Friends: 10 down, 4 to go
August 25, 2012 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Susan talks non-stop and believes many conspiracy theories. Help me understand her so I can remain her friend.

Susan and I have been friends for over 20 years. Last week I saw her for the first time in seven years and we spent some days together. She is returning for a few more days this week and I need to be prepared.

Susan's can not stop talking. This is very stressful for me. She has also become very involved with conspiracy theories. She believes vaccinations cause autism, that man-induced climate change is bunkum designed to line Al Gore's pockets, homeopathic medicine is superior to allopathic medicine etc. Fortunately we have agreed to disagree about a number of hot topics but the non-stop talking is wearing me down.

I am looking for resources for staying calm during her visit next week. Her visit last week left me exhausted for a few days and I am anxious about the upcoming one. I could lie, feign illness or an emergency trip and call off the visit but she is over a 1000 miles from home already and would be left with a week free in her holiday plans. And it would effectively end our friendship. I am among the last of her friends, I don't want to give in too soon.

Susan was once a well respected environmentalist but she has been steadily losing her friends, some of whom are scientists involved in climate change, or doctors involved with world health or, in one case, the parents of an autistic child. Susan bombards these people with her research. They eventually lose their cool, say something abrupt, and Susan goes off in a huff with her heart cut from the rejection.

So her friends list is shrinking and I don't know if I can hang on. Fortunately I asked this question about a relative, Dotty, just before Susan's arrival and the material there helped me a lot during Susan's stay. But the help only went so far. Susan's verbal battering ram is very sturdy.

I think that if I can understand her from a mental health perspective I will be able to find the personal resources to remain calm and warm during her visit. So if anyone knows the research terms I can use to find more info myself or has experience with incessant talkers, what drives them and what can stop them (I want silence, not a turn at speaking) I'm all eyes.
posted by Kerasia to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Direct: "Susan! Honey! You're talking my ear off. I haven't seen you in such a long time -- let's just enjoy each others company."

Direct + Redirect: "Agh, you know what, Susan, I am definitely not up for any conversation about politics right now. Have you seen the latest Batman film? Do you want to?

Direct Sandwich: "Susan, I've noticed that you've got a lot to say about a lot of issues. You've always been really passionate about the things you believe in; right now, you're going overboard and it makes me uncomfortable to be around you because you come across as aggressive and insensitive. Let's enjoy each other's company and talk about positive stuff -- life's short and we deserve to focus on that right now."

Assertive Direct: "Susan, I don't want to talk about those topics. Let's talk about something else."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:20 PM on August 25, 2012 [26 favorites]

The odds are there is nothing you can do to make this significantly less stressful. I am assuming, and perhaps incorrectly,your friend is on the "spectrum" of bipolar with some paranoid features. this does not mean she can not be relatively high functioning. For me the give away is the rapidly shrinking pool of friends and persistent barrage of unsolicited information. You can either:
1) Lovingly detach while forcibly reminding yourself she is mentally ill, there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it (at this point) , redirect conversation, smile and bear it and remind your self about being more assertive on setting limits on visits.
2)Tell her you are deeply concerned for her well fare, you think she needs professional help ( focus on incessant talking, emailing, barraging friends with info, shrinking support group) and until she actively seeks treatment it is extremely fatiguing to entertain her. Offer to help her secure treatment, look for resources, stay in contact, etc. Do not even bring up "conspiracy theories"as that is a dead end--do not get into arguments as to whether you are correct in your assessment of her MH--keep communications very clear, to the point and force any discussion on very neutral mundane issues.
3) Take three birds of a feathers advice ( particularly assertive direct) and stick to it. I would recommend that what ever overall strategy you choose--stick to it and be consistent in your tone, communications, etc.

Directing her to get help is by far the most difficult and not without it perils--if you do decide to do it review your plans with a close friend/confident/etc. It sounds callous but is probably ( note I said probably) the most helpful to your friend. If she was seriously ill, an addict, abusing drugs while she was with you what would you do. She is very unlikely to come to sudden insight on her own that help is needed--particularly if she is increasingly isolated and has no day to day reality checking around her. While I think may of the beliefs you noted are in themselves irrational/conspiratorial it is the isolation, incessant talking etc that is really most troubling. I am curious as to what if any support she has at home, etc. I do wish you the best.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:32 PM on August 25, 2012

Your compassion toward her is great, and will go a long way, I think.

