When someone has an emotional problem: Does that change the rules of friendship?

April 25, 2011 | By | 18 Replies Continue Reading

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

How do you deal with a friendship that has become toxic, either due to depression, borderline disorder, or both?

 

I have been close with my friend for seven years and our relationship has slowly eroded over time. Her emotional issues—lack of accountability, twisting situations, and never being able to act, say, or behave as one would expect—have taken a toll.

 

If I remain friends, the pattern only repeats itself. If I try to step back or walk away for a bit, I am the bad one for abandoning the friendship.

 

If a friendship is toxic because of mental illness, should I handle it differently?

Signed,

Bel

 

ANSWER

Dear Bel,

That’s a tough question—I think you really need to consider your decision very carefully and then go with your gut. If I were in your shoes, I would tend to make some special allowances—within reason—for someone who is having mental or emotional issues.

 

Would you abandon a friend who is being treated for cancer or heart disease? You probably would be more likely to rush in to provide help and support. Unfortunately, mental and emotional disorders can be very alienating and take their toll on interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, people are so frightened by disorders of the brain that they instinctively back off. I give you credit for thinking this through so carefully.

 

Some issues that might make you decide to maintain the relationship or let go:

1) Have you expressed your discomfort to your friend? Does she acknowledge that something is wrong? Is there any hope on the horizon that things will change in her life?

2) Is your friend taking responsibility for the problem by seeking help from a mental health professional? Many problems are too big for even the best of friends to handle.

3) Is the person totally draining you or so dependent on your that it is taking a toll on your own emotional health, well-being, and other relationships?

4) Are there ways that you still find the relationship reciprocal and gratifying—or has it become totally one-sided? Do you think you could depend on your friend if you really needed her?

 

If your friend agrees, you might want to see if her therapist can help her (or help you and her) work through some of the problems that are arising in your friendship.

 

If you do decide that you need to change this relationship or end it, try to do so in a way that minimizes the hurt and pain for someone who may be very needy and have few other friends. One thing you might want to do is to downgrade the relationship so that you spend less time together rather than ending it completely.

 

Letting go of the friendship doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person—as long as you carefully think about your decision, consider all the consequences, and find ways to gently minimize the blow it might be to someone who is already burdened by significant problems.

I hope this is helpful.

Best,
Irene

 

Other posts that touch on friendship and mental/emotional problems


Tell your friends: Mental illnesses are no-fault disorders

Psych 101: When a close friend is depressed

Disappearing Acts: When friends disappear after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder

Relating to a friend in crisis

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your very kind, compassionate and thoughtful words. I just recently asked a friend (known her for 20-21 yrs, much more intensively by phone for 8-9 yrs) to just contact me by email. Over the years I have been the one person who didn’t stop talking with her when she was doing a lot of self-destructive things. She is diagnosed with anxiety, depression and borderline. I have to add that I have PTSD and depression, so I know what it’s like to feel really bad. However, for the last year I’ve just felt drained getting her calls. Not that there were a lot of hysterics that often, but simply it was seven minutes devoted to me and the rest (1 or 2 hour calls) to herself. She would complain about her money problems or whatever and I would suggest a solution. Most of the time there was an excuse why she couldn’t do it. I also got tired of hearing about all the addicted or dysfunctional people in her life. I got tired of hearing her make poor decisions about people because they had been nice to her and she didn’t look any further. The one time over the phone that I spoke my mind about her holding on to being a victim she freaked out. So it wasn’t brought up again.

    Last summer I ended up in residential treatment for 11 days for severe depression. She was a support for me then. I got into intensive therapy afterwards and really worked on myself. I feel like I have moved on and she hasn’t. I have a huge support of family and sweetheart now, as well as long distance friends who are healthy. I just moved here and am working on finding healthy friends.

    Her response to my request was very angry and hurt, tho I’d tried to be as gentle as possible. It also reminded me of why I didn’t try to do this over the phone. I’m not real swift on my feet verbally. Even though we both grew up in profoundly dysfunctional families, and have experienced mental illness, I don’t feel that means I have to be her support forever. I’m just tired. This was a very difficult step for me to take. Like you said, I am not a sponge. I have been there for her for a long time. It’s time she finds someone else. She’s already in therapy. I hope she can find support in there.

