Anonymous asked a question:
My roommate used to be my best friend. However, I became incredibly depressed from last year until about a month ago, and that severely strained our relationship. Even though I don’t believe I should apologize for everything that happened (because I was depressed), I have a bunch of times and asked her for forgiveness. She has yet to say to me “I forgive you” and hasn’t ever apologized for the things she did to me. I don’t understand how a “Christian” friend could treat me like this.
Hey dear friend, I’m sorry this happened, and I’m with you: I’ve wrestled with depression for a lifetime, and I know how it can take us over and make us irrational and out of our minds. The harm we do is not intentional and not our fault. And I know how awfully insensitive the general culture can be towards your depression, from ignoring it to mocking it to offering all sorts of wrong theories on how to get “cured.”
Now, I have to say the very difficult truth, and I’m saying it entirely with grace and empathy and love for your situation as well as my own. I say this attempting to balance my heart for you as well as for your friend.
Unfortunately, the bad news is that your friend is not obligated to forgive you. As much as she tried to stay, she also has every right to leave. She’s not obligated to apologize, and if you’re holding her apology to a “Christian standard,“ that’s rather gaudy and even malicious. This sounds cold and unfair, but to expect every single person to stay through our mental hardships is to ask them to be God, and is almost just as burdensome as enduring depression itself.
Both pop culture and church culture might teach you a romanticized, whimsical way to “always be there for someone,” but it’s never that easy. Dealing with a depressed person (like me) is exhausting and draining, and it requires a help far greater than many of us can give. Not everyone is built to endure these sort of things. I don’t blame them: my depression is so severe, I cannot imagine who’d be left in its wake.
I’m sure you never meant to hurt your friend while you were depressed, but she was indeed hurt, and she is not required to still be your friend, your confidant, or your companion through your journey. Your friend is not your therapist. Your depression and mine are not some “quirks” to be glossed over. Most likely, our depression will ruin many, many more friendships. I wish friends would stay, but so often they don’t, and I’ve come to make peace with when they won’t.
Consider the words of famed journalist and professor Andrew Solomon, who has written the definitive work on depression called The Noonday Demon, and who himself suffered a depression so severe that he tried to contract HIV from male prostitutes to kill himself:
“Depression is hard on friends. You make what by the standards of the world are unreasonable demands on them, and often they don’t have the resilience or the flexibility or the knowledge or the inclination to cope. If you’re lucky some people will surprise you with their adaptability. You communicate what you can and hope. Slowly, I’ve learned to take people for who they are. Some friends can process a severe depression right up front, and some can’t. Most people don’t like one another’s unhappiness very much.”
Our depression certainly takes us hostage and hijacks our brains into doing things we normally wouldn’t do, but please allow me to dispel you of the romantic notion that everyone must stick through “thick and thin.” Movies and TV shows can make mental illness look quirky and appealing, but in real life, it’s nearly impossible for my friends to endure with me when I fall into depression. It’s intolerable and insufferable. While it’s true that we are not ourselves when we’re depressed, the injuries we have caused are still very real, and it is our friends’ choice to draw boundaries when they feel unsafe around us.
All of my friends are outside their depth to handle me beyond a certain point; only trained professionals are qualified to speak into my mental illness, and even then, would they stay if they weren’t trained and paid? As unfair as it is, I understand why my friends have left. I’m not sure how long I would have endured with me, either. The reality is that not everyone is equipped to handle a friend through their mental illness. It is not your fault or mine. It just is.
It also doesn’t mean that your friend is a bad person or a “sell out.” It only means that human patience has a limit. Some have a longer wick than others. But yes, even my wife needs a break from my own condition.
It is contradictory to ask for selfless empathy for my issues while at the same time I disregard having empathy for the other person who must deal with me. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t ask for an empathy that you’re not willing to reciprocate. And I’m afraid that because of our unrealistic, westernized-saturated, over-romanticized culture, our idea of love has become, “Put up with everything no matter what, or else you really don’t love me”—which is atrocious, mercenary, opportunistic, and reeks of luxurious privilege.
Please hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that a friend should leave at the first sign of difficulty.
I’m not saying your friend shouldn’t hear you out or should not apologize.
I’m definitely not saying that those with mental illness are incapable of deep, lasting friendships (I’m proof of the contrary).
I’m not “victim-blaming” or shaming those who are barely surviving; those of us with mental health issues, more than most people, are at the mercy of external forces and a terrible social stigma, and it’s awful how we’re seen and portrayed.
I’m not empathizing more with those who have abandoned you: the person with mental illness has it the hardest of all.
And I’m not saying that all I’ve written here is right, either; feel free to disagree and push back. After all, every situation is different case by case, and some people have certainly left too quickly, too easily, without warning, and it says everything there is to say about them.
But I am saying that I am not entitled to everyone automatically staying with me on account of my recovery or their value. If they leave, of course it hurts—yet friendships are rarely forever, and they often end to innocuous things like time or distance, and I do not expect every friend to stick around for even more arduous reasons.
My hope is that every side of this conversation can learn to navigate with each other, with education and empathy for one another. I cannot demand that all my friends stay without empathizing with the cost of their love for me. I cannot demand forgiveness without considering the deep hurt that’s been caused, regardless of whether I was out of my mind. Thank God, there are some people who stayed despite it all, and I am thankful and humbled that they would love at such high expense.
And really, if a friend leaves too early: I must question if that person was truly a friend at all, or only liked the parts of me that were palatable. In that case, they will probably always jump from island to island of half-commitment and convenience, and I say, good riddance: you’re better off.