Ghosted By a Friend, A Reframe for Friendship Endings : Invisibilia It's one of the most common and infuriating friend mysteries out there - a friend disappears into thin air. But where do these ghosts go? And why are we so haunted by them? If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

A Friendly Ghost Story

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ANDREW MAMBO, BYLINE: Hey, y'all. Before we get started, we want you to know today's episode mentions suicide and depression. So if you need to skip this episode, please do. And if you're struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help. We have resources on our episode page, which you can find at npr.org/invisibilia. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOWEI SHAW, HOST:

From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Yowei Shaw.

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, HOST:

And I'm Kia Miakka Natisse.

SHAW: So, Kia...

NATISSE: Mm hmm.

SHAW: At the show, we've been talking about how - among the many things the pandemic has radically shifted is this one relationship that doesn't normally get as much attention in our culture - our friendships.

NATISSE: Oof, yes. I moved home during the pandemic, and I've just really been missing my friends.

SHAW: I have gotten to hang out with my friends in person.

NATISSE: Lucky you.

SHAW: (Laughter) But it's been awkward trying to figure out everybody's personal boundaries around safety and comfort, you know - like, who you're going to hang out with and how.

NATISSE: Oh, God, so many awkward conversations.

SHAW: Anyway, we've been talking about all this at the show. And it got us thinking, let's do a season on friendship.

NATISSE: Yeah. It's such an INVISIBILIA topic. I mean, it feels very ambiguous. There's no legal rules or clear cultural scripts for how to do friendship, at least not in the same way that we have for, like, family or romantic relationships.

SHAW: This will not be a definitive book or anything. We will just give it the INVISIBILIA treatment.

NATISSE: You know, overthinking, lots of uncomfortable questions, plus some really good stories, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: So I am kicking the season off with today's episode. You know how we put a call out for stories on friendship a while back?

NATISSE: Yeah.

SHAW: Well, one kind of friend mystery kept coming up.

RUTWIJ: This guy ghosted me basically out of nowhere.

JAMES M: He just vaporized with my Millennium Falcon.

HAYDEE: She just wouldn't return my calls. Maybe she's mad.

RUTWIJ: Maybe he was just a shitty person.

HAYDEE: I was heartbroken for years.

JAMES M: I miss the guy, but I miss my Millennium Falcon more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: So I think we talk a lot about ghosting in the romantic context, right?

NATISSE: Mm hmm.

SHAW: But it also happens with friends, obviously. And the reason I want to talk about friend ghosting today is because I think it's an example of a larger problem with how friendships tend to end - like what happened with one of our listeners.

DANA LIZIK: I just remember there was one particular instance where she called me. And I looked at the phone. And I was like, ugh, I can't do this. And I just didn't answer.

SHAW: This is Dana Lizik. And a couple of years ago, Dana ghosted a good friend of hers when she learned her friend was pregnant.

NATISSE: Oh.

LIZIK: My inner feminist is really angry at me because I know that women are able to do everything and anything.

SHAW: To be clear, Dana was excited for her friend. But she was also worried about their friendship changing.

LIZIK: I am now 30 years old, and I do not want children. And I struggle when my friends start to have children because I feel like they change. And I feel like they, you know, of course, obviously, want to spend a lot of time with their kids, talk about their kids. And I'm just not interested.

NATISSE: Dana - she's like, oh, you're having a baby? Congratulations. You just lost a friend.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: It's, like, the exact opposite reaction that society expects you to give.

NATISSE: Right. Exactly, exactly. I really respect her, like, ruthlessness about it.

SHAW: Yeah. And Dana wasn't always like this. In fact, she has an epic ghost origin story. Dana used to work as a performer at Disney World. And one day, it was time for Dana to switch out from her shift, to get out of a character costume. And there's a mom at the front of the line who's been waiting and shoves her child at Dana to get one last photo in.

LIZIK: This kid was, like, grabbing onto us and, like, hanging from us.

SHAW: So Dana's coworker steps in. Somebody called a character attendant whose job is to, like, manage guests. And she's saying, I'm sorry. I'm sorry - trying to be really nice.

LIZIK: And the woman got so mad because she didn't want to continue to wait in line that she actually physically hit the character attendant.

SHAW: No.

LIZIK: I - she kind of, like, slapped her across the face.

SHAW: Oh, my gosh.

NATISSE: This woman was doing all this for a photo? Wow.

LIZIK: And we were trying to get this child, like, off of us and our character attendant. It was like - it could have been some kind of movie 'cause she was like, go, get out of here.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: Escape - run for your lives.