  2. EagleWings says:

    Thank you, Irene.

    I hope my post to Ellie was not too harsh. It was not my intent to hurt her further or to be a downer.

    In addition to having clinical depression since childhood, I was codependent (a people pleaser) for many years, so I’ve always had super sensitive feelings. (My feelings would get easily hurt. I’m not as bad now as I used to be.)

    I know when someone is deeply depressed (and possibly codependent), it hurts deeply to hear the plain, hard truth.

    The hard truth, even when spoken very gently and with the best of intentions, can sound cruel or insensitive to a depressed or codependent person.

    It was not my intent to hurt Ellie (hopefully I did not), but since my mother died two years ago, I’ve had no choice but to accept some cold, hard truths and get on with life.

    One of the cold hard truths I’ve had to grapple with is that people will let you down.

    People will disappoint you, even in your moments of greatest need – sometimes they do not do so on purpose, but they do it, and it hurts, even when you know it was unintentional.

    I’ve learned not to expect other people to totally be there for me all the time – maybe they’re too busy, caught up in their own problems, or they just do not understand depression or grieving.

    There’s nothing wrong with leaning on other people once in awhile, or crying on their shoulder once in a while, but most people cannot be there for you all the time, or as much as you need for them to be, or want for them to be.

    I’ve also learned that (outside of my mother, who passed away), there is no single person I can go to for help and relief.

    You cannot totally rely on any one person all the time – other people are weak and have flaws and can only handle so much of your pain. That’s a tough reality to accept, but that is the way it is.

    Even though not having one or two people to regularly turn to when I’m hurting has been very difficult, it’s also made me stronger and tougher. I don’t like it that way, but you do learn to accept it after some time. You do get used to it after awhile.

  3. Irene says:

    Thanks so much for your incredibly supportive, sensitive, thoughtful, and helpful response to Ellie. I’m always astounded by the warmth and wisdom of this community.

    Your note reminded me of one other resource I should have mentioned. Ellie, you may want to look into the availability of a support group in your local area or online. Check out the website of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

    Thanks again to both of you for sharing so openly.

    My best,

    Irene

     

     

     

     

  4. EagleWings says:

    Ellie, please see Dr. Levine’s post right below mine.

    I know what you are going through. I am sorry you are hurting.

    I was diagnosed with clinical depression as a child and have suffered with it well into adult hood (I’m over 35 years old), and I also have suicidal thoughts every so often (which began when I was a kid).

    Anti depressant medications and doctors, including psychiatrists, did not help me.

    My mother, who was my best friend, died over two years ago, and she was the main person I would go to when my depression got really bad.

    Since my mom has died, I’ve had next to no one to turn to for the grieving or the depression, so I know what it’s like to be alone and isolated and have to go it alone.

    I have never married, so I do not have a spouse I can go to.

    I’ve tried talking to other people (people at a new church I began going to a while back, to extended family members, etc), but most of them are either too busy to listen to me, or they make judgmental, insensitive comments, so I stopped trying to talk to them.

    Some people just plain do not understand depression, so they will (unintentionally) say ignorant or hurtful things.

    However, I’ve also been on the other side of this fence, especially after my Mother died. I have had intensely emotionally needy people cling to me.

    I have an older sister who was filled with rage, fury, and some depression, who would frequently use me as her sounding board and her life preserver after our mother died.

    I also had some long time internet friends, who, even though they knew my mother died and it was rough for me, would still frequently e-mail me in the few months after Mom died, to look to me for comfort when they had problems, or felt depressed about their issues.

    The end result is that all these people looking to me to comfort them (when I was already hurting myself) made my depression even worse.

    Could you tell your remaining friends and family that your illness zaps your motivation and energy, and so you need their help, could they make an appointment with a therapist on your behalf and drive you to see the therapist?

