I’m in need of advice and you seem to be good at that, so I’m hoping you can help me get out of a proverbial pickle.
I have a very close friend, who is very dear to me. She is funny, she is clever and we both bond over similar interests. Unfortunately, however, she also has mental health problems. Due to a troubled childhood, emotionally neglectful parents, and teenage years spent in a toxic and abusive “friend” group, she is incapable of fully trusting people, has extreme self-esteem issues, depressive episodes and often acts like a scared, cornered animal.
She has been going to the psychiatrist and getting treated medically, but is still in extreme denial over her issues. Despite being diagnosed by the doctor with some serious issues, she still considers medication the only thing needed to fix everything. She, for the longest time, was opposed to the idea of therapy, claiming that it might unearth things that’ll make things worse overall. She notoriously misses appointments with her therapist, says that since the therapy isn’t working (she’s gone maybe twice over three months) then it’s pointless. Generally, she seems to be unwilling to get serious help, because that means having to admit things are wrong, facing them and she feels she might be unable to do it.
Our friendship has been taking a hit because of it. I do not fault her for having mental issues, and I do not fault her for being afraid to start treatment. However, over the past six months she has been needing more and more of my attention and energy to tell her she isn’t the worst person to exist and that there is possibility of improvement. I love her dearly, but I didn’t sign up to be her therapist or carer and that new element of our relationship she’s imposing on me saps me of energy. This means I speak to her less, I meet her less and generally interact with her less.
I have tried a few interventions. I explained the situation to her, telling her that she needs help and I am unable to provide it and that our relationship is taking a hit. She seems genuinely saddened by it, promises to do something and does a nominal, one-off action and then makes excuses. I have done this twice or three times and the effect is always short term. She will take any form of negative comments extremely seriously and as a sign of my hatred towards her, so I don’t do this too often as she is clearly very taxed by them (I do believe it’s genuine and not manipulative, but I wouldn’t know, would I?).
Now, since she’s taking way more than she’s giving, she’s forcing new roles that I did not sign up for and she’s sapping my energy, the logical thing to do (I think) would be to abandon the relationship. However, firstly, she is a very close friend of mine and I do care about her and don’t just want to ditch our long friendship. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, I feel she will abandon any hope of improvement, retreat into her shell and never get better – I am a very important part of her support network (she doesn’t trust her parents and I am one of two people who really know what’s going on with her) – and I don’t want that. I also don’t want to give her a get-help-or-lose-me ultimatum, because ultimatums seem like a real shit thing to do. But then I don’t think doing nothing will help either, our friendship will suffer, my energy levels will suffer and she won’t benefit from it, eventually leading to our friendship decaying.
I have no idea what to do. Help me doctor!
One of the hardest things to deal with in a relationship, platonic or romantic, is when someone needs help but won’t take it. Whether it’s the alcoholic who refuses to see that they have a problem or – as in your case – someone who has mental health issues, it can be incredibly frustrating, even damaging to the people around them. You know damn good and well that they have a problem and the answer is clear as day… why don’t they see it? It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out. And in this case, you’re being dragged into her drama as she continually demands that you take on roles and responsibilities that you never signed up for.
The problem is that you can’t make someone do the right thing. You can cajole. You can request. You can beg and plead on bended knee. You can threaten. But at the end of the day, they have to be the one to make that decision. Trust me: I let my depression rage out of control before I was willing to do anything about it because I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t hack it. I didn’t want to be “weak”. It wasn’t until I had to leave school for a while before I could admit that I needed to do something. This is part of the reason why Alcoholics Anonymous talks about needing to hit “rock bottom” before getting help; that tends to be the point that someone realizes that they can’t gloss over the issue or pretend it’s not as bad or not take getting help as seriously as they need to.
Unfortunately, your friend has yet to hit rock bottom. And – please don’t take this the wrong way – in your own way, you’re still cushioning her fall. It’s hard, really hard, to do what needs to be done sometimes when your friend needs help. You don’t want to see them in pain! You don’t want them to think that you don’t care! You certainly don’t want to make things worse. But in a perverse way, that’s exactly what’s happening. Every time you’ve tried to take a hard line to get her to take her recovery seriously, she’s managed to get you to give in. You’ve shown her that if she makes enough of a fuss, you’re going to end up taking on responsibilities that aren’t yours and providing care and support that you’re not qualified to give… and that lets her put off getting help a little bit longer. And worse: it drags you down with her and that’s not fair to you.