OK, so lots to unpack.

NATISSE: Yeah, for sure.

SHAW: But back to Dana ghosting her friend - Dana knows she's being unfair.

NATISSE: I can understand why she would be like, oh, I don't know if I could, like, parade around this opinion about babies just because it's a hot take. But if this is really her friend, like, shouldn't she be able to, like, have this complicated conversation?

SHAW: Well, I asked Dana. And she says it didn't even enter her mind as a possibility.

LIZIK: Adult friendships are so hard.

SHAW: What about a conversation to, like, end the friendship? - to be like, here's why.

LIZIK: No.

SHAW: Are you cringing in your body right now?

LIZIK: I am. I am - like, my shoulders are up to my ears.

SHAW: (Laughter).

LIZIK: It's so - that's so hard, right? Like, 'cause how do you even have that conversation? Hi, I know we've been friends, but now we both got a lot going on. And so I think we should just end the friendship. That's cool with you, right? Like, what?

NATISSE: That's, like, the harshest breakup.

SHAW: I should point out that, you know, there are all sorts of serious reasons why people ghost, of course. Listeners told us stories about sexual assault allegations, abusive relationships, COVID misinformation, racism, on and on. But what Dana did to her friend, you could argue, is just an extreme version of how most friendships end - in avoidance.

EMILY LANGAN: That breakup conversation is exceptionally rare with friends, right? We just don't do exit conversations. We don't say it's over. We don't do the dividing of the assets that you might do in a romantic relationship.

SHAW: This is Emily Langan. She's a friendship researcher and associate professor of communication at Wheaton College. And she says that research has found that when friendships end, they tend to end by fading out - you know, canceled dinner plans, endless games of phone tag - rather than with, like, a sudden confrontation, and definitely not a breakup conversation.

NATISSE: Why do people avoid? Like, what is that about?

SHAW: Well, Emily has lots of theories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Maybe it's because conflict is coded as negative in our culture, and we don't know how to work through conflict. Or maybe it's because we don't have agreed upon milestones for the start and end of friendships in the way that romantic relationships do.

LANGAN: So we talk about it in class as the RDT - the relationship-defining talk. That's not at all uncommon in a romantic relationship to have an RDT. It's really super uncommon in friendships, though.

SHAW: Another theory Emily has is maybe we don't think it's normal for friendships to end...

LANGAN: We assume it's supposed to last.

SHAW: ...When, in fact, they do. There's some research that actually suggests 70% of our close friendships in adulthood don't last longer than seven years.

NATISSE: Jeez, the seven-year itch, but for friends.

SHAW: So Kia, would you be into normalizing friend breakups?

NATISSE: Yeah. I mean, I feel like that's healthy. And it's nice actually to, like, have an agreed upon ending instead of it just being like, I hope I never run into that person again because it would be mad awkward.

SHAW: So I was all Team Normalize Friend Breakups, too. But there's research that suggests that fading friendships out can leave the door open to reviving them later. And when I asked Emily, she was not on Team Friend Breakup, either.

NATISSE: Really?

LANGAN: There's a difference between normalizing breaking up and normalizing ending.

SHAW: Emily told me a story about a friend from years ago. Basically, she was feeling neglected, like she was way down on her friend's priority list after his wife, his kids and other obligations. But instead of breaking up completely or doing the fade out - you know, the avoiding thing - she and her friend decided to sit down and talk about ending the friendship they had...

NATISSE: Wow.

SHAW: ...And maybe start a new kind of friendship.

LANGAN: I think that's the only time I've ever had any conversation like that. And I remember saying, I get it. You have a lot of family demands right now. And I said, based on that, I'm going to walk away here a little bit. We're still friends, but I'm not going to prioritize this friendship like I did because I don't think you can either.

SHAW: And how was it received?

LANGAN: It was fine, and we understood it. He and I are still friends, but he's not in the inner circle. And I'm glad I did it.

SHAW: For the record, Emily's not saying friends should never break up. That can be healthy and necessary, of course. She's saying let's normalize friendships ending, and let's normalize conversations around different options for how they can end or transform.

LANGAN: So if we normalize different forms of trajectories, then shorter relationships could be of merit and value. Longer friendships that are at a lower simmer would be valuable. Relationships can go in a variety of different ways - that they aren't linear, that they don't always have the same predictable lifespan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: After the break, I have another ghost story - a listener who goes on a decade-long quest to force the hard conversation, come what may, to find out why he was dumped, if he was even dumped. There will be travel to faraway islands, discovery of hidden identities and, at the end of the road, a different way to think about friendship endings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: That's when we come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: When I first read his email, it had the same effect on me as a good breakup song. The words were simple and direct. The feelings were raw and larger than life. And I was left with the image of someone definitely not over it yet.