You ask about ways to frame her incessant talking from a mental health point of view. In no way is this to try to diagnose her, but many people with Autism/Aspergers are unaware of normal social cues and tend to talk in monologues and cannot engage in meaningful dialogue with another person. Maybe her interest in autism is not random?

I couldn't see from your post if she was staying with you or not. Since you will have a few days with her, I would recommend taking charge with a "schedule" of sorts that include time for you to retreat/regroup, including "early" bedtimes to allow you to unwind. Perhaps solicit ideas of what she wants to do, and plan these as the main events for the day, so she feels that you have meaningful time together, and then have other times set aside for you to "run errands", etc, by yourself.

If she's not perceptive to social nuances (it sounds like she is not), the schedule probably won't be perceived as intrusive or rude, especially if it is delivered calmly and without drama. If she brings up any concern about what it means or is paranoid, that may be a chance to gently massage an answer that gives her a chance to talk about what is going on for her. Also, if you want to have a heart to heart with her, I have always found a long drive to be the best setting, because it allows the other person to be vulnerable and open without having to make eye contact, which can often make people too uncomfortable to open up completely.

Good luck.
posted by artdesk at 6:47 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Help me understand her so I can remain her friend

Do you even want to remain her friend? Nothing in your question (aside from the fact that you asked it) indicates that you do or that you enjoy Susan's company.
posted by mullacc at 7:11 PM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

This may not be something you want to hear, but between this question and the one you asked about Dottie, I get the impression that you...

a) may have a harder time than you think being around people who have beliefs you disagree with
b) may have some subconscious disdain for both Dottie and Susan that makes you see them as "less than" mentally healthy people BECAUSE they believe things you don't
c) that you are reconciling the guilt you have about them not having friends anymore with some subconscious need to be charitable or the bigger person.

Look. True friends call each other on their worst behavior. If you don't like Susan or Dottie's behavior, either call them on it, or stop being friends with them, because I don't really get the sense that you actually like them or respect their beliefs in the way you think you do. You come across to me as a little sanctimonious about how you feel these women are kind of crazy, not compassionate. Friends-out-of-pity friendships suck. And yeah, it's totally possible that each of these women have undiagnosed mental health issues that cause them both to fixate on the things that are meaningful to them but not to others. But still, you keep focusing on what they say when really the big issue seems to be how they say it (and how frequently!).

I think that if you focused on combatting the ways in which these two individuals express themselves rather than the actual content of those expressions you'd have a lot more luck being a tolerant, good friend. But if any of the above is true, if you're only staying friends with these women out of pity or guilt, just let them go. Good luck.
posted by Hello Darling at 7:33 PM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

I would tell her you feel under the weather and take at least one nap a day, in addition to early bedtime. You don't need to sleep, of course, you can just sit in your room and enjoy the silence.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:52 PM on August 25, 2012

You say that she was once a respected enviromentalist... are these conspiracy theories and odd social boundries new? Believing these things is one thing, but being aggressive preaching these things is something totally different. If her personality has shifted dramatically, there could be a medical issue.

Anyway. if she's visiting for a few days, get some buffer people in there. Plan activites that require attention- like movies, guided tours, quick boardgames. Plan chores to get a few breaks throughout the day.

Good luck.
posted by Blisterlips at 8:05 PM on August 25, 2012

So some of the things you describe are "whatever" and some of the things you describe are flat-out rude (bombarding parents of a child with autism with "advice" about how they're doing it wrong, boo hiss!)

It's hard to tell whether your issue is with Susan's active rudeness and overstepping of boundaries, or whether you're just bored with hearing her natter on about beliefs you think are illogical.

For me, the first set of issues would be something I would address by firmly establishing boundaries ("Susan, I appreciate your concern for my health, but I do not need advice about managing my arthritis with nettle tea. Please respect my boundary about this.") and with the second I would create break times for myself. Perhaps now is the perfect time to experiment with daily silent meditation practice!
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:49 PM on August 25, 2012

I have a relative who behaved like Susan. It was very, very, very difficult for the family.

My completely unprofessional, unqualified, armchair diagnosis for your friend is that she could be suffering from some variety of bipolar disorder. That was the case for the person I am thinking of. Perhaps resources for friends and family of people with bipolar disorder could help you deal with her.

