How to care for an emotionally troubled friend.
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(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)
For most of his life, one of my closest friends has suffered the gamut of mental health issues — anxiety, depression, you name it. Last year, our freshman year of college, we shared a room. He lost his grip over and over and eventually checked into a hospital, but only for a week. When he got out, he continued going to school and working two jobs, despite everyone telling him not to.
Though this may sound selfish, living with him was one of the hardest experiences I’ve been through. Enduring his everyday mood swings, hearing him screaming in his sleep and being exposed to his self-harming tendencies, my sanity began to slip.
This school year, we lived together again, but got a place where we could each have our own room. It didn’t help. If I’m there, he panics and asks when I’ll be leaving, and if it’s not soon, he flees. Having guests over is impossible, even though I follow his rules — text him when someone is coming to the room; let him know if someone is staying the night, etc.
These rules are not unreasonable, but his reactions to everything are — the jealousy when I’m not around; the suicidal threats when I explain I’m spending the weekend with my girlfriend; the never-ending nurturing I simply can’t provide and still keep myself afloat.
When I explained to him I would have to find other roommates at the end of the year, he went into a frenzy, frantically calling apartment complexes to find his own place as soon as possible, even though he can’t sustain himself.
He hasn’t spoken to me since this happened, and I can’t help feeling a combination of guilt and anger at this emotional manipulation. My parents and friends tell me I have done everything I can, but I don’t know if I’m truly at fault for this mess, and I certainly don’t know how to repair this friendship before things are broken off completely.
–Exhausted Friend; Pittsburgh, PA
You think you’re responsible for this mess? Are you kidding me? No, you’re not responsible! Your parents and friends are right — you’ve done everything you can do.
OK, hang on a second…I take pride in validating all questioner’s feelings, and that first paragraph did the opposite. So in the spirit of validation, let’s try again…
I get why you’re struggling with this situation. I get how guilt and anger are clashing inside you. For nearly two years, from close range, you’ve watched one of your best friends have a mental and emotional breakdown. You’ve been there through the sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the suicidal contemplations. Yet you’re being treated as if you’re a traitor.
The reality, of course, is that you’re anything but. You have been a good friend, taking extreme measures to help battle those demons with him. There aren’t many people, much less college students, who would put up with what you’ve put up with — especially the dictatorial rules he laid out. For most kids, hanging a tie on the bedroom doorknob is the extent of their consideration.
But sadly, this guy needs more than a good friend; he needs help. Professional help. And he needs it now. The behavior you’re describing is beyond serious, it’s dangerous. And if it’s not addressed soon, who knows what’s possible. It’s best if you never find out. This situation screams for a “Better safe than sorry” approach.
Where are his parents? Where’s the rest of his support system? Relatives, a university counselor, anyone? Or are you all he has?
It’s noble what you’ve been doing, serving as your friend’s keeper. It’s a fine role to fill in the short term, or for lesser challenges, like when he’s struggling with a breakup or sidelined by a hangover. But when it comes to something as critical as his long-term emotional health, you’re operating above your paygrade.
In any relationship, be it romantic or platonic, the best thing you can do to take care of the other person is to first take care of yourself. That might sound counterintuitive, but look no further than your current situation. You’re feeling the effects of the last two-plus years. In your words, your sanity’s beginning to slip. And how could it not?
Not only are you watching your friend suffer, his suffering is invading your world. College is supposed to be a special time, a time of bad decisions that lead to good memories, and your experience is being compromised.
And in all seriousness, what about you? What about your future? How are you supposed to manage your classes, grades and responsibilities while serving as your friend’s primary caregiver?
This arrangement is not good for you, and despite your best efforts and intentions, it’s not good for your friend either. The burden of his well-being should not fall on you.
Is there another adult you can seek out — your parents, maybe? — who could help you get him the help he needs?
I understand how taking a step back would feel like a step toward abandonment. But it’s not. This is a case in which less is more — for both of you. Think of it like this: You’ve tried things one way, and this is where it’s led you. Why not try something new?
I also understand why your friend feels abandoned, which makes you feel as if you’re killing this relationship. That’s a natural reaction for both of you at this point in the process.
But you don’t have to cut off communication entirely. You can still be there for him. You can still be there to listen, to be a shoulder to cry on. It’s just that when you’re done doing so, you’ll get up, say, “See you later,” and walk back into your own life.
Do this for a little while, and you’ll start to feel better. And with the proper guidance and support from trained professionals, so will your friend. At which point he’ll finally be able to see how good a friend you’ve been to him all along.
What do you think? What advice would you give this reader? Have any horror stories of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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