JAMES HASSELTINE: My name's James Hasseltine. I'm 33 today.

SHAW: Like, today's your birthday?

HASSELTINE: Yes.

SHAW: Oh OK.

HASSELTINE: (Laughter).

SHAW: James is a professor of education in South Korea. And about nine years ago, his close friend Tim disappeared on him. Here's the last thing James remembers saying to Tim the last time they saw each other.

HASSELTINE: I'm sure before he left, I said something to the effect of like, oh, well, let's do this again soon, Tim, or, like, just kind of general plans to do something soon. And he was like, yeah, sure. You got it.

SHAW: It didn't make sense to James for lots of reasons. For one, they were each other's first best friend in college. Like every freshman in the history of mankind, James had been anxious about finding his people.

HASSELTINE: And so when September rolled around, I was, like, really praying. I was like, God, give me the nerdiest, geekiest roommate just like me.

SHAW: And so when Tim walked in, this pale, black-haired, cheerful looking guy with a monotone voice...

HASSELTINE: He was like, oh, hey. I'm Tim.

SHAW: He felt like he hit the roommate jackpot. They were into the same things - video games, Dungeons and Dragons. And then there was just the kind of friend Tim was. The ghosting feels like the opposite of his character.

HASSELTINE: You know, he was just a really funny, really helpful guy. Tim's friendship was extremely unconditional. He just wanted to be your friend on your terms.

SHAW: And finally, it wasn't just James that Tim ghosted. They were part of this really tight-knit crew. They even had a name - 208, the number of the dorm room they all moved into sophomore year. And James tells me 208 did everything together - ate meals, played Super Smash Brothers, took classes, partied, then got in trouble for partying.

HASSELTINE: The hall director came and declared that we were the worst room in Occum, which was the name of the dormitory. And we took a lot of pride in that.

SHAW: Plus, Tim was the guy who brought everyone together in the first place. And he had a special role. He was the lovable eccentric of the group. He had catchphrases like a TV sitcom character.

HASSELTINE: He would say, like, oh, you damn kids all the time.

SHAW: He was the subject of multiple inside joke songs, like his own theme music.

HASSELTINE: Which was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSELTINE: Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim.

SHAW: Beethoven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSELTINE: Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim.

SHAW: They never knew what Tim was going to say or do next. All of a sudden, he would start wearing tie dye shirts and only tie dye shirts. And then he would just announce...

HASSELTINE: I'm a bell peppers guy. I'm going to be eating a lot of bell peppers all the time.

SHAW: For breakfast, lunch and dinner?

HASSELTINE: Yeah, for, like, a while.

SHAW: He was so beloved, 208 even created mythology around his quirks.

HASSELTINE: A place called Tim Island.

SHAW: Where there were thousands of other Tims just like him. But the island got bombed by the U.S. government, and Tim was the only person who escaped.

HASSELTINE: He was the last of the Tims.

SHAW: So that was 208 and Tim until 2012, when Tim sailed right out of their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: The only conflict they can point to is a sink of dishes. After graduating, the 208 crew - they moved into a house. And it's that awkward transition from college to adulting. And Tim was getting fed up with some of his roommates for the late-night partying and dirty dishes. And James was trying to mediate.

HASSELTINE: It was really dramatic at the time. The other roommates - I think they had a very, like, you know, 21-year-old attitude about it. They were like, come on, Dad. Don't come down on us.

SHAW: Tim ended up moving out. But he came to a friendsgiving party, and it seemed like there were no hard feelings. He was laughing and drinking. But after that party, he stops returning their calls, stops responding to texts. And they can't reach him on social media, either. Just poof, like he's gone back to Tim Island.

HASSELTINE: At first, I was, like, offended that he was ghosting me in particular because I thought that I had stood up for him and, like, kind of put myself on the line fighting with our other friends on his behalf. And so I felt like it was really unjust.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: But even in his feelings, James tries again. Over the next nine years, he keeps trying.

HASSELTINE: 2013.

A standard text message.

January.

Over the phone.

2020.

Messages to his Reddit account.

SHAW: But no luck.

HASSELTINE: This is an email that I sent to him.

SHAW: So James - he starts cycling through possible theories like a detective, but like one who never gets new leads.

HASSELTINE: November 2015.

SHAW: Maybe it really was about the dishes.

HASSELTINE: It's been a long time since we've spoken, Tim. I think I understand why you didn't want to hang out with us anymore.

SHAW: Maybe Tim had gone straight edge...

HASSELTINE: But I've quit smoking now.

SHAW: ...And didn't want partying friends.

HASSELTINE: I can't have any negative effect on you now. I'm on a different continent.

SHAW: Maybe Tim had gotten into self-help...

HASSELTINE: So much has happened to me that I want to tell you about, and I want to hear about your life, too.

SHAW: ...Or religion.

HASSELTINE: I really just want to hear from you.

SHAW: Maybe it was Tim being the bad friend...

HASSELTINE: I stuck up for you the whole time and afterwards.

SHAW: Or maybe it was them who were toxic...

HASSELTINE: I had a dream the other night that I met with you.

SHAW: ...Who deserved to be cut off and replaced.

HASSELTINE: Please write back, Tim, please, even if you just want to tell me why you don't want to be friends any longer.

SHAW: And then James - he might cycle back to the first theory...

HASSELTINE: I really miss you.

SHAW: ...And blame his friends for the dish fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSELTINE: Yeah, this one's pretty pathetic. Tim - dude, I still don't know why you're ghosting me all this time because you never told me. I guess that's the point of ghosting. It's almost 10 years now. Please message me back. Please stop ghosting me. And that was the last one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: In case you're thinking, hello? What about boundaries? Well, James has also had that thought. Over the years, he says he's felt like a nuisance at times, like maybe he should respect Tim's decision to ghost. And that's why he never showed up at his doorstep. But eventually, he'd conclude the relationship was too valuable to at least not have a conversation about what happened. And also, he just couldn't stop thinking about Tim. He was haunted.

STEPHEN ASMA: When your friend ghosts you, then all you have left is this kind of spiritual or mental memory that haunts you. And you no longer have any kind of embodied experience with them.

SHAW: This is Stephen Asma. He's a philosophy professor at Columbia College with a wide range of interests - psychology, neuroscience, mythology. And also, he invented something called Monsterology. It's the study of monsters, like zombies, vampires and ghosts, as a lens to better understand ourselves and our culture.

ASMA: My view is that monster stories are ultimately coded ways of helping us.

SHAW: I wanted to talk to Stephen, to ask him what it means for us to tell each other this real-life ghost story. And he told me, well, ghost stories generally serve a function, as cautionary tales.

ASMA: The traditional ghost story would have been told, like, around a campfire, you know? Do you tell little kids, hey, don't go into the woods at night because there's a monster there? Well, you may not think there's a monster there. But you don't want your kids going into the woods at night because it very well could be a dangerous place for all kinds of other reasons. It's designed to make you actually afraid of the right things.

SHAW: What Stephen told me about traditional ghost stories got me thinking. So what are we trying to warn ourselves about, then, with this contemporary ghost story? Well, seems like the basic moral there is, even though technology has made it easier than ever to ghost, let's not treat each other like this because of the pain it causes.

ASMA: Two things driving you nuts when the friend ghosts you - it's - one is sort of in your head, and the other is really in your heart.

SHAW: Stephen says one is physiological. Studies have suggested that when we create strong bonds with our friends, we get a flood of oxytocin and internal opioids, the same system that's activated in a mother and baby during nursing. So when a good friend disappears all of a sudden, Stephen says it's possible we go through a kind of withdrawal.

ASMA: This might sound reductionistic (ph), but, you know, you're feeling miserable and stressed at work and you get home and you call your friend, and it's almost like eating a chocolate cake because you get all this - these wonderful endorphins in the system. Now all of a sudden, you can't contact that friend or have any interaction with them, the system can't recalibrate.

SHAW: And then there's what's happening in your head, this cognitive mystery.

ASMA: It's the ultimate cliffhanger.

SHAW: Which some research on ghosting suggests can lead to something called ambiguous loss, where your grief is frozen because you don't have closure.

ASMA: You can't figure out why it happened. And you keep spinning these scenarios to try to find some cognitive resting place for your mind. And so the ghosting friend keeps you in this terrible state of pain because you can never rest like, oh, that's the reason, or that's the explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Why do you think Tim's ghosting has haunted you so much over the years?

HASSELTINE: Mainly because I thought it would be an easy situation to resolve - like, that if I could just speak to him, I bet we could work this out.

SHAW: Coming up, James gets a break in the case and sees his friend ghost in a new way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: So it's been almost a decade that James has been trying to solve his friend mystery, to get to Tim Island. And in March of this year, he's like, this is ridiculous. I got to find Tim to talk. Even though James feels a bit like a stalker, he goes on one of those find-a-person websites. And he comes across Tim's sister-in-law and sends a message. And the next day, James is in the middle of his workday when he sees a response flash on his phone.

HASSELTINE: And it was honestly like a shot through the heart. She said, hi, James. I'm so sorry that no one has told you, but Tim passed away last year on March 20. We were looking forward to his wedding with his fiancee. I'm still in shock, even though it has been a year. I'm sorry that you had to find out like this. And the next thing I say is actually really stupid. I said, (reading) I can't believe this. I don't think you would lie to me about something this serious, though I know there was a reason Tim wasn't speaking to his old friends. And if this is a ploy or something because Tim just never wants to speak to me again, I'll accept that, but is it seriously true that he died? - is the next thing that I said.

SHAW: But it was true. Tim had died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: And at first, James doesn't know the details. After he gets the news, he leaves work early and walks out onto the street in, like, a daze and calls two members of 208.

HASSELTINE: And we all, you know, just wept over the phone in complete shock and credulity.

SHAW: I'm so sorry. Did you feel like you were getting closer to, like, understanding what had happened?

HASSELTINE: No. I felt more in the dark than ever. And I was really confused.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: But then James asked the sister-in-law for the fiancee's name, to pass along his condolences. And when he reaches out, he finds a Tim he doesn't recognize.

SKYLER CONWAY: I was honestly shocked to hear from him.

SHAW: This is Skyler Conway (ph), Tim's fiancee. They met three years ago while working at a mental health care provider. He was a residential monitor. She was a security officer. And from the moment they shook hands, Skyler says she felt connected to him, like they were the same person.

CONWAY: I thought he was really cute, very, very beautiful smile.

SHAW: Skyler tells James what happened to Tim, that he was getting his master's degree in clinical mental health counseling and that he was really depressed around the time he passed away by suicide.

CONWAY: He felt that his degree in clinical mental health counseling was going to be useless. He was very stressed about the amount of debt he accumulated.

SHAW: She says she had heard about Tim's college friends. She knew that Tim had a best friend from college named James and some roommates he'd lived with. But she had no idea that James had been trying to reach Tim all these years.

CONWAY: I had no clue. It was mind-boggling to me. Like, the only thing Tim had ever told me about his friends was the argument they had over dishes and that he moved out and that he essentially ghosted his friends.

SHAW: I ran past Skyler all of James's theories about why Tim ghosted. And it turns out some of them were true.

One theory was that they had been bad friends from the start, and they had pushed him away.

CONWAY: That theory, unfortunately, is true. Tim had felt that they had crossed the line. And Tim just didn't want to be friends with them anymore - as well as trying to become a more professional person. He always would refer to his friends as being more nonprofessional. He felt like he needed to grow up.

SHAW: Another theory is Tim had replaced them all with better friends.

CONWAY: Nope. I was his crew, just me and him. He never made any friends after ghosting James and the rest of the crew.

SHAW: And then Skyler tells James she thinks there's another reason Tim ghosted. She says that Tim was diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder, or AVPD, though some people I talked to simply call it avoidant personality. It's a mental health condition characterized by extreme social avoidance, feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection and often associated with depression, anxiety, significant distress, even impairment.

CONWAY: I think it made him feel like an alien. He used those exact words right before he passed away. Tim felt that he can never connect with people. And when we connected, he almost couldn't believe it. It's something he's always wanted. He was 30 years old when we had met, and I was his first girlfriend. He felt like an outcast.

SHAW: James hears all this and is completely in shock. It was like keeping a photo in your wallet of someone you love and, one day, finding out you had the wrong photo all this time.

HASSELTINE: One of the things that I kind of comforted myself with was the fact that, like, well, Tim, being the great guy that he is, has probably just found another group of friends who appreciate him more or are better friends to him than we were. And it turns out that that's not true.

SHAW: James had a lot of questions.

HASSELTINE: And so I wanted to ask, can you help me understand what happened to my friend or help me understand my friend better?

SHAW: After the break, James takes a ferry to Tim Island with the help of another ghost. And a note, that suicide is preventable, and if you or someone you know is possibly considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741. One of the first things James did after learning about Tim's avoidant personality disorder, before he even reached out to us, was what any good nerd does - he started researching. He discovered that he was not the only one who hadn't heard about AVPD, that it's an underrecognized and understudied disorder. And it's true. The researchers I talked to said there's been debate in the field about how to categorize AVPD, whether it's an extreme version of social anxiety disorder or its own distinct thing. And that's why more work needs to be done to find effective treatments. And the more James read, the more he wanted to know. So he posted a long, heartfelt message, almost like an essay, really, on a subreddit for people with AVPD.

HASSELTINE: I made that post on Reddit, more or less, looking for help, trying to understand.

SHAW: He wanted to understand his friend Tim better and what had happened between them and what it was like living with AVPD. Then came dozens of responses - personal anecdotes, messages of support, which he says were all really helpful. But James still had questions. So we connected him with someone who was willing to talk.

Well, yeah, I'd like to say thanks, again, for taking part, Andrew. It is good to meet you.

ANDREW LATTIE: Hey, James. How's it going?

HASSELTINE: Good. How are you?

LATTIE: So far, so good.

SHAW: Andrew Lattie (ph) lives with his wife near Denver. About five years ago, Andrew was diagnosed with AVPD. And you should know that AVPD affects people differently. For example, Tim was able to go to college, hold down a job and was working on his master's degree, while Andrew - because of his AVPD, he had to drop out of college and isn't able to work. Even setting up this conversation has been hard on him, though he told me he's determined to talk to James and be part of this story, even if it only helps one person.

LATTIE: Part of the reason that this - I'm able to do this conversation now is because I know that I'll be able to kind of ethically ghost you guys, if that makes sense.

HASSELTINE: Right.

SHAW: But there are other ways that Andrew and Tim feel similar. Like Tim, Andrew has struggled with suicidal ideation, though he now sees a therapist every week. And that's helped. Like Tim, Andrew also feels negatively judged in everyday interactions, even if that's not what's going on, which, for Andrew, can blow up into debilitating spirals. For instance, when Andrew was a freshman in college, he showed up to the first day of music theory class, and the professor asked a bunch of questions he didn't know how to answer - a tiny, awkward incident that led to a series of escalating, painful feelings and events that wound up with Andrew getting evicted from his dorm room.

LATTIE: I never went back to class again because I felt so ashamed and embarrassed that I was there, that I didn't know what I was doing. And then - and when I wasn't going to that class, I was feeling so bad about that, that I stopped going to all my classes. And then at that point, I basically locked myself in my room.

SHAW: And like Tim, Andrew can appear to fit in with others just fine while secretly feeling like he's wearing a mask, which James wanted to understand better.

HASSELTINE: My friend who had AVPD - I spent a lot of time in social situations with him. And he seemed, to me, really positive, resilient and even outgoing. And I didn't really have an inkling, say, that he's putting in a lot of effort to more or less - to mask and to fake it in order to get by.

LATTIE: You know, I have been called very charismatic. I've been told I'm a really good speaker. But these are kind of just the things that I think that the people I would be around are going to want me to do and say. Like, if I was around a louder friend and only a louder friend, then I would be a little bit louder. And if I...

HASSELTINE: Right.

LATTIE: ...Was around, you know, some quieter friends, then I would, you know, shift to that.

HASSELTINE: I feel like maybe I observed that in Tim as well, the kind of mirroring according to whom you're with, just trying to match their energy, basically. So...

LATTIE: And I'm even doing that right now, so (laughter).

SHAW: But probably the biggest parallel between Tim and Andrew is the ghosting. Andrew guesses he's ghosted a couple hundred people by now, mostly friends he met online through gaming and a small circle of friends from high school after graduation.

LATTIE: Part of the pain of it all is that you still want those friendships and everything. And it hurts you to do things like ghost them and to not talk to them. Like, I slighted you. Of course you're going to reject me because that's what you should do. So I'm just going to go ahead and not talk to you anymore so that you can't reject me. So it - you know, in that way, it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy where I cause you to reject me sort of thing.

HASSELTINE: Do you ever think about - even, like, in - abstractly or just, like, fantasizing about contacting the people you haven't spoken to in a long time?

LATTIE: Absolutely do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Eventually, a couple of Andrew's high school friends were able to make contact with him again, even after being ghosted for years.

LATTIE: And by just through sheer force of will, they keep messaging, and they keep talking. And I eventually will talk back because that's kind of what it takes.

SHAW: They'd cracked the code, done the very thing that James had tried to do all these years with Tim. So James wanted to know how. Andrew says the key to their success, besides relentlessness, was small talk - not calling attention to the time that had passed, not blaming him - nothing emotional.

LATTIE: Like, my friend who texted me the other day and said, oh, hey, you know, I found this energy drink we used to drink when we were kids. And I was like, oh, yeah, that was cool. So like, you know, I was able to do that. But if he had said something like, hey, man, I'm really missing you. How come you're not talking to me anymore? That is, you know - that's very triggering. It's like, oh, my gosh. What have I been doing? Like, he hates me. You know, it spirals.

HASSELTINE: What you just said, you know, it kind of confirmed a suspicion that I've had for the past couple of months now that basically, like, the things that I was writing to Tim were maybe, like, the worst possible version of what I could have said to him, which was, like, very emotional, very desperate things, like Tim, I miss you so much. I really want to speak to you. Please, please, please just write me back, which I'm sure did not help him and probably made him feel worse about it.

LATTIE: I mean, I am not going to put words in anyone's mouth or, like, say that, you know, he felt a certain way because I really don't know. But I think that just hearing that - like, that kind of thing - it would make me - it would cause me an immense amount of guilt. Because, well, gosh, if I did that to them now, I'm just going to cause them more and more pain. If I keep talking to them more and more or, you know, if I do text them because I know that I'm going to, you know, eventually cut them off again, you know, maybe not forever, but for - it's still going to cause them more emotional pain.

HASSELTINE: Almost like a harm reduction thing. Like, by cutting them off at this point, I am doing a kindness to them.

LATTIE: A favor, exactly. I would probably personally at some point stop reading the emails, especially if I have a strong relationship with that person.

HASSELTINE: Right. Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSELTINE: If I had known what I know now back then, you know, potentially, things could have worked out differently between he and I.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: But of course, Andrew is not Tim. Like he said, he can't know how Tim truly felt. And so if we're being honest, at the end of the day, James will never really know the full answer to why Tim ghosted, what percentage was AvPD, what percentage was Tim wanting to break up, to move on, like his fiancee had mentioned. In other words, James is still haunted.

HASSELTINE: The more positive part of me says, like, I do have the explanation now. But - and I would like to think that I do. There is a cynical part of me that says, like, you're just using that as an excuse. Like, you don't have the full story. You never will. This is just a convenient thing you can tell yourself.

SHAW: But while doing research about AvPD, I came across this article that helped me reframe this ghosting story and friend breakups in general.

KRISTINE DAHL SORENSON: Hello. Hi.

SHAW: One of the authors was this clinical psychologist and AvPD researcher, Kristine Dahl Sorenson. She led the first qualitative study on what it's like to live with AvPD. And there's this one paragraph where she explains that people with AvPD in the study weren't just lonely because they avoided people. They were lonely because they weren't able to develop their identity in the way that other people do.

SORENSON: In so many different ways. It has to do with the way you interact with your parents or your closest family or family of origin. It has to do with how you move throughout your adolescent years with friends and all the experiences you create in kindergarten or school or eventually in work. And it's all relational. You become who you are in relation to other people.

SHAW: So all the tiny social exchanges people take for granted - the acting, reacting, talking, telling, listening - she's saying, that's how we come to know and be ourselves - through the people around us. It's not a new idea, the relational self. But I don't think we appreciate enough, in this highly individualistic culture, how our friends play an essential role in this hidden machinery of the self, how much power we have over our friends, for better or for worse. And for James, at least, he's grateful for the fingerprints Tim left in shaping him, giving James the encouragement and space to figure out how to become himself.

HASSELTINE: I think that, you know, in the beginning when I first met Tim, when it was just him and I in our freshman dorm, I more or less felt like Tim was, like, a kindred spirit, basically. And you know, there was kind of a sense that, like, oh, I'm not alone in maybe being a quiet, geeky, dateless guy. Like, here's another one. I'm not such a loser after all. And that was a comfort.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: The last time I talked to James, maybe I was thinking about the Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim song. Maybe I was thinking about all the friends out there who aren't able to have a friendship-ending conversation, even though they want to. And so I asked James a weird question.

In the tradition of 208 - you all love a good inside joke song. If you could come up with a song that one could send to a friend as, like, a cue to have the friendship-ending conversation so it's not so awkward, what would it sound like?

HASSELTINE: Oh, boy.

SHAW: How does start?

HASSELTINE: Well, it starts off soft and acoustic...

SHAW: OK.

HASSELTINE: ...And melancholy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: And maybe the lyrics are what these two friends would say to each other in this conversation.

HASSELTINE: Right. Right. (Singing) Here are the lists of my resentments and the ways you've disappointed me.

(LAUGHTER)

HASSELTINE: Right?

SHAW: Well you know, we actually have voice memos from a bunch of listeners that I feel like I could chop up and try to make musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING UP AND BREAKING DOWN")

SAVANNAH GOCHOEL: I feel so horrible that I let four years ago.

VJ KIOSIAN: We were so close.

GOCHOEL: I feel horrible I never called.

SARAH CHARLEY: I forgive you.

KATHRYN ASHLEY-WRIGHT: I wish we had closure.

ALICIA BUXTON: Honestly, I don't want to talk.

HASSELTINE: And then - after kind of breaching it calmly, then you could switch for the electric guitar and sort of break it down in a more shouty, emotional way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING UP AND BREAKING DOWN")

THIN LIPS: (Singing) I'm not waiting maybe. I know you're cross.

CHARLEY: I'm really pissed at you.

BEATRIZ FERNANDEZ: You just brought so much drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING UP AND BREAKING DOWN")

THIN LIPS: (Singing) It's hard to be the one that fronts the cost. I know I'm the one that lost.

DELANEY: And I hope you're doing well.

SHAW: That's it for today's show. Thank you to my friends, the band Thin Lips, for this seriously perfect and amazing breakup song you just heard. The name of it is "Breaking Up And Breaking Down." You can listen to the full song on Spotify and, I don't know, maybe start a movement. And a big, big, big thank you to Andrew Lattie, the AvPD subreddit and everyone who spoke to us about AvPD so we could learn more about it.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can find more resources about suicide prevention and avoidant personality disorder on our website.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Coming up this season - now that we've broken up, we're headed to the awkward beginning and messy middle of friendship. Like, what happens when you take away the ability to choose your friends? Why do we have lines between sex and friendship? Plus, one possible secret weapon, totally out of left field, for how to get closer to our friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: This episode was produced by the one and only Adelina Lancianese and edited by the ever so patient Luis Trelles with a big assist from our incredible intern Alicia Qian and our unstoppable research fellow Jo Nixon. Adelina, Alicia and Jo all helped with the reporting and research. Fact-checking by Naomi Sharp and Ayda Pourasad, mastering by our technical director Andy Huether. We also had help from Micah Ratner and Rhitu Chatterjee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIE ZONG'S "GHOST CHOIR")

SHAW: Thank you to all the ghosts and ghostees who spoke to us, wrote us, left us voice memos, share their hearts with us and contributed to this episode. In this week's newsletter, we gathered a friend breakup playlist for you and one ingenious listener hack for how to break up with friends - an exit interview of sorts. You can sign up at npr.org/invisibilianewsletter.

And to all the researchers we spoke to - Lisa Lampe, Thomas Khullar, Amy Johnson, Omri Gillath, Gili Friedman, Leah LeFebvre, Steve Asher, Marissa Franco, Pauline Boss, Mark Caldwell, Susan Matt, Luke Fernandez - we learned so much from you. Thank you. You can find a bunch of interesting articles and studies on ghosting and friendship endings on our episode page.

Finally, additional thanks to Phillip Dacus, Charles Capps, Claire Zlotnicki, Andrew Young, Karen Rude, Jessica Lanyadoo, Heather McGraw, Beatriz Fernandez, Isaiah Shaw, Youngmi Mayer, Arielle Kleighburn, VJ Keosian and Pamela Mallinga.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIE ZONG'S "GHOST CHOIR")

NATISSE: This season of INVISIBILIA is produced by me, Kia Miakka Natisse, Yowei Shaw, Andrew Mambo, Abby Wendle, Rhaina Cohen, David Gutherz and Justine Yan. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Our supervising senior producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Neal Carruth is our senior director of programming, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

Theme music by Infinity Knives, and additional music in this episode provided by Physical Fitness, Rick Klaras, Firephly, Connor Moore, William Cashion, Tom Pile and Running Dog Music and Louie Zong for the viral hits "Ghost Choir" and "Ghost Duet." See you next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIE ZONG'S "GHOST CHOIR")

SHAW: OK, Kia, without naming names, have you ever been ghosted, or have you ever ghosted a friend?

NATISSE: I'm sure there's someone out there who thinks I ghosted them. But I am such a thorough ghost that I've probably just forgotten it completely.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: On that note, we do have somebody waiting to talk to you.

NATISSE: What?

SHAW: Addie did a little digging.

NATISSE: Wait, what?

ADELINA LANCIANESE, BYLINE: Just give me one second. I've just texted her. She's expecting my call. So hold on. Let me put my phone on speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

NATISSE: I really have no idea who's going to be on this phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

SHAW: We're kidding with you.

(LAUGHTER)

NATISSE: I was really - I was like, there's only one friend, and I still don't think, like - she - I - we worked it out (laughter).

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