You can’t make her do anything but you can draw a line in the sand. You tell her that you love her and you’re her friend but as her friend, you need to pull back until she gets help. Not just pills – which can help, don’t get me wrong – but help. When she starts to seriously work with someone, not just a token effort but makes genuine progress and a commitment to get better, you’ll come back. But you can’t be her excuse for not getting help and you can’t continue to do the work for her.
And then you step away. You don’t answer her emails. You don’t take her calls. You don’t let her guilt you into backing down again. She’s going to fall and if you’re there to catch her, she’s not going to stop relying on you as her crutch and her excuse to not see a doctor. Yeah, she may get hurt. She may get seriously hurt and that will tear your heart to shreds. If you legitimately fear that she’s going to hurt herself or do permanent damage, you can tell her parents or you can call a 911; they’ll be in a position to make the call as to whether more drastic steps need to be taken. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Hopefully, your come-to-Jesus talk will be the smack from the Chair Leg of Truth that will make her relize that she can’t put it off any longer. But you. Can’t. Fix. Her. You don’t have the training. You can’t live her life for her or take her responsibilities on. She needs to be the one to do it. As much as it will hurt if she hurts herself, as awful and as guilty as you’ll feel, it’s not your fault if she does. You can’t control other people or make the choices for them. You can only do the right and loving thing and that means cutting her off so that a) she knows that she can’t put it all on you and b) so that you don’t get hurt in the process.
This doesn’t mean that you abandon her; you can keep tabs on her from a step or two removed. You can stay in contact with her parents and monitor her that way. But you have to maintain the hard line. And it will suck. You’ll feel awful. You’ll feel like the worst friend in the world. But you’re not. You’re doing what needs to be done, so that she can get the help she needs.
I wish I had something better for you. But at the end of the day: the only person who can save her is herself.
Good luck, Stumped. And write back to let us know how you and your friend are doing.
This isn’t really about romance. This is about managing the underbelly of masculinity as it touches on otherwise reasonable people with Baggage. And trying to do it with humanity.
I’m (cis-woman) in school – a graduate program – and I’ve got this friend (cis-man), who’s also in school, but an undergrad. We are both quite a bit older than the rest of our classmates, and we are the same age (mid-30s). So of course we self-identify as members of the same tribe and become fast friends. We both love thinking hard about the same intellectual pursuits, we share a cynical attitude towards pop culture, millennials, and love learning for the sake of it. (Education is wasted on young people)
Lovely, right? Well yes generally. But here’s the thing: M* – let’s call him that – doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional support. Not a ton of friends. No kidding! I mean, he’s got “friends” but they’re 21 and it’s hard to relate. I admit I run into the same problem, but my “younger” friends are 28-31, and so we share more life experiences.
The upshot is that pretty much every time he hangs out he does the emotional download. I call it the All About M Show. He occasionally suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, so it can get intense.
We we are not talking All About M, we engage in intellectual debate – fun! – but he’s the assertive sort that has to Win. I’m a Ph.D. student – I like to learn. I don’t want to win. In fact, competition stresses me out and this is in fact why I quit my perfectly well-paying respectable job to return to school. Meanwhile, M’s a bit of a freight train when it comes to verbalizing his inner monologue. To contribute to a conversation, I have to pluck up the energy to actively interrupt him. He lets me do this. And when I do, he listens. Unfortunately, I really want him to ask me what I think. To ask *me* questions for once. Why this irritates me — apart from the whole “male privilege” shit — it gives me flashbacks from yesteryear of interacting with a Depressed Mom who suffered from depression’s peculiar kind of narcissism. I was socialized to be a Good Listener — and I don’t fucking want that job anymore.
The upshot of THIS is that occasionally I’d feel too exhausted to hang out with him. I had to (1) be on my toes and prepared to interrupt him during the intellectual parts of conversation and (2) patient enough to listen kindly to Problemz.
Pretty much I was navigating this. I thought I was doing a decent job internalizing and then compartmentalizing the mommy issues. but THEN he wants to introduce sex into the picture. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first. Went home to think about it for a few days. Sex is nice, he’s a good friend, win-win right? Hm. He sold it pretty well.
Nevertheless, I sent what I thought was a relatively thoughtful email about how I wasn’t interested in FwB at my age. It would just turn into a mess for me. Seriously, I’m 36. I’m in New York. I’m *up to here* with “caz.” Fucking him would make me hate him eventually. He responded well, and things went back to normal.
