A Tug on the Threads Between Us

Part of 4 of in
By Cindy J. Huang
Photography by Hannah Villanueva
Feb 04, 2022 | 14 min read
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As a child, I learned that my tears and pain were hard for others to bear. My mother, a Chinese immigrant, didn’t know how to comfort me with all my big feelings. As any child does, I cried for her attention, was desperate for her time, craved being close to her. But in response, she would yell back at me, wanting me to stop making a scene, saying that I was bothering her and making her feel uncomfortable. There were consequences when I cried and shared my pain with her, and there were times when I feared that my mother would not want me anymore. As an adult, I learned to have compassion for my mother; she was alone at home taking care of my younger brother and me while my dad worked three different jobs, and she was tired. My mother couldn’t make space for my feelings because she wasn’t able to do that for herself, and perhaps she also didn’t get the comfort and reassurance she needed during that time. But I grew up not knowing how to trust others to care for my pain and sadness, fearing them leaving and no longer loving me. Throughout middle and high school, I tried my best to be bubbly, cheerful, fun to be around, easy to love. I stuffed my sadness deep, deep down and far away from other people, in exchange for keeping them close. 

A black and white photo of two spools of thread — the threads are loose and tangled.

After years of trying my best to keep my sadness under wraps, one day, I just started overflowing with sadness, and I could no longer keep the tears from coming out of me. My boyfriend at the time said very dismissive and degrading things to me when he was upset with me and saw my tears in response. His words reminded me of those that my mother used to say to me: People don’t like it when you act like that. Why do you cry so much? You make me feel (annoyed, angry, etc.) when you cry. I felt that I couldn’t tell anyone what he said to me in private—everyone seemed to like him, and I didn’t think people would be able to empathize with the hurt that I felt. So I did what I knew how to do best and, once again, stuffed my feelings deep, deep down to keep his love. 

When I finally mustered up the courage to end the relationship two years later, I was just starting my graduate program at Berkeley, and my body was feeling worn out from the pressure built up from years of stuffed feelings and stored-up tears. My body finally stopped holding its breath and exhaled, releasing the storm that it held behind closed doors and leaving behind chaos and disorder—nights of crying myself to sleep for no apparent reason, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, an inability to enjoy hanging out with friends, aimless walks and late night drives alone, dreading the need to wake up the next day just to go through the motions once again. I had never experienced such expansive, overwhelming sadness before, and I was afraid of what would happen if I were to share these feelings with those around me, trapping them in the debris of my pain that I longed to part ways with. I had already ingrained in my mind the words that my mother and ex-boyfriend probably meant to say to me: You’re too much for me, you’re too hard to love. In many ways, I thought I deserved this depressive aftermath post-breakup and had to stick it out on my own. The self-isolation only deepened my depression, and I was scared that I would never be able to get out of this dark pit that I thought I had dug myself into. 

During this depressive episode, Joy* was my biggest confidant. She was my best friend and one of the few people I grew to find solace in throughout our 14+ years of friendship. Though hesitant at first, I eased into the comfort and reassurance of this friendship by slowly bringing my feelings to the surface and sharing them with Joy over the years. I shared with her the things I learned about my depression through therapy, the ways that my early childhood experiences and family dynamics still affected me, and the regrets and guilt I felt about staying in a painful relationship longer than I should have. I felt free to express my true self with Joy, and I trusted her to hold space for my feelings, empathize with me, and not feel uncomfortable around me when I shared my pain with her. When I received really harsh feedback from my practicum supervisor that sent me in a negative spiral, Joy had sent a stack of index cards in the mail with words of encouragement and Bible verses to help me remember my strength, embrace the current season of my life, and continue to be unapologetically me. I held on tightly to her cards of encouragement to remind me to stay true to myself despite the hardships, feeling comforted by her support. She eventually moved to an apartment in San Francisco after I started full-time teaching, and I was so excited to have her close again in the Bay Area post-graduation. She told me that I could sleep over at her apartment if my home environment was too difficult to be around, and we made plans for the future (“We can be each other’s maid of honor!”) as if it was a no-brainer that we would always be in each other’s lives. I felt like Joy, my best friend, was the one person who knew best how to comfort and reassure me in my pain and vulnerability, in the way that I had always wanted and needed. 

