A Toxic Friendship Destroyed My Business — & Almost Ruined My Life

This week, Refinery29 Canada celebrates Work Friends — the surprising benefits (and occasional complications) of professional friendship.
Illustrated by Yazmin Butcher
The following story was told to Courtney Shea and edited for length and clarity. Names and certain identifying details have been changed for privacy.
Looking back, I guess I should have known better than to get into business with Vanessa. We had been best friends in high school — we met when we both played Pink Ladies in the Grease musical. And we both worked at the mall, so we would take our breaks together, talking about crushes and typical teenage girl stuff. Vanessa was exuberant, beautiful — the type of person who never went through that “awkward teen phase” — whereas I was shy and insecure. She brought me out of my shell, and I really gravitated to her.
For about two years we were totally inseparable, and then, out of nowhere, she ditched me for her boyfriend. She said something about how he told her she had to choose between him or me, but now I think she probably made that up. She had — hmmmm, how shall I put this? — truth issues. Just as an example, her dad wasn’t in the picture. One day she would say he was in jail, the next he was working in India.
Anyway, fast forward about a decade to Toronto Fashion Week. By this time I was working as a publicist and she was an aspiring musician, sitting in the fourth row with her own publicist. When she saw me, she was super friendly and we reconnected pretty quickly. She probably hoped I would help her get to the front row — which is exactly what I did. But at the time it was just a lot of fun. Vanessa was still the same magnetic force. We started hanging out a lot, going to cool events, staying out all night, scoring free gift bags. We were both young and carefree and having the best time.
We talked about launching a business together — something that would capitalize on our lifestyle and connections. We wrote a business plan but the one thing we didn’t do was write up a partnership agreement. Big mistake, as they say in Pretty Woman. Huge!
From the start I was doing more of the grunt work. It was definitely frustrating when she would waltz into the office at 11 a.m. when I had been there since 7 a.m. But things were going really well, and we were so busy. I loved what I was doing, and I’ve always been a worker. I think the excitement allowed me to block out the bad stuff. The other main difference was that I had contribute my entire savings, which was about $3,000, and went into debt to launch the business, whereas Vanessa had not. I was definitely motivated to succeed.

Her Mean Girl-ing only made me work harder to make her happy. I am a natural people-pleaser, and I think the combination became really toxic.

The one part Vanessa was happy to take part in was publicity — especially anything that involved appearing on camera. Because I had worked in the industry for several years, media reached out to me for interviews, and that was something that really annoyed her. Even though I would always include her, she would ask, “Why are they contacting you?” Now I can see for what it was: She was negging me, like in that book The Game. She would be super nice and complimentary and supportive — and then she would yell at me because I had said hello to someone she didn’t like. That was the pattern: build up, cut down, build up, cut down. She once told me that I was more cut out to be an administrative assistant, which was basically what she treated me like, rather than a business partner.
Now I think, why did I let her treat me that way?, but at the time her Mean Girl-ing only made me work harder to make her happy. I am a natural people-pleaser, and I think the combination became really toxic.
Things really hit the fan one night after a party. We were back at my place and out of nowhere she started in on me saying, “You know, everyone hates you.” I was like what? Who? What are you talking about? She just kept screaming the same thing over and over — right up in my face. To this day, I don’t really know why. I was pretty drunk during the altercation — we both were. And then (this is the craziest part), the next time we saw each other it was like nothing had ever happened. People didn’t talk about gaslighting back then. I don’t even think I knew the term.
It wasn’t long after that I decided I had had enough. The final straw was when she started spreading rumours about a close friend of mine, implicating me in the drama. It was never going to stop, and I needed to cut her out of my life.
If working with Vanessa was bad, breaking up our partnership was worse. She refused to dissolve and wanted me to step aside. Even though the business was my idea. And my money! I told her she could buy me out, but she didn’t want to do that. She kept threatening to shred all of our documents. Meanwhile, she was telling everyone I had abandoned her, abandoned the business. A lawyer advised me to say nothing, so she was free to spread whatever she wanted. She changed the passwords for our company email and then emailed everyone in our contacts saying that I had some kind of a breakdown. (Luckily some of my friends who had an idea of what was happening forwarded it to me.)
In truth, I did have a bit of a breakdown. After we finally dissolved the company, I was totally distraught. I didn’t think I’d ever work in the industry again — I worried my reputation was ruined. For about a month I slept a lot, drank a lot, and barely ate. Not the best coping strategy, but I was lucky to have a couple of close friends who convinced me to get out of bed and get back out there. Eventually I started a new business, and that's still what I’m doing today.
I've realized that a lot of people had doubts about Vanessa but never said anything. Sort of like when you split from your boyfriend and suddenly all your friends are like, "Yeah, he was the worst."
For me, it’s more complicated. Even after all this time I miss the person that Vanessa was when she wasn’t being horrible. And, if I’m being honest, I miss the way she made me feel about myself. In the good times, she was that person who made you feel like the sun was shining on you. (Have I reached my movie quote quota?)
I'm sure this sounds like I was in an abusive relationship, and I guess in some ways, I was. The highs were amazing and the lows were brutal. It took me a long time to silence that voice in my head — the one that said, "Nobody likes you, everybody hates you.” Mostly I have moved on, but every now and then if I’m feeling down or insecure about something, I have to remind myself that she was the one with the problem. I honestly don’t wish her ill, though. I hope she’s in a better situation. I definitely am. This experience made me a little more cautious in terms of who I let into my life, but I’m blessed with an amazing group of supportive girlfriends. My new business partner and I are very close but not that close. I think that’s probably for the best.

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