I would recommend taking a somewhat Zen attitude towards her behavioral issues. You can't fix it. You are not responsible for her getting better. Perhaps most importantly, you do not have to feel bad for being overwhelmed by her.

Try not to get too frustrated if she does not follow seemingly natural, intuitive suggestions for when to keep quiet. As annoying as it sounds, let it go, if you can. There is something the matter with how her brain is working right now. It sucks, but it is what it is. She's still your friend.

You should try changing the subject normally, but be prepared that ordinary cues may not work. Don't become angry. Just really force it to change the subject. Within reason, forget what being polite means. If she starts talking about a paranoid theory, just start talking about something harmless that is only tangentially related. Treat it as a private game, if that helps.

I'm really sorry that everyone has to go through this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:58 PM on August 25, 2012

If it were me, I would not be polite about it. I would say, "we are not going to discuss this, and if you insist on bringing it up again, I'm going to leave/hang up, etc".
posted by empath at 9:07 PM on August 25, 2012

Look, I have a lot of physical issues that friends of mine are convinced would go away if I just cut gluten out of my diet/go vegetarian/ take this or that supplement/ try this diet/ try this thing they read online. I also have bipolar and tons of people tell me I don't need meds and I can fight it if I just try (mind over matter). I don't cut these people out of my life because they are allowed to have their viewpoints, and they are allowed to tell me out them -- once in a while.

I have a few, shall we say, aggressive? friends who will try to go on and on about some of these things. I don't even try and argue with them, and I don't say something like, "I don't want to discuss this" because it's not worth the hassle of trying to talk them down. What I do say when they bring up their viewpoints is, "okay." That's it. "Okay." It's not an agreement. It's not an argument. It's simply acknowledging that they've said something, and I've heard it. End of conversation. Works every time. They tend to run out of steam, and then I can steer the conversation to something else.
posted by patheral at 10:37 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

*they're allowed to tell me about them...
posted by patheral at 10:41 PM on August 25, 2012

This is, to an overwhelming likelihood, not a medical issue. It's an issue of Susan having a complex of incoherent and loony beliefs because her world is a significant source of angst and confusion to her. There is no reason to engage Susan in her pet theories, her silly woo, or her tinfoil hat nonsense. There's no reason to tolerate rudeness, but Patheral has the best bit of advice with how to engage this: don't.

Find entertaining ways to engage yourselves during her visit - ideally things that don't involve sitting and jawing for large portions of time. Have a stock of topics up your sleeve that you can shift to when she gets that vaguely glazed look. Good luck.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:34 AM on August 26, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry if I wasn't clear. My main problem is the non-stop talking, not the ideology. Besides taking time away from the face-to-face while she stays on my isolated property with me, how can I better understand her need to talk all the time?
posted by Kerasia at 2:14 AM on August 26, 2012

Unfortunately, you can't understand her need to talk non-stop. There are just somethings you can't understand or control.
posted by Linnee at 2:25 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Kerasia, if the talking was the problem, why write so much about how your beliefs differ, and try to frame her as mentally unsound because of it? I agree with others who wrote that you don't sound like you really *want* to be her friend. If all you're going to do during her visit it find ways to tolerate her, then just don't. Cut off the friendship. This is MUCH more kind than continuing to pretend to be her friend when you so obviously look down on her.

For The Record: I believe in some of the things you regard as loony; I believe vaccinations are very problematic (though not necessarily causing autism) and that what is sometimes wrongly labeled "homeopathic" medicine (herbalism) can be very helpful and that Western medicine is often crap. Many times people don't even listen to me if I try to explain the nuances of my beliefs and WHY I came to believe as I do, they just lump me in with everyone else who generally believes a similar thing, label my box "wrong" and shove me aside. That says sooooo much more about them, about their open-ness, and about their (lack of) listening skills than it does my beliefs.
posted by parrot_person at 3:09 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Having finally escaped from a "friend" like this after many years, I would say cancel the visit and let the friendship go. There is a reason people like this lose all their friends, and usually it is not the other people but their own actions and attitudes.

You are not obligated to stay in a relationship that is stressful and annoying; this is not a marriage and it sounds like you have already tried to deal with her kindly and got nowhere.Friendships can run their course and end when you no longer have enough in common to sustain it, and she has clearly changed greatly from the person you remember as your friend from years ago.