Well, I *thought* things were fine. Yet, a few more days later, and I just got angry. Explosive anger. I feel like a free-therapy-blow-up-doll and I actively do NOT want to see him anymore. The frustration floating around in my chest surprises, shocks, and bothers me.
He didn’t bring up the sex issue again for a few months. Did it again the other day. and I want to block his phone number. I want to punch him in the face.
I think a lot of my anger derives from stereotypes about men, my own less-than-fond-memory-producing past experiences with exes, and the aforementioned mommy issues, and not from M at all. Can you help me untangle some of this??? I’m being a complete dick, right?
The advice from the peanut gallery is to just “break up” with him. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. I guess I need permission to flake on someone.
Not The Therapist
There’re a couple of issues here, NTT. The first is that dealing with M takes a lot of emotional and mental energy, energy that is hard to come by when you’re a doctoral candidate. He sounds like the sort of person who’s well-meaning but self-centered and somewhat clueless; call it male privilege, call it pure ignorance, whatever it is, friendship with him isn’t going to be a two-way street without some major direction from the other person. And that’s gonna be a tough call for anyone, never mind someone who’s in grad school.
The other is that, inadvertently or not, he’s triggering emotional PTSD and that’s seriously fucking up your chi. He keeps managing to hit these emotional landmines on top of the issue of being a difficult friend and that’s throwing you for a loop.
Now, I don’t think the rage and anger you’re feeling for him is necessarily justified – unless he’s being a major shit, I don’t think his behavior has necessitated a punch in the face – but it’s still real and it’s bothering you. That’s a legitimate issue and it’s something worth addressing. It sucks that he doesn’t have as many sources of emotional support, and it sounds like he needs a lot of it, but that’s not your responsibility. You didn’t sign a suicide pact, you’re not under contract to be his emotional sounding board or his supplementary parent. This is doubly true if being friends with him puts you through this wringer when you hang out together. You aren’t obligated to sacrifice your own mental and emotional well-being for him.
So yes, you’re perfectly justified in breaking up with him, as it were. But here’s something to keep in mind: you don’t need to justify ending a relationship. You are well within your rights to end a relationship with someone because you just want to. Full stop, end of story. It might be nice to tell him why – “Listen, you’re really intense and you’re hitting some buttons that really bother me” – but it’s not necessary. If your lives are entangled together – commingled finances, living together, etc. – then it’s better to give some advance notice so you can both make the necessary arrangements, but it’s not as though you have to get permission to break up with someone, whether you’re dating or just friends.
So, permission granted. Stop being friends with the guy and stop sacrificing your emotional well-being when you don’t need to.
First off I want to thank you for opening my eyes up to the fact that talking to women is a skill that, like any other, can be improved with practice. For the longest time I was confused by the societal idea that this skill is something you are either born with or you are screwed for the rest of your life.
Now, on to my question. In your article about surviving high school, you wrote that this time is best spent learning to talk to women as friends and focusing on self improvement.
But in that same article you refer to talking to women as a skill that one can get better at by putting in the hours.
Also, in your college article, you write that college will be great if we spent high school improving ourselves and practicing our game. I though we’re supposed to focus on talking to girls as friends rather than “game”.
I’m really confused because I’m not sure what exactly you mean. Should we practice our “game” or just get comfortable with interacting with girls?
Sorry for the confusing question.
It’s both. One flows naturally from the other.
Look at it like this: talking to women in general is a skill. The more comfortable you get interacting with women – the ones you’re close to, the ones you know casually and the ones you don’t know or barely know – the better you will do when you’re talking to the women you’re attracted to.
That experience treating women as people is part of what demystifies them and makes it easier to relate. It helps increase your social calibration and your ability to joke and play around. It means that you’ll be more comfortable striking up conversations with new people and reading their signs. It means that you’ll have a wider repertoire of experiences and insights to draw from, which will help you connect with them.
There’re going to be plenty of women you’re not attracted to in your life; being able to talk to them is going to be just as important as the women you want to date.
And here’s the thing: you can flirt just for the sake of flirting. Flirting, when done right, is fun. Learning to flirt with intent and without intent are valuable skills to cultivate. Think of it as the difference between a pick-up basketball game with your friends and being in the play-offs. What you learn and practice in the former becomes part of your muscle memory and helps you in the latter.