    At the end of the day, no one single human being can be your savior and meet all your needs. Nobody can absorb all your pain.

    (A therapist might be able to teach you coping methods to deal with the pain, though.)

    It’s expecting way, way too much of one single friend to play that role for you. I know because I was put in that very position by my sister and several internet friends, as I mentioned above.

    I am sympathetic to your plight, but I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of thing, and it’s not easy either way.

    After two years of trying to be there for my hurting sister and hurting friends, I broke down.

    I could not do it any more.

    I simply had no mental strength or energy to take the constant ranting, negativity, and vitriol, or the desperately sad three- to- six hour- in- a- row phone calls (or the long, sad or angry e-mails) and answer them all.

    I finally had to tell my sister and these friends that I could no longer be there for them like that any more, that it was causing me harm.

    I was also drained and worn out by their non stop problems and inner pain.

    Your male friend who was formerly supportive may have personal problems he’s dealing with.

    Maybe he lost a loved one, is in danger of losing his job, or whatever. He may not be able to prop you up as well as deal with his own problems too.

    I know it hurts deeply (and can be infuriating) if and when people refuse to be there for you (I’ve been there many times, especially after my mother’s death).

    But the flip side of the coin is that other people have their problems and limits and get to a point where they love you but simply cannot keep lifting you up.

    You said,

    “but because I knew he was a compassionate, nonjudgmental friend who would know how to support me.”

    And that’s the sort of person I am (supportive and usually very non-judgmental) – but I am just a person at the end of the day. I’m not a sponge who can indefinitely keep absorbing other people’s pain day after day month after month.

    I would encourage you to try to make friends with someone else, because it’s not fair or realistic to keep turning to the same person over and over for this kind of support.

    There might be some kind of free support group in your area for depressed people, where you can chat with like minded people who understand, and so you are spreading the issue around to various people and not just unloading on the same person repeatedly.

  5. Irene says:

    Hi Ellie,

    I’m so sorry that you are feeling so badly. You must seek professional help immediately. If you have a therapist, call him or her. If you don’t, contact a suicide hotline so you can talk to someone who is trained to help you.

    It’s unfortunate that your friend turned his back on you but just like you felt like you were drowning, he may be having the same feeling. He may simply need time and space to recoup.Try not to take it too personallly.

    Don’t forget that depression is a very treatable illness! If you take steps to get the right help as soon as possible, you will not only feel much better, you’lll be in a better position to share in the give and take of close relationships.

     

    My best,

    Irene

  6. Ellie anonymous says:

    For the past few months I have been suffering from major depression. I turned to a friend to help me save myself from the downward spiral I was in. I know I haven’t been a joy to be around at times and I know that I was being selfish with our friendship at times. But when you’re drowning in depression you need to be selfish to save yourself. What was helping me on my way out of this depression was knowing that this one friend could forgive my behaviors during this depression….that he understood it wasn’t me but the depression…that he believed that I could get out of this even when I didn’t believe it. That support was saving me from the darkness. I was very fortunate to have this support. The reason I turned to him wasn’t because he was my closest friend, but because I knew he was a compassionate, nonjudgmental friend who would know how to support me. I have closer friends, but they don’t have the qualities I need to get out of this dark place.

    Well, today the friend who had been such a key form of support has abandoned me. He told me I can’t expect him to fill this role. I understand he needs to set boundaries. I want him to do what he needs to do for himself. BUT…he knows how close I am to being suicidal and that his support has helped get me away from that point….he knows how much horrible pain he is causing me by refusing to be my friend now….he knows that just two weeks ago I was getting to a really good place, and I had thanked him for what he had done for me, and that just two days later I had a really bad day that sent me spiraling….he knows that I am trying hard to get out of this and not be needy….but still he does this….abandons me knowing damn well that I will spiral into darkness.

    Do any of you understand what pain results when you abandon people in their darkest hours?! THese are people you know are good. These are people who hate how they are when they are depressed. They don’t want to be like this with you. THey’re not doing this to hurt you. I am one of those people. I am a good, wonderful person who just needs support and friendship. What I get is abandoned. How exactly am I supposed to feel that life has hope when this happens?

