Holding On or Letting Go: The One Friend I Want to Help, But Can’t Anymore.

Anonymous asked a question:

For a while now, my best friend has been struggling with depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. I am the only one that knows this. She takes a lot of her issues out on me … But I can’t take the emotional abuse anymore. It’s an unhealthy relationship that has stopped being a friendship.

I have been asking God what to do. I have sat with her in her mess. In her screaming. In her crying. In her hopelessness. I have tried to give advice. I have prayed for her. I have been patient and worried and angry all at once. I have been bitter because everyone else gets to experience the side of her that I used to know, the happy, loving girl that puts on a mask to hide her pain.

I have decided to tell her that I can’t be the person she needs me to be for her. That she needs to seek professional help. This is going to be a really hard conversation … If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it.

Thank you so much for your honesty and for reaching out to me. I’m also very sorry about the heartache that you’re experiencing; I absolutely know how hard it is to decide between holding on and letting go.

I have to say this upfront, and it’s going to be a wildly unpopular opinion: You’re on to something that most people won’t admit, that “love” and “friendship” do not mean exhaustively giving ourselves out to the point of toxic self-harm. That would be unfair to you and enabling and coddling to your friend, which would end up destroying everyone involved.

Here’s something even more unpopular, and please believe me that I have a hard time writing this. I think that most of us have been bombarded with the Hollywood idea that if we help someone enough, that person will eventually get to an “epiphany” full of high fives and hugging, and that their recovery will get on some upward trajectory. You’ll also be demonized if you “leave someone behind,” especially if you’re considering to possibly “leave behind” someone who is depressed or suffering a mental illness (and I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I can remember, so I’ve been on both sides of this).

Most of us hate to admit when we don’t have the qualified “training” to help someone, and there’s a secret guilt when we simply don’t have the energy or time. So we almost force ourselves to help everyone, which can be good, because most people simply need encouragement and listening, but there’s a very small percentage that need something way beyond us. By now you’ve seen how truly difficult it is to bear with someone who might be beyond your “ability.” What you’re going through is commonly known as secondhand trauma, like secondhand smoking.

The truth is, most of us are unequipped to fully help someone who is suffering from an overwhelming mental illness. In fact, social workers and psychologists tend to get cranky about people who think they’re doing “hero work” by helping the mentally ill. It’s basically like a painter trying to perform open heart surgery. I know that even the best of my friends are limited when it comes to dealing with my own depression. I don’t hold that against them. What I see is that you’re not so much asking for permission to give up, but for permission to rest and to have a wise distance.

And I’m here to tell you, keeping a distance even from your most well-adjusted friends is not “leaving behind” your friend, but simply a necessary rhythm of friendship. Of course, I absolutely believe we’re meant to be there for someone, that no one is excluded from our love and company, and that we must move towards people who are hard to love. I’m not at all saying that it’s okay to give up, or that it’s okay to cut someone off at the earliest convenience. Yet there must be a point when we recognize that someone is abusing our trust, and that professional counseling is not only an option, but a very real next step.

I advise two things.

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