I've Been A Toxic Person, And I'm Trying To Be Better

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I’ve been a toxic person. I know that. I am not perfect, and I have not always been perfect. I’m forty years old and still maturing, so while I know I’ve been less perfect in the past, I still have a long way to go. I do my absolute best never to be a toxic person. I don’t want to be a sucking ball of negativity; I don’t want to make people feel bad about themselves; I don’t want to hurt them.

But I have. And I’ve done it to people I care about a lot. So this Facebook meme really hit me in the feels:

Yeah, that about says it. I’m still growing up. I’m still figuring out where my wrongs are and slowly becoming better. But I’ve hurt people in the past, and I know it.

The First Step Is Admitting It

I’ll say it again: I’m forty and I don’t have my shit together. I’ve got a plane-full of baggage. But part of growing up is taking out that baggage and looking at it. I realized I needed more than psychiatric meds and found a trauma therapist. She’s helping me reorder my life’s narrative: what happened to me when and why. Why do I do the things I do? Where do my responses come from? I started to take responsibility for my life when I realized that I really wasn’t getting my shit together, and I needed to do that, like, stat.

And part of rewriting my narrative is not only realizing that I was traumatized, but also realizing yeah, I could be a bad person sometimes. Most of that came from my trauma. That explains the behavior. But it doesn’t excuse the behavior. I hurt people along the way. All of us hurt people along our journeys. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. At someone point, each one of us has been a toxic person to someone.

Admit it.

Understand Who You’ve Been A Toxic Person For

God, I’ve been a toxic person. I was horrible to my brother (then sister) when he called me at college and told me he’d come out as a lesbian to our parents. My mother had already called and railed about it. A consummate narcissist, my mother’s golden child momentarily became the scapegoat when he showed himself as less-than-perfect (because, of course, “lesbian daughter” didn’t fit my mother’s image of perfection). I was scared of my mother, scared for my brother, scared my dad would call me next, and wanted the whole goddamn thing to end.

So I fell for my mother’s triangulation. That does not excuse what I did. It only explains why when my brother called, I reamed him out. Why couldn’t you have waited for college? Did you have to tell them now? Do you know what shit I just had to hear from Mom about this?

My brother had just done one of the scariest things in his life. He deserved someone to say, “I care, and I’m sorry they’re horrible.” Despite our very fraught relationship, despite our differences, despite the ways our parents pitted us against each other, I should have handed him that. I had gay friends I cared deeply for. I wasn’t an idiot: I knew what homophobia looked like. But I was still that toxic person for my brother. I own it. I’d tell him, but he hates me now.

I know that moment plays a part. And while a lot of my brother’s dislike is misearned, there’s a lot of crossed wire and misunderstandings there, that is not one of them.

I Was A Toxic Person To Kids Who Wanted Acceptance

I could be a real bitch in college. I was too weird to be an archetypal mean girl, but I also lived in a artsy dorm where weird was king, so I was elected prom queen. That’s some serious mean girl bonafides. I had a lot of friends — and by “friend,” I mean “person I hung out with,” not “person I could depend on.”

One of my greatest regrets of college: I was a mean girl to K and H.

Before we understood that autism exists on a spectrum from nonfunctional to functional but non-neurotypical, before we knew the word “neurotypical,” let alone its opposite, before we understood the concept of making space for the non-neurotypical, K. had high-functioning autism. They identify as autistic now. But none of us understood that K. and H.’s sometimes loud voices, their obsessions, and their tendency to blurt out things — these were all expression of their autism.

That does not excuse me being a toxic person to them. I’m offering an explanation, but that explanation in no way mitigates my culpability for making them feel less than in a hundred little ways. H. was bullied so badly by other students that he died by suicide. I share some blame in that bullying. I was one of the toxic people that made him feel he wasn’t worth living. His death slammed me. I knew immediately, despite my incredible emotional immaturity: I helped that.

K. is now a dear friend of mine. They’ve been kind enough to forgive me. I don’t know what the fuck I did to deserve it. Maybe they knew all along that my severe ADHD and their ADHD and autism gave us a lot in common. Maybe they were willing to see past my toxic behavior to a person capable of kindness. Maybe when we both really needed kindness, and we were there for each other, that was enough. I’ll never know.

But I’m so grateful they’ve forgiven me. And I’m so grateful for their friendship, in ways that they’ll probably never know.

These aren’t the only people I’ve been a toxic person for. But they’re some of them.

Own Your Toxic Behavior

Once you figure out how you’ve been a toxic person, you need to own it. It’s scary to know that people will read: I was a homophobic bitch to my brother. I was an ableist asshole to two kids, one of whom died by suicide because of bullying. I’ve laid a lot of things bare, but those are two of the scariest, and I do it not only to apologize, but also because I hope people will see those examples and think hard about their own behavior.

It’s important to realize who was toxic to us. We need to take stock of our lives and ask: Who adds joy and support? Who drags me down with their criticism or negativity? Who fills my bucket and who dumps it out? Who gives me spoons and who snatches them away? But we also need to look at the times we have dragged people down. When have we dumped other people’s buckets? When did we take their spoons away?

Then own your behavior and fucking apologize. It’s hard and it’s scary. You can only say, “I’m sorry.” You are not owed forgiveness. You are not owed an “It’s okay.” You can only live in certainty that you’ve done what you could. Growing up means realizing you can’t fix everything, and “sorry” doesn’t make it okay.

But “sorry” can help you grow. It might not heal a relationship. It doesn’t excuse behavior. But when you realize you’ve been a toxic person and apologized, you change. That apology isn’t just meant to help whoever you wronged.

It’s for you, too.

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