Her beliefs are unreasonable and she pushes them on others.Agreeing to disagree means staying off certain topics altogether, which it does not sound like she is willing to do.
There is a difference between aggressively attacking someone's different beliefs, and defending yourself from their proselytizing and insistence that you share those beliefs, which is what she is doing. Incessant talking of this kind can be a way of wearing down others who do not accept the same beliefs. It worked for years with the person I finally cut out of my life. I was tired of being the quiet one who finally went along just to shut her up.

If she has mental health issues, it is not your place to either fix them or endure her behavior. You do not owe her endless patience at the expense of your own integrity and sanity. It is not good for your mental well-being to try to endure a visit you will not enjoy. This friendship has died a natural death; mourn it, let it be buried and move on.
posted by mermayd at 4:34 AM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I used to know somebody who talked, talked, talked, but the interesting thing about her was that it was totally fine for you to leave the room. The talker would go on, aware that you were out of earshot. An audience was not required.

Now, this was more "Where did I put that pan? Ah, here we go... I wonder if that movie will still be playing on Saturday? That would be a nice thing to see, I think..." stream-of-conscious being verbalised, no attempt to engage, and admittedly a rather different form of non-stop talker, but I thought it might be worth throwing out the idea that it might be worth seeing what happens with "Susan, I'm going to the bedroom to read" or, if she is really never silent and you have trouble getting a word in, simply wandering off. If it turns out she doesn't mind, well, there's one management strategy for you, anyway.

But the stuff about being okay before and now not so much makes me wonder if she's got something going on physically that's upsetting her brain. If you are committed to the friendship I would do whatever it took to get her to a doctor, I think. Quite disagree with Emperor SnooKloze given the part about her not having been like this (at all, yes?) before.

She sounds paranoid, which means she is probably spending a lot of time being scared if not outright terrified -- for what that's worth for stacking your compassion deck. I hope it works out for you guys.
posted by kmennie at 4:40 AM on August 26, 2012

Do you have many plans for the week? The more stuff you've got on the schedule, the less time will just be talking talking talking. Go see movies, go to museums, go on hikes, go to the pool/beach, go into the city and walk around, find the local art/craft/food fairs, plan a big meal for cooking and eating - just have a lot of things going on. For one thing, she might be talking nonstop but it'll be more fun if you've got more shared topics for the conversation: the movie, how you want the onion chopped, what the best part of the museum was, etc. For another, you can choose activities that have some built-in quiet time (museums, movies). I've also found that even the most chatty and enthusiastic bunch of friends winds down after a day of physical activity and you can have some really pleasant quiet evenings.
posted by aimedwander at 7:11 AM on August 26, 2012

Do you like this woman at all? Your question sounds like you can't stand her (not that I blame you). I'm all for giving people second chances, but when you would rather one of your friends not talk at all, I would submit to you that that friendship is over.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:15 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a talker. I work on shutting up, but I'm not perfect. My whole family - talkers. It's okay when a friend says, OK, enough about (my newest interest); I want to tell you about my new . I believe bipolar is a spectrum disorder. One sibling was really a talker when he was in a more emotional state in life. Family and friends learned to just jump in and turn the conversation, and even to be blunt, in a loving way, Hey J, deep breath, can I have a turn? and then talk, not waiting for permission. An elderly relative used to get stuck in story loops, and I heard certain family stories more than a few times. I learned to interject with questions, so when the story about Grandma and the woodstove got launched, I'd ask about something related How the heck did your grandma do the laundry or whatever. It slows down the talker because they have to think about it, not just spill it.

Some people grasp at conspiracies because they're trying to make sense of the world, and they can't believe in randomness or coincidence, and I think it shows some fear and lack of trust. In some people it looks an awful lot like a disordered thinking. Ask her lots of questions about her life, how she's doing and feeling. She may really need medical and psychological help, and you may be able to help her see that as a positive.

Get some movies, music, and activities. Put on a movie you'd like to see, and gently redirect her when she starts talking over it. Activities - stacking wood, going on a walk with a nature guide and identifying trees, birds, etc., - give you the opportunity to redirect her. S, shhh, can you hear that bird? It sounds like a whatsis. She may really benefit from new sensory information, to get her brain off its well-worn thought patterns. Do a 1,000 piece puzzle, it really concentrates the mind. It's also reasonable to say I need some quiet time, I'm going to be in my bedroom for a while. Close the door and read a book.

