When I was probably 14 or 15 I was big into ICQ and other instant messaging platforms. It was big for a lot of people back then, and I think I made up for not having many in-person friends at the time by having some regular digital ones.

I had a few closer online friends, the kind you have hours long conversations with and feel like you know well, or as well as you can know someone without meeting in person. This one girl I knew told me stories about her life, her crappy home life and abusive father. I’d actually had a few friends in that predicament, so I felt like I was getting good at gently handling those issues while learning more and more about them. The more we talked about our lives the more I developed a crush on her, which was comforting even though it was obvious it would never go anywhere.

At some point later she told me a story about a new kid in her school that, on his first day, had asked her out. Never met her before, just walked up to her and said it. When she told me she’d said yes I reacted initially out of jealousy, pointing out how silly that was because she knew absolutely nothing about him. Then I pointed out how if he was randomly walking up to girls and asking them out she shouldn’t feel special because it was probably random — could’ve been any girl standing conveniently close by. I asked her why she would even want to date someone acting so desperate and weird.

All rational points, and they make sense today even if I’m embarrassed by my delivery. In my mind I was being a good friend, stopping her from doing something I saw as stupid. I lacked the understanding of people then to know why I thought his behavior was so contrived, but I knew it felt off. Looking back on it now it rings familiar to being the new guy in prison; you’ve got something to prove and you’d better solidify your standing quickly or someone will do it for you. He probably figured that by making a couple quick friends and picking up a ‘local’ girlfriend he’d likewise solidify his social standing in the new school.

Kind of clever actually. Or maybe he was desperate and ballsy — who knows.

There was a long pause after I sent those messages before I got a reply. I knew immediately I’d gone too far. Then she wrote back four words that have stuck with me: “You’re a dream killer.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation other than the fact that when it was over I realized the truth of it. She was lonely just like I was, looking for validation where there never seemed to be any, and an exciting and new person had shown interest. Even if it was fake interest, sometimes when you’re down you’ll take anything. My calling attention to that, breaking her illusion of something good happening in an otherwise crappy day, backfired spectacularly.

We didn’t talk for months. I blogged before about the last conversation we had, but unfortunately that post (called “You Don’t Know Me At All”) was on an old blog that isn’t up anymore. All that familiarity you build with someone, the ease of sharing, the inside jokes, the desire to engage were totally missing on that next conversation months later. She seemed like a totally different person — maybe she was trying to be out of personal growth or even spite.

I walked away from that last conversation angry, wondering how someone I’d been friends with for so long seemed so willing to dismiss the relationship. But I was too wrapped up in myself to see how badly I’d hurt her with my words.

Words had always been a staple in my life; I’d been writing short stories and such for as long as I could remember even then. This was the first time I’d really seen where the wrong words could destroy something.

Youth is full of crushing truths, and I was affected profoundly by experiences like that. I became careful-footed to a fault in conversations as I entered college years later. I never wanted to be a dream killer to anyone else again.

But the truth is that if you don’t take risks, don’t put yourself out there, you’re unlikely to ever develop the deep relationships you’re afraid of ruining. Even if it hurts. Even if you break things along the way, you can only strive to do better the next time. You may not be able to take back the hurt someone’s inflicted on you or that you brought upon them, but you can be a better friend to the next person that comes into your life. In this way, we give meaning to our mistakes and stop them from owning us. We can be defined by them, but under our terms.

I’ll leave it at that.