react with dropped-jaw naivety and feel blindsided and wounded. And I always walk away with the same thoughts. Is it me? Is it something I'm doing? Because I feel I have an above average track record in bringing out the green-eyed monster in other women and enduring all the back-stabbing goodness that goes along with that.

And I know I'm not the only one who's lived through things like this, but there have been many times when I felt like I was. So please, feel free to share your stories.


Kim D. said...

this is a very well written account of the main problem with women. Instead of embracing each other, supporting each other and lifting each other up, women do sabotage each other. The crazy thing is, if we all stopped doing it, we would realize that we all have similar stories to tell and that we could all be better helping each other.
Having only met you a few times, I would not characterize you as aloof. Maybe I have the added advantage of being married to one of your friends who thinks the world of you and therefore makes me like you instantly (and you have a great name!) If nothing else, I hope that you inpire some conversations and dialoge that will help others end this kind of behaviour and make things better for the daughters we're trying to raise.
I always found that the craziest thing is that becoming a mother, rather than pull women together, has become a competition. Since becoming a mother myself (3 years ago) I have experienced more issues with other mothers than I ever thought possible. Luckily for me, I was raised by a strong, independant mother and was surrounded by aunts and grandmothers who were also amazing.
Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...


I still have deep wounds in my back from previous co-workers

One I think is from jealousy. The receptionist at the time had been in the office for 4 years before I started and she was the office "favourite". Then I came along. I wasn't as funny, or as outgoing and extroverted, but I'm intelligent and a hard worker and it didn't take people long to realize how much I was capable of. I guess it also didn't help that I got sick of her BS one day and told her that she wasn't obligated to do a certain task and if it bothered her, she should stop doing it. I found out later she was taking newbies aside individually and telling them what a horrible person I was and accusing me of being my supervisor's "pet". If it wasn't for the fact that I knew she would be moving on soon, I would have left.

The other wound is from someone's insecurity, or she just may have been mentally unstable. We had an admin assistant who had to be the centre of attention at all costs. I'm not sure how she did it, but she managed to turn a good friend/co-worker of 8 years against me. Actually, I have a farily good idea how she did it but it's all conjecture. Her attitude was that people were either her friends or my friends, they couldn't be both. She couldn't stand it if another woman was liked better than her. Now that I think back...she couldn't stand it if A MAN liked another woman better than her. And, like you, being one of those women who gets along with, and can relate to, men better than women, she perceived me as a huge threat. Those were ugly, ugly times.

I know a few men who feel the same way about their own gender and prefer hanging around women because they can't stand the chest-pounding testosterone fest that occurs when a group of men get together.


Kim said...

Thanks Kim and Gail.
I will forever not understand women who behave like this. I would never dream of it.

Kim.. your husband was one of my best friends ever and I missed him terribly in the time he was out of my life. I'm am truely glad he found you and I know when I met you the first thing I told people was: she is an amazing person and could very easily be one of my friends. And I know what you mean about mothering. I simply just don't talk much with other mothers about my kids. And I definately don't judge them for wanting to do things differently than me. My life doesn't revolve around being a mother. I have an identity of my own beyond that. Also I know I'll likely raise them well, I was parented well and without dysfunction so I have a good base.

Gail. I didn't know who Annonymous would be but as I was reading I knew it was you. You and I have a lot of similarities personality wise and I am a true believer that women like us that are a little more outspoken and have a tougher exterior (which has nothing to do with the inside) get attacked more often by women of this type than fluffy shallow women who like to spend a lot of energy gossiping. You're friend of 8 years likely had her own issues if she was going to be swayed so easily. goodbye and good riddence. I have never had the same relationship with my "Lake Friend" that I did in childhood and a lot of it stems from the fact that she was so easily swayed by this friend I called Ruth-Ann and she condoned how Ruth-Ann worked to exclude me. There was a loss of trust in that relationship too and I definately idolized her less after that experience. Sad and unfortunate but not all friendships are meant to last for life. And how the hell is it that women like us land ourselves in female dominated profession. What was up with that choice???

Kim D. said...

Kim-(and anonymous)
It is interesting that you both ended up in female dominated professions.....maybe part of the lessons you have to teach is about this whole topic. Younger women need women like you to look up to and emulate and learn from.

Story Teller said...

Kim, thanks for posting about this. I've been through similar situations over and over again. In almost every work situation I've been in, at least one woman has decided to make me her sworn enemy for reasons unknown.

At my last job, three women ganged up to make my life miserable. The trouble began when I stopped going out for lunch with them because we didn't have much in common, instead opting for the company of my male co-worker and friend. Their response was to watch me like a hawk, and if I so much as was a minute late returning from lunch, they reported it to my supervisor.

They excluded me from office birthday parties so I was the only one to show up without a gift, snubbed me in the hallways, and generally made my life a living hell. Even worse, my male boss had no clue what was really going on, and assumed that since three people were complaining about me, their claims must be legitimate. Was I ever glad to leave that job!

At my current workplace, the enemy is a woman who unsuccessfully applied for my job. She's hated me from literally the moment I started working here.

Kim said...

I really have to figure out how to get emails when people comment on my posts...

Thanks for your story "story teller" (wink wink)....It does not surprise me that you would be one of THESE women who's been a target...

Ah yes... that is all too familiar. I told a relatively tame story in this blog.... my second novel, acutally, tells another story that I pull from my real life and that one was much much more damaging and is the kind of life experience that would make me carry around a blog like this to begin with.

Story Teller said...

Hopefully the reason you're "not surprised" isn't that I asked for it! :)

Kim said...

no! no!.... it just strikes me that you are a more testosterone based woman who likely can't tolerate the same cattiness that I can't tolerate. you KICKBOX for crying out loud...Of COURSE, you would rather do lunch with some of the guys from the office....

Story Teller said...

I'm not sure about my testosterone levels, but I clearly remember when I first opted for male company over female. It was in Grade Five, when the girls had a new "BFF" everyday, and they alternately loved you and discarded you for no apparent reason. In comparison, the guys seemed much more sane. And, in most cases, if you did have a falling out with a male friend, they tended to get over it quickly. Meanwhile, I've lost several female friends over simple arguments that easily could have been resolved. I hate the feminine tendency to be pissed off about something, hide it for a period of time, and then blow up over something unrelated--usually in a "safe" way, such as email or over the phone--after which they refuse to listen to anything you have to say. Who needs it?

There is a downside to having close male friends, however. They tend to disappear from your life the second they find a girlfriend or get married (usually because said gf or wife isn't comfortable with the friendship).

I loved the Sex & the City series, not so much for the clothes and the sex talk but for the idealized version of female friendship. I would dearly love to have three close girlfriends who get along well and who enjoy spending time together. But let's face it - in the real world, three of the women would spend their entire time talking about whichever one wasn't present. It seems to be a sad fact of life.

Kim said...

I think you are right about sex in the city... lol.

Yes you are right about friendships with guys. They tend to only work well when you are both single. And odds are one of you wants the other... I do believe When Harry Met Sally. I also have a male friend who blew up at me unexpectedly (like a woman) and I'm still baffled by it.

I'm sorta at the point now that I can tell within a few interactions with a female if she will be someone I can trust or if she will be someone I who will ultimately end up being jealous of me or feel threatened by me. And those people permenantly stay at arms length.