Does she have skills she can teach you? Knitting, plumbing repair, etc. Or enlist her help canning vegetables, or painting a room you've been meaning to paint; at least you could be accomplishing something while she natters on, and it gives you something else to do, and an excuse for not listening closely.

I would try to work in as much outdoor exercise as possible, to tire her out as well as the general psychological benefit. It sounds like you are a compassionate friend, and awareness that she may be ill, and needs your affection and kindness, may help you cope.
posted by theora55 at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2012

With friends and family that chatter on non-stop, I found it helps to phrase it as a "I'm an introvert and need some alone time to fill my batteries" (which is true). If you give warning ahead of time, before her visit, that you'll need a few hours a day to yourself then hopefully you can hold up the yellow flag when you need it and escape for a bit. Sending her this article might help keep it on a light note: Caring for Your Introvert.

If she won't respect that, she's stomping on a lot of your boundaries and it's time to consider if she's worth having as a friend.

I can understand why you might still want to be friends. I know a few people who are the kindest people on earth, but they can't stop babbling on about nothing and they drive me batty. I think they were put here to make me feel like a dick. It keeps me humble.
posted by Dynex at 8:36 AM on August 26, 2012

You say she was once a respected environmentalist but she's been steadily losing her friends. How old is she? If this is a recent - even within the last few years - personality change, I think a doctor visit is in order. This could be the beginning of dementia, a brain tumor, or consequences of a brain injury.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:20 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I'm with a friend and there's nothing on (no radio, no TV...) I will compulsively attempt to fill the silence with chatter. I've tried not to, but I can't. I have to. It's a very basic part of my nature. Silence makes my skin crawl. Is your house silent? She may be the same. If y'all have periods of silence that you find comfortable, she could be desperately thinking she might need to fill this silence with her chatter. Try what other posters have suggested, a movie or TV and let her know you don't want her to talk over it (it's a peeve for some people). Just a thought.
posted by patheral at 10:56 AM on August 26, 2012

My mother is a non-stop talker.

(For example, when she visited my husband's family last year, all of whom are introverts, on day three when my mother entered the room, talking already as she came in, my mother-in-law sighed pointedly, stood up and said, "I'm going into the garden to read my paper because it's so nice and quiet there." My mother replied, "Oh what a lovely idea! I do enjoy a quiet garden. I'll come with you and we can talk about what's going on in the news."

Another time, when asked by my husband if she would mind just doing something quiet like reading or knitting or something so he could listen to a video he was trying to watch, she then spent the next 20 minutes (I timed) telling us about how good she was getting at being quiet and not talking so much, and how now she lived on her own she was quite used to not talking, and she didn't chatter inanely like she used to, and in fact she was one of the quietest people she knew.)

The only ways I have managed to get her to be silent for a little while are to engage her in strenuous exercise (a hill climb, or heavy gardening, where we garden together just far enough apart that talking is difficult even if she can catch her breath), or by putting on music or a film and making a point of telling her I am trying to listen to it. Boardgames sometimes work if she has to think hard (scrabble, etc), but too often we get a stream of consciousness about her strategy and difficulties.

Scheduling times just to chat help a bit, especially with mitigating the rudeness of me withdrawing from her for a while during a visit. I can get away with saying I need to go and read in my room, or I want to go do some errands on my own, if I also say, "And then after that I thought we'd go to that nice cafe down the road and have a real catch-up.")

The other trick is to try to modify your own thinking about it so that you don't mind so much. I remind myself that my mother is lonely, and that she is trying to reach out. I try to remember that she doesn't find silence restful like I do, but rather creepy (she has told me so). I sometimes pretend I am in a film and that she is the voiceover, and then I imagine what reviewers would say about the movie. Perhaps it would become a cult classic because of the AUTHENTICITY of the mother's nattering and the weirdness of the director's choice to juxtapose a stream of consciousness about grocery shopping choices against the footage of the heroine playing with a cat.

And when I am really frustrated I sometimes play a little game where I rephrase everything she says in my head so that it is much more succinct. For example, she tells a very long story about her neighbour and I rephrase mentally as "Mary's goat ate the washing." Then I score myself for how many minutes of talk I reduced her story by.
posted by lollusc at 7:33 PM on August 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

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