Right around the same time when I was experiencing that depressive episode, Joy had started dating someone who I didn’t feel was treating her well or the way she deserved. When I shared my thoughts with her, she defended him, saying, He’s just going through a hard time. You don’t know him like I do. From what I understood, it seemed as though she excused him for the way he treated her because of his circumstances, when I felt that she deserved someone who could treat her kindly and respectfully, no matter his feelings or circumstances. 

I was also stunned by her response to me. You don’t know him like I do shoved a wedge between us, marking the space between where I stood and where she stood, next to him. It was probably one of the first times we didn’t see eye to eye about something, one of our first realizations of a significant difference in values. Whenever we found time to hang out between our teaching schedules, I felt the need to tread lightly whenever I asked her about her boyfriend and how they were doing. I wondered if she might’ve also felt the need to filter what she shared with me because of how I felt about him, perhaps wanting to present him in a more positive light to change my perceptions of him. I struggled with how to ask about this significant part of her life and provide support. I started questioning how to be a good friend to her, not knowing whether it was more hurtful to share my thoughts with her or to withhold them. 

A black and white photo of two spools of thread — they're tangled, but a pair of scissors is cutting them off at the top.

We both pulled back as she gradually spent more time with him, and I found other people to fill the space that she had previously held. We still hung out with the same group of friends, but the threads connecting us were thinning out as we spent less time together, just the two of us. I worried that I was slowly losing my best friend. Should I have even told her my honest feelings about the guy? Would it have been better if I had just trusted her judgment and not felt the need to provide my input? Something had shifted in our friendship. 

Joy and I were still navigating this tension when I moved to New York after a career change. One day, when I got to catch her on the phone after a series of missed calls and some scheduling conflicts, I had to ask her if something else was going on — something that I wasn’t aware of that made it difficult for her to connect with me. 

She paused; the crunching of leaves in the background had stopped. Then she said something along the lines of, Remember when you were having a hard time at Berkeley? 

Yeah, I said, it was right after the breakup. 

Well, she said, I knew that you were having a hard time, but you were just sharing so much of your pain, I didn’t know what to do. You cried a lot. I always saw you as a strong person, and when you were crying so much, it shattered the image I had of you. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. And I just felt, you know, burdened. It was a lot. And yes, I think our distance was also because of how you felt about my boyfriend, but I think it started before that. I just felt burdened. So I think that’s why I’ve needed space from you.

At that moment, I felt the threads connecting us suddenly snap. 

Immediately I found myself regressing into my child self, the child crying in front of my mother, desperately wanting to be comforted and held. When I thought I had found a safe space in Joy, it turned out that she had felt similarly to my mother—that my feelings were a lot, that they made it difficult for her to be around me. I thought of my child self, putting up a cheerful and bubbly facade, because I knew that it would keep others happy while I buried my own feelings and kept them hidden. Should I have kept that facade in front of Joy as well? If both my mother and my best friend felt burdened by my sadness, then surely no one else would be able to handle my feelings. It must be me, I thought. I must be the problem. 

I quietly cried on the phone, staring at the white wall in front of my desk as Joy explained how that experience of caring for me in my depression cast a shadow on our friendship and led her to not want to be around me, for fear of me being in that negative space again, and for her to feel helpless and burdened again. She said she didn’t know how to share those feelings with me earlier because I was in such a bad place, and she didn’t want to hurt me. 

I felt betrayed. I thought everything had been going well in our friendship for so long, up until the tension around her new boyfriend. She had been so supportive in one of the most difficult periods of my life, and I felt so loved and seen by her. Was this all a lie? Was our friendship now based on incomplete truth, lying by omission? For her to reveal that actually, all these years, it hadn’t been great for her, and she had felt burdened by me and my feelings, created in me a new fear — how will I ever know or trust for sure that things are going well in my relationships with other people, when I didn’t even know the full truth with my best friend, the one friendship that I thought I could count on to be consistent and stable? It felt like I was suddenly standing on shaky ground in all my friendships, with no real “truth” to hold onto for reassurance and security. 