  7. Anonymous says:

    YOu’re all very cruel

  8. Anonymous says:

    I was dedicated to my friendship with my former BFF, to the point of sticking by her side when it seemed everyone else was hating on her, even though her constant drama caused me to have a stress ulcer and throw up every single day of the last year of our friendship. My former BFF has been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder, but I think it’s far worse. The last 6 months of our friendship (we were roommates, as well, but only lasted 8 months) were very rocky. She would accuse me of the most inane things. She would say that I had ‘promised’ her I would do such and such, but in reality never did, but she would go off on me about these made up scenarios in her head. She left me utterly confused and I would apologize to keep the peace because she wouldn’t just make this stuff up, right? WRONG! It just so happened that I started dating a new man (my husband now) towards the end of our friendship. She was very jealous of me spending time with him and that I was dating him instead of her and decided to sit me down early on during our courtship and proceed to tell me that I needed to break up with him because he had been rude to her. It was a total lie! She wanted me completely socially dependent on her. I had a ton of friends before she came along but she slowly but surely had me cut off contact with them because they were mean to her. Sound familiar? And I ended up being by her side 24/7. At first I thought she was really clingy, and she was because she HAD to have me near her at all times. In her head, she was the QUEEN and I was her maidservant. She constantly had some sort of self-made drama going on ALL the time. She was never without a boyfriend or husband but I guess I wasn’t allowed to have one. She had broken up another romantic relationship of mine several months before because she deemed the guy I was seeing as ‘her property’ because apparently he was in love with her so she said, even though she was married at the time! Anyways, it all came to a head and she dumped me saying, that I had already dumped her because I chose my boyfriend over her and that ‘everyone’ told her I “would drop her like a hot potato once I found someone that would actually date me”. She wanted to make me feel like a loser who couldn’t land a man. While she would date anyone that asked her out, I turned down most guys that asked me out. I was selective but she was an equal opportunists when it came to men. She’d accept a date from Hitler if he asked her, just so that she wouldn’t be without a man by her side. I thought we would be friends forever but it only lasted 3 years. She idealized me at first, then she started spreading rumors about me and making little snide remarks here and there, so she was devaluing me and then when she couldn’t stand to be around me anymore (because she couldn’t control me afterall) she discarded me like an old broken toy. The last 6 months her personality had completely changed before my eyes. She used to seem so meek and sweet and would never hurt a fly, but in reallity that was just to suck me in. She was/is a rager and she does it when no one is around, that way if you tell someone about it they’ll think you’re the liar instead of her. She’s a master at feigning innocence while all the time stabbing me in the back by spreading terrible rumors about me to anyone who would listen. She’s also great at forming cliques where she is the leader and she always goes for teenagers which I find disturbing to no end. It’s a lot easier to brainwash a 16 year old than it is a 30 year old and she knows it. She’s a dance teacher so it’s available to her to do because of her occupation. When she is done with this clique, she’ll start on another one to fill the void. People who have seen the real her (which is few, just me, another ex friend of hers, her family members, and her ex husbands) can all attest to her rage, but everyone else has no idea. All they see is someone being mean to her, she’s always a victim of some sort of misjustice. So, the people that are unlucky enough to see her vile behavior and rage attacks are deemed liars or crazy or jealous. I gotta say it’s very therapeutic talking to someone whom she has discarded because they describe exactly how she treated me but it’s their story instead. So the way she punishes people who don’t bow to her every whim is by discarding them, but in reality it’s a total blessing! I don’t care if someone from her cult calls me crazy (and it has happened) because I know if they hang around her long enough that fragile mask she wears will fall off at some point, it always does.

    I find it very self-aware of her to actually call the teenagers in her clique her ‘minions’, I kid you not!

