Helping my friend while saving my sanity -- I'm about to lose it
December 11, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I support my friend with her relationship problems while still keeping sane myself?

My friend [19/f] is going through a pretty bad relationship crisis, and she is understandably really upset. Like all the time, compounded by some school difficulties and being in the middle of finals week.

It feels like every day is a new crisis of some sort that I [also 19/f] have to talk her down from. I get panicked text messages every few hours (along the lines of "I just can't do any of this," or "Hiding in a corner crying" or telling me about how the stress is making her stop eating and throw up when she does). I've started dreading seeing her because she asks me to talk for "just ten minutes," which turn into hours. Every conversation has turned into talking about her problems, and even short ones with other people have references to how sad she is.

I've tried pep talks, and being comforting, and not responding (although I do, 90% of the time). I've given her all the advice I can, which she doesn't take, so most of our interactions have turned into her crying and me sitting there because I've run out of things to say.

The problem is that I'm one of the few people she's come to heavily depend on. Most of our other friends don't get as much of it as I do. I don't want to be a jerk and cut her off when she really needs a friend, but I'm so tired of trying to make sure she's okay all of the time and I'm coming to resent her. I'm stressed out because of my own personal problems and finals and I cannot be her caretaker anymore. I am normally happy to listen to and help my friends, but this is too much. I'm about to lose it myself.

How can I support her without hearing every detail about how sad she is? How do I disengage without completely cutting her off?

The obvious solution is to cut her out of my life, but that is really not an option -- she has been a great friend otherwise and I love her dearly.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you go to the same university? If so (or even if not) it sounds like this is a time for a professional intervention. Take her to the school's student counseling services and help her set up her first appointment. Tell her what you told us: you love her, you're distressed over how sad she is, and you want her to keep moving forward.

Her cries for help aren't ones you can answer. That's okay. Help her find someone who can take things to the level she needs in order to sort out what's troubling her.

If you need help finding resources, MeMail me and I'll see what I can do.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:52 AM on December 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

That doesn't seem like an obvious solution at all. Girl needs a spine, can you give her one? Tough love?
posted by MangyCarface at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2012

Tell her to get counseling now, that you're worried about her and you're not capable of giving her all the help and support she needs. Do you know how to reach her parents? Consider calling them and telling them what's going on. If she were my daughter I would definitely appreciate hearing from you.
posted by mareli at 12:02 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's okay for you to say "I love you, but it's finals week and I need to make studying my priority. I'm concerned for you and I think you need more help than I can offer. What can I do to help you make an appointment with campus counseling services?"
posted by trunk muffins at 12:03 PM on December 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I was your friend my freshman year. Please, please help her get to counseling - even if it means all you're doing is sitting in the room with her while she makes the phone call, or taking twenty minutes to walk with her to the wellness center. Have you told her how much this is stressing you out? That might make her feel worse at first, but it should be enough to make her take a step back and consider your needs as well.
posted by jeudi at 12:12 PM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Maybe an intervention with all of her friends is in order, to get her to go see the school counsellor, or to get her to think about the situation and find some solutions to act on. Just telling her yourself will seem like you're ditching her, or she'll ignore the advice like anything else you've said to her. If others are present too, she'll understand more that you're all concerned.
posted by ergo at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2012

agreed that fully cutting her out isn't the obvious option. That is a last resort option.

I had a friend like this once so I know what you're going through. Very exhausting and difficult situation. I wasn't one of the only people she depended on, I was THE ONLY person she depended upon.

I would first try calling her when it is convenient for you. Tell her that you're really focused on school work/your own life/whatever right now and don't have the same kind of time you can devote to her, but you want to still make time for her so you called now. Say outright that you have 45 minutes to talk but you have an appointment/are meeting up with someone/whatever at tht time and you'll have to leave. And then when the 45 minutes are up, you say "Sorry, I have that appointment now and I have to go. I hope you feel better and I'll check in with you soon."

And if she keeps going on and on I would say something to her like:
"We've had so many long talks about this and I really hate knowing how unhappy and upset you are. The problem is that I don't think our talks are helping you either, and it upsets me knowing that nothing I'm doing is helping you. I really want you to feel better, so lets find someone who can help." and then suggest she see a counsellor. Maybe have the phone number for the campus counselling service all ready to give her. Offer to go with her to her first appointment (waiting in the waiting room of course) and be there waiting for her when she comes out for support.