I wiped my face, took a few deep breaths, and then, as calmly as I could, apologized for making her feel that way, thanked her for finally sharing with me her honest thoughts about the reasons for our distance, and told her I needed some time to think about everything she just shared. I hung up.

Depression has a way of framing my worst moments in my mind with negative thoughts that I’ve held onto about myself, my worth, and my lovability. I found an apt caption for that conversation as I filed it away in my memory: There really is no one who can handle your feelings. You really are too much.

Joy reached out a few times after that phone call to try to make amends. I tried my best to explain to her why what she shared was so painful to hear, especially years after the fact. She said she understood and wanted to commit to making our friendship work. But I knew something had shifted on my end; I no longer wanted to share all my feelings with her. She was eager to get us back to a happier place, but I realized I wasn’t ready to move forward as if nothing had happened. We texted intermittently and had phone calls here and there, but I no longer wanted to open up to her, unable to trust whether she was willing to or capable of holding space for my feelings. I found myself retreating from the friendship, not wanting to draw close to her anymore. 

Our last conversation happened around the beginning of 2020. She had sent me a handwritten letter for my birthday, knowing that I loved sentimental gifts, and she asked if we could be pen pals. We don’t even really text or talk on the phone much anymore; why do you think we’d have time to be pen pals? I knew that she was trying to reconnect in familiar ways, but I couldn’t keep pretending like our relationship hadn’t changed. I was angry that she wanted to push forward without acknowledging that I was still hurting, and I was frustrated that she couldn’t name this shift in our friendship and address it. I texted her thanking her for the letter, explaining that what she shared with me during that one phone call really hurt me, and we just aren’t close like we used to be anymore. I asked her about her thoughts and how she felt about our friendship, and I also gave her a way out if she didn’t want to respond to my text and continue the conversation. 

She didn’t respond.

I gave it time, but when I realized that she really wasn’t going to respond to my text, I sat with this sinking feeling of, this is really the end. The finality of her not responding and not continuing the conversation with me led me to believe that she was done with me and our friendship. It confirmed my worst fears — I was too much, unwanted, unlovable. 

While this was happening with Joy, I was trying to build up a new community from scratch in New York. I emailed various small groups from different churches, wanting to get plugged in right away. I dreaded having to open myself up to new people, not feeling solid ground to stand on even with my best friend from home, but I didn’t want to feel isolated without any social support.

Over time, even as I got to know these new friends and developed some stronger connections, I still felt out of place. I started distancing myself. My therapist had told me it seemed as though I was afraid of committing to new people, perhaps due to fear of getting hurt and feeling rejected the same way I felt with Joy. Perhaps that was true. Any hint of potentially feeling rejected or like a burden to the group, even in small ways like the group ignoring one of my questions or joking about the inconvenience of my dietary restrictions on finding places to eat, made me anxious. I was left wondering whether others might be holding back their true, honest thoughts about how they really felt about me and our friendship, in the same way that Joy did. I wanted to be easy to love, and when I decided on behalf of everyone else that my needs were too much, I quietly retreated without any explanation. I rejected these new friends before they could have the chance to point their finger at me and tell me that I was too much. 

One major turning point for me was when I had some challenging conversations with some of my close friends here in New York about potentially changing churches. At that point, I had gone to the same church for the three years I’ve been in New York, and I still felt unseen and unknown, a mere speck in the midst of many. I thought there would be a better place for me to call my church home and feel a sense of belonging. My friends disagreed with my reasons for wanting to leave our church, providing counter arguments for reasons I should stay. Again, I experienced the discomfort of not seeing eye to eye with my friends and not feeling understood, and I braced myself for the impending fallout, just as I experienced with Joy. I expected them to distance themselves from me because of our disagreements, and I found myself also wanting to pull back. 