  9. anonymous says:

    Hi, I had a friend with similar problems and things were pretty good for awhile, I didnt take things personally and was learning how to accept, adapt myself and adjust my expectations in the relationship. Haivng historically been a person who allowed low self esteem friendships in my life she was the exception to my rule of not taking that anymore as it was clear to me that to a large degree she couldnt help some things. However, the friendship did fall apart, just as, after two years, i was able to understand her better and was preparing myself for setting some new boundaries and having some conversations insisting she get help or I was going to , not wanting to, step back in the friendhsip.

    What I did, ironically just a little too late as I think it would have helped, is attend support group and program with National Alliance of Mental Illness. YOu will learn alot about how to help your friend. But the book “I AM Not Sick I Do NOt Need Help” was really so good, its for loved ones of those with mental illness written by a person’s brother and psychiatrist. Like you , my friend would not have conversatoins about therapy or anything to do with her problems, or she would bring it up every once in a while but I was so afraid due to bad past experiences, of saying something wrong, that I shied away from maximizing opportune times for beneficial conversation. This book would have helped me however discuss this with her in a different way that may have been more productive. I suggest you try it and try to employ some of its methods, so that before you end or downgrade the friendhsip you will feel you have done everything you can. It might also help you hang in there as you will understand your friend better. All Irene says about people is true, this is an illness. Unfortunately, the illness by nature destroys the most importnat antidote to it’s worst manifestations, close relatiionship. Hope this helps.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I think that there are some people who regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not are just plain self-absorbed/selfish. It sounds like you already know what you want to do but you might feel a bit bad for it?

    Even someone with mental illness can still have the capacity to look after themselves even in the most minute ways. You do not have to be her punching bag but it would be good to set some boundaries and think about why you feel indecisive about reducing contact. You have obviously tried to hold her to account which is great but for whatever reason, she doesn’t want to be accountable to you.

    I really think people are more than their mental illness. Listen to yourself and all the best.

  11. Irene says:

    Laura, Once again, thanks for such insightful and helpful comments.

    Best, Irene

  12. Laura says:

    She refuses to seek treatment. You need to make it clear that any friendship would need to include her seeking therapy. Think if your friend was an alcoholic: would you enable her by spending time with her while she’s drunk? You have a right to distance yourself and leave the door open if she’s amenable to seeking therapy and improving.

  13. Anonymous says:

    My plan is to just move on and what ever happens, happens…I will NOT take any blame!!

    My kids and family have suffered because of her and I wont allow that to continue…

    It is tricky though as I see her around town, at soccer games etc..Ideally, I would like to keep it cordial and polite, but with her..it may be all or nothing. She would rather ignore me or walk in the other direction, than have me think I can say hello to her..she will punish me.

    Also, she is very clever and conceals this side of her, if you know what I mean…so to others, she is charming, fun and so caring…I look like the crazy one…

    Thanks for sharing and for caring…sincerely…

  14. Anonymous says:

    I completely understand I also put myself through the same thing in the name of friendship. I put my family through so much because I was trying to save a friendship I cherished. We are not trained to take on mental problems and even though we love them we are not doing them any favors by beating our heads against the wall, trying to figure them out. I feel it’s important to know, It’s not you, you didn’t cause this problem and she needs to help herself. I feel that my friend knew me quite well and she knew what buttons to push and that she could treat me any way she wanted and I would be there. That’s why you have to put yourself and your family first, because in the end you have know idea what is going on with her. You owe it to yourself and your family to be there for them. Her mental illness is bringing you down and has affected you. It got to the point with me when I was worrying more about her situation than she was, she made it clear to me that her life has moved on. Life is way to short to give it to someone else who really doesn’t care. You need to take the time now to take care of you, you don’t need to feel guilty about putting your own needs and that of your families first. I would take a long break and let her come to you but in no way take the blame for her stuff or allow her to be abusive towards you. People change and for whatever reason she isn’t the friend you once had. I hope she is able to get help or wake up and realize what she is doing but I wouldn’t count on it. We teach people how to treat us and I would put your foot down and let her know enough is enough, you are not her doormat, if she needs to vent she needs to seek counseling. Take care of yourself!!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi…

    I am trying to handle as best as possible. I want to reach out to her, but then I ask myself “why”?…only to further subject myself to more emotional abuse once the honeymoon period is over in her opinion.