If she continues to emote at you just keep repeating how all of this isn't stuff you know how to help her with, how you really want her to feel better, and that you will help her find someone to talk to who can actually help her feel better. The fact is that you are willing to help her, but your talks are not helping. Seeing a counsellor will help.

Also, you cannot continue to feel responsible for her emotional state. You have done what you can but she isn't receptive to anything you've tried. Your conscience should be clear. She is not your responsibility to fix, nor is it your job to sacrifice your own mental health for hers. I've been there, I know how much guilt can be tied up in this, but this isn't healthy for you, especially if you have your own concerns and things to deal with in your own life. Do what you can to get her in for counselling, but don't allow yourelf to serve as her emotional drainage pool any longer. It isn't helping her, and it is damaging to you.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

nthing going to school counseling services. They should be confidential but just double check and it will help to allay your friend's fears.
posted by commitment at 12:20 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sidenote, maybe setting up an appointment for counselling for yourself wouldn't be an awful idea. It could help you process the stuff going on in your own life, help you to not feel guilty for not being able to help your friend more, and maybe learn how to keep from getting in to this type of situation again (ie. learn how to set boundaries). I had some counselling when my situation all went on and it helped a tremendous amount.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2012

Pretty much tell her:

"Hey, listen. You know that I think you're the best and you are such a great friend and it kills me to see you so hurt and upset. I never want you to feel like you can't talk to me or come to me with whatever's bothering you. At the same time, I've noticed some recurring patterns and I feel like the level of support I am able to provide is not really helping in any practical way.

I think that these crises are awful things. I also think that their impact on your life is getting to the point where it's pretty much the biggest thing going on in your life. I think that it may be getting to where, if you need to talk about this, it might be good to talk to someone who's trained to handle issues like this. You know I love to listen and give you a shoulder to try on, but I am not trained in this and this needs more care than a layperson can give."

Use your own words, but that's the gist of it.

Then help her find counseling.

If she won't accept that then you have to start being less available to her. Practice saying, "Hey, I'm so sorry, but I really can't talk right now," and then be on your way. Don't cut her off completely, but set firm boundaries and stick to them.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:34 PM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with Puppet--I think counseling would help you quite a bit. I've often been you, but that's mostly because I grew up in abusive surroundings where I was forced to play emotional caretaker for the adults around me. It's likely that she's leaning on you so much because other friends have made it clear that they're not emotionally available for her. You don't need to cut her off--but you do need to cut way back on responding every time she reaches out. It's a bit like trying to put an oxygen mask on someone else when you're drowning, yourself. You need to learn to take care of your needs first, and the needs for others second--without guilt. "Sorry, can't talk right now" is a totally valid thing to say, especially when, at nineteen, you're likely busy with your own academic, emotional, and social life.

(I was just telling my therapist today how I realized just this past week that I don't have to answer my phone every time needypersonx calls--I can call them back when I'm actually free! It's ridiculous that this is so eye opening for me, but it is.)

When it comes down to it, it is not your job to be anyone's emotional support. And, frankly, you're just not qualified to do so. I know it feels good in many ways--you feel like a good, supportive friend. But it's only going to lock you in a cycle of neediness and resentment, and that's no good for anybody.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:39 PM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

First of all, you can't help her right now. Her problems are bigger than you can handle. nthing everyone here, get her to the campus counseling center.

You need to draw a boundary. You've got some great scripts here, and YOU need to feel perfectly okay in saying them.

"I wish there were something I could say that would make this okay, but there isn't. As you know, we're in finals week and I'm crushed by the work I have to do. I want to support you but I don't have the bandwidth to do it. I'll help you by putting you in touch with the counseling center. Now I have a paper to write. TTFN"

It's not your job, and it's unfair of her to make it your job to keep putting humpty-dumpty back together again.

If you're concerned that she might hurt herself, then tell her RA, then it's HER/HIS problem. Which is correct.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:49 PM on December 11, 2012

There was a girl like this in my social circle in college. Pretty nice, fun, but an emotionally needy, self-absorbed vampire. Hanging out with her normally involved serious dramatics, and when there was a genuine crisis in her life (break-up, death of a family member), she was completely fucking crazy and refused to seek counseling. I felt bad for her, but I found her complete lack of interest in my life coupled with her extreme need for emotional support kind of repellant, honestly, and I avoided her my last year of college. I saw her briefly this summer, and while she's happier, she still spent two hours talking at me about her love life. I grunted, said "yeah" a few times, and then closed my door and went to bed.