But my friends stayed with me. They kept returning to the table to discuss my process with me, even though we continued disagreeing with each other. When our discussions got too heated, I couldn’t help but cry out of sadness and frustration, worried that I would never be understood or accepted for my feelings and experiences even by my closest friends, a reinforcement of my negative belief that no one would see and know me. My friends immediately paused our discussion and tuned in to my emotions. Through my tears, I explained my need for them to empathize with my experience and understand why, despite all the reasons they were providing me, I still felt unseen and unknown. They then apologized for their inability to hear me and sit with my feelings. And then they kept coming back to the table to be in the process with me. They were able to see the parts of me that were hurting, in pain, and needing a friend, and they drew closer to me, saying, We want to understand. Let us help. We’re sorry for hurting you. And when they finally got to a point of understanding my pain, they cried with me, validated and made space for all my big feelings, and said, Let us share some of that burden with you, because it must have felt so heavy carrying it on your own. They held my feelings with me, so that it wasn’t so scary for me to hold them alone. 

Upon reflection, the support I’ve received from my new friends was probably just as powerful and healing as the support I received from my best friend. My new friends probably had it a bit easier, given that my depression was no longer as debilitating as it was in the past, and I no longer only had one friend shouldering the weight of my feelings alone. Through my experience with Joy, I now have a better understanding of not only who I can share with, but also how to best do so without overwhelming one single person with my feelings. Perhaps it was less so about me finding people in New York who are “better” than my best friend, but more so that I learned to apply my reflections and growth to my current friendships.

Over time, in my own therapy work and processing with friends in New York who don’t know Joy personally, I realized that the people who support those with depression likely have a hard time as well, especially if they don’t have the tools, capacity, and resources to support them, even if they want desperately to help them. What I couldn’t come to terms with was how difficult it must have been for Joy to sit with me in my depression when I was in Berkeley, with no one else who could support me and no one she could turn to to process my feelings with. She probably also felt misunderstood and unseen by me, as I had no emotional capacity at the time to empathize with her experience. It’s hard for me to be upset with her now, knowing how difficult and overwhelming it must’ve been for her to see me in so much pain. I can only look back with compassion on who Joy was at the time and how she responded to our circumstances. It must’ve been hard for her too.

And I can only look back with compassion on who I was back then too, figuring things out and seeking out support in the only way I knew how at the time. 

It’s difficult to be in this place of acceptance and gratitude for what was, as well as grief for what is and perhaps will never be. I can’t say I fully understand this ending between us, nor do I have a way to evaluate whether we ended things well. It baffled me the way that our friendship simply fizzled out after she didn’t respond to my last text. In some ways, this end feels final, and in other ways, it feels like a semicolon, the uncertainty of the direction of our relationship hovering in the air like a dandelion in the wind. Maybe one day one of us will be ready to reach out to mend the broken threads ... or create new ones. Maybe we’ll simply leave the threads as they are as a symbol of what was, a memento of our relationship and the emotional labor we put in to do the best that we could. There was so much we didn’t know at the time, about ourselves and each other. 

Or maybe, once in a while, I can lightly tug on those threads. Some threads have frayed and torn, but I know they are still there. And when I tug on the threads that remain, I hope that they can bring back memories of the old days, when things were easier, when we were doing our best to love one another. I just hope that Joy is doing OK on the other end of those threads, staying connected with others, and growing in her own ways. I hope that when she feels a tug on the threads that mark the space between us, she can be reminded, someone I was once close to is thinking of me

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* Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Cindy J. Huang

Cindy J. Huang (she/her) is a 2nd generation, Chinese American Christian woman from San Francisco, CA. She is currently a Counseling Psychology doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is passionate about serving the Asian immigrant community and helping families heal from intergenerational trauma. Some of her favorite things include: Korean food, a good book, and quality time with friends.

Hannah Villanueva

Hannah Villanueva is a Filipina and Puerto Rican photographer and filmmaker who grew up in the backwoods of Alaska. Her work is focused on surrounding environments and nature as places of vitality and spiritual restoration. Outside of photography, she enjoys Muay Thai boxing and is pursuing a BA in Anthropology. She is currently residing in Seattle, Washington (Duwamish land).

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