    I cant begin to tell you the physical and emotional turmoil I have endured..everything from losing weight, gaining weight, sleepless nights, missed work and negecting my family…all because of me feeling badly all the time, her constant deflecting and blaming…

    I felt I had to stick by the friendship, things had been so good…best friends…close familes, etc…I believed we could get back here…I held on to the slim chance she would realize what a great friend I was, what a great friendship we once had…

    I believe now it will never happen…will she contact me, I dont know…I will leave it in her court, I think that is best.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I read your posts and it hit close to home for me, as I went through this 16 years ago. I had a friends for 20+ years and it ended because of what you just described. Everything was fine with her then all the sudden she started acting weird and treating me horribly. She called saying her husband was abusive and saying she was dead inside….I didn’t know how to handle it so I called her sister and told her what was going on and that I was worried. That only made things worse…I tried to be compassionate and went out of my way to try to help. It just made things worse. Unfortunately, I lost patients and said somethings I shouldn’t of and our friendship ended but not without me trying for 16 years to reconnect….I tried to apologize and only got the silent treatment, I mailed a letter and got return to sender. She was running the PTA(PTA president) at the time but telling everyone who cared about her that she was dead inside. I offered to watch her children while she got some counseling and she about hit the roof. If I had to do it all over again, I would distance myself and wait for her to reach out to me. I wouldn’t end the friendship but I would let is slowly fade away, not because I wanted it that way but because it was out of my hands. I did contact her this last September by facebook and she replied to me telling me that she truly did value the friendship but she can’t ever go back there. I was glad to hear from her so I could finally move on or at least stop trying to reach out, but to be honest it still hurt after all these years. I replied back to her saying thanks and I wished her well. This website has helped me so much to realize that most of the time friendships don’t last forever!! I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I did wrong only to figure out that it had nothing to do with me…It was something she was going through and still is. I am not sure exactly what the problem was but I knew her long enough to know it’s some kind of mental illness. There reaches a point were you have to take care of yourself when there illness it affecting your life more than it should be. Hope this helps:)

  17. Anonymous says:

    Hi…I am the one who write this question to Irene…My friend is not in therapy, would not go and doesnt think she needs to at this point. She knows she has depression and BPD, yet, is not actively seeking treatment. If I suggested it, she would not be happy about that.

    This has taken a toll, the blaming me for everything, walking on eggshells, apologizing for so much, the silent treatments…the constant roller coster…

    It all happened so carefully and slowly..I never saw it coming…and now I need to decide to leave it be or step back abit…

  18. Laura says:

    There are people who are mentally ill who are selfish outside of their mental illness. You need to see if that is the fact the case. How is this friend when she’s over a significant episode of illness? When out of her mental illness episode, is she habitually “twisting situations, and never being able to act, say, or behave as one would expect?” That’s going to be the deciding point to downgrade the relationship, that is, what qualities and personality traits does she display when her mental illness is controlled. It’s very difficult. Also, mentally ill people who have borderline personality disorders are the toughest friends to have because they frequently has twisted emotional reasoning that is illogical to the rest of us: fear of abandonment, blaming others for their feelings of inadequacy, etc.

    Be kind to yourself. You’re not a saint, capable of withstanding all kinds of emotional onslaughts. And you should make that known to your friend too. No friend is naturally born to deal with serious mental illness; you learn as you go along. And just like cancer doctors need to sleep and take vacations from cancer patients, so do psychiatrists and so do friends of the mentally ill.

    One piece of advice you can give your friend: when someone has a disease, it’s very helpful to go to a support group of people going through it. We can empathize but we can’t really know what it is to go through that disease; so it makes it even more important that she get the support from people who know what she’s going through. This also helps to unburden you and the expectations of the relationship that you’re always going to be the one she can turn to for everything – another mythology of friendship expectations.

    You don’t have to completely cut her off. You have to redefine the expectations of both sides of the relationship so that it up-building for both of you.

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