In sum: Some people are extremely self-absorbed, and they will use you as a free therapist if you let them. I have friends who've struggled a lot in life - mental health issues, abuse, etc. - and if they want to talk to me about what's going on, great! That's part of being a friend. It crosses the line when a friendship becomes a transactional, one-sided thing. I am a good, supportive friend. I am not a therapist.

Check out the 30 rock episode "Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish."

Suggest counseling and then shut it down. Tough love won't solve her problems, but it will solve your problem of establishing and maintaining boundaries with your friends.

If she threatens suicide, or talks about suicide, take action (and don't feel bad about turning her in), but otherwise, this is not your problem.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:55 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

First: start setting boundaries on when you'll listen to her tales of woe. You can't help her if you're fed up, so this will help her as much as you. If she texts you about crying in a corner, don't say you'll be right over; say "I'm so sorry to hear that." Then, follow up with her the next day: "I know you were upset yesterday; would you like to get some coffee today and talk about it?"

Second: stop trying to help her. When you do engage her sadness, be sympathetic, but don't try to solve it. "I can see why that would upset you" is a good response; "You should have told him to..." is not. She wants an audience for her sorrow, to feel supported, not someone to fix her, so be that audience in the most relaxed way you can muster.

Third: dig up the counseling stuff, and if you find that even this mediated support is too much for you, bring them with next time. Say "I love you, and I care about you, but the more you share with me, the more I realize that you need more than a sympathetic ear. You should really look into this." Give her the materials, and finish out the conversation. The next time she leans on you (and you have a scheduled coffeedate), start things out with "have you spoken with a counselor yet?" and mix "I really think a counselor can help you with that" into your standard "mm hmm"s.

Fourth: if she gets annoyed or defensive regarding counseling, you are allowed -- as a good friend -- to say "Look, I'm worried about you, because you're dealing with the same issues and emotions over and over. If you just want an audience for your sorrow, that's one thing, and you should tell me now; but if you really want to feel better, you need to take this step." If she doesn't take the step, then you know she just wants an audience, and you can push those coffee dates further and further into the future until she leans on someone else she can get instant gratification from.

And note: at any time, you can decide that something she's going through is important enough to provide instant support, but try not to waste that on something that doesn't really require it.
posted by davejay at 2:14 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't want to be a jerk and cut her off when she really needs a friend,

ugh. she doesn't need a friend. she needs an audience.

You can love her to pieces and still have boundries. You say you tried "tough love"- what does that mean?

you are a 19 year old woman, right? you have a lot of shit going on too. Being a good friend does not trump your responsibility to yourself, which includes not letting someone (unintentionally or not) become an emotional vampire and eat up hours and hours of your day.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2012

Is this a pattern with her? Is there always a crisis/drama/reason to cry her eyes out? Or is this just a temporary/one-time thing, and the rest of the time she's as supportive to you as you are to her?

If the dramatics are a rarity, I'm all for supporting her until the storm abates. But if it's a pattern, it's not good for either of you. Unless you're the sidekick on a CW show and her boyfriend is a werewolf, you should be getting equal "me-time" out of the friendship. If you're not, it's not a friendship; it's a traveling soap opera and you're the audience. Change the channel.
posted by kythuen at 5:35 PM on December 11, 2012

Many college campuses don't just have counseling services, they also have a way to refer students you feel are "at risk" for breakdowns, suicide, or even flunking out of school. Usually, any enrolled student is eligible for these services, not just those who love on campus.

At my son's university, they have an after-hours phone line for consults or if a student just needs someone to talk to (this would be ideal in your case), a referral process for a Case Manager to work with the person individually and a "students of concern assistance team". They also have suggestions for when you are trying to help and feel overwhelmed yourself.

I don't know where you live, but I'd bet your college has similar outreach programs.

This page may be helpful to you.
posted by misha at 7:36 PM on December 11, 2012

You know those conversations/vent-fests that last hours? Well, do they help? Is she better the next day or does it happen all over again? Because if these crises are going to happen all the time, then whatever you are doing isn't very effective at helping her, but *is* effective on taking a toll on you. You have the right to take measures to safeguard your mental health (AND study time).

You have every right to avoid her. Just respond less often than 90%. 10 mins actually means 10 mins - use studying as an excuse, bitch about it if you have to! No friend has the right to complain that you are studying too much while in college, especially not at the end of the semester.
posted by Neekee at 4:44 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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