helping others while maintaining my own sanity
July 11, 2014 10:33 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who is having a horrible life right now and I want to be supportive but I am also having a horrible life right now. How can I help but not put my own mental health at risk?

My friend got out of foreign prison (drug/mental heath thing) and is back in my home town. He is trying to navigate the broken system of mental health and social services. A lot of hoops to jump through and being told different things. He is suffering PTSD and depression and feeling suicidal. There is a wait list to see a counselor and a wait list to be on disability. His life is pretty much hell right now for him.

His roommate situation has gotten physically and emotionally abusive and he is looking at being homeless pretty soon. He phoned me to see if I would store the few valuables he has while he sees if he can get into the shelter. I said yes but then realised that it involved picking him up while his abusive roommate is there. I also figured out that the shelter is full of drugs and I feel afraid for his sobriety while there but I don't have a place for him to crash.

I am in a highly stressful spot myself. Dealing with child abuse. Chronic body pain. