Our culture is heavily engaged with the drama and pathos of love gone wrong, parlaying all those emotions of loss and grief into stories we watch every day. But the death of a friendship can be almost as devastating as a broken heart, imbued with its own layers of pain, remorse and anger.
Zach, 29 – a former Wollongong (NSW) man now living in Sydney – learned this lesson the hard way after an intense childhood friendship first forged at 13 years old slowly withered and died.
“I think grief is too strong a word,” Zach says slowly. “But there was definitely a feeling of mourning…I felt like something was missing.”
“She was probably one of the first people to find out I was gay, but she never judged it.”
Zach met his best friend Lauren when they were both in high school in Wollongong. They hit it off immediately, he says: “our personalities are really quite similar, we had the same sense of humour, in drama class, we were the two loudmouths – we were either going to be best friends or worst enemies, and we ended up best friends.”
Despite differences in their upbringings, Zach and Lauren’s friendship deepened each year. “She was probably one of the first people to find out I was gay, but she never judged it," says Zach.
After the pair finished high school, a slow, subtle process of distancing began, hand in hand with a dramatic transformation in Lauren herself, Zach says.
“She was studying in Wollongong and I had moved to Sydney, so there was a physical distance, but we still saw each other. But she had changed. She had so many boundaries growing up, and soon as she didn’t have any, she did whatever she wanted.”
At first the signs of a dying friendship were subtle, he explains in retrospect. But, as he remembers it, she stopped replying to his texts, calls or Facebook messages. When she didn’t show up at his 21st birthday party, he knew it was over. “Everyone from school was there and asking where was Lauren, she’s your best friend. I was really hurt. I just didn’t know what had happened.”
Zach says Lauren cut herself off not just from him but their entire social group. Years passed, and then one Friday night, he saw an ad looking for participants for a new SBS TV show on Facebook.
The show, Look Me in Eye, features estranged couples in a unique social experiment, based on a series of studies by neuroscientists that found direct eye contact can communicate more than words.
The estranged pairs are brought together in a room, seated on chairs, and told to look into each other’s eyes for five minutes. At the end, they're given a chance to talk, explain, ask for healing or forgiveness.
“I thought, oh my gosh,” he says. “It was only this year that I had started wondering what Lauren was up to. I used to be quite bitter about it, quite angry with her, for quite a few years after. But now, I wanted to resolve it, just find out what the hell had happened. It was worth a shot.”
Zach reached out to Lauren on Facebook. “I just said, look, I’ve been given the opportunity to reconnect with you. I don’t know if you would be interested, but if you are, let me know your number and I’ll have a third party contact you.”
After all these years of silence, was he shocked when she replied? He chuckles.
“No, not really. Remember, we were best friends in drama school. If you knew our characters, the way we are, if we were going to have a reunion, it was going to be on a TV show, it was never going to be in a café somewhere.”
On the day, the two former friends were kept apart in separate rooms, and carefully monitored to make sure they didn’t accidentally bump into each other. Then came the moment of truth when Zach was shown a seat and told to wait for Lauren.
He had last seen her eight years ago, and emotions were running high. “I could hear her coming down the stairs, and I thought, 'Oh my god, this is actually happening, it’s so surreal.'” At his first glimpse of her, he felt a visceral reaction. “It was like…when you can’t really swallow, and you’ve got that taste in your mouth, not nausea, but you just feel ill.”
His voice trails off. “Like, I was happy but it was still very sad, because she looked so different…not in a bad way, but she looked like she had a hard life, she looked older than me, just different, really frail, anxious, like she was having a panic attack. So I really felt for her. It was very hard.”
With all this painful history between them, what was it like to look her in the eye? “This experiment is about how eye contact can be more powerful than word – and it was".
How did the experience change him?
He is reflective in his answer. “I’m definitely glad I did it because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and at least I got some closure. It was not the resolution I wanted, but just knowing that I reached out and we had this chance to reconnect, to find out that she was okay was good.
“For me, a lot about contacting her was to know if she is alright. And though she isn’t the person I was friends with anymore, it’s good to know that she is happy, she’s doing well and has a good job and the rest.”
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, continues on Wednesdays on SBS at 8.30pm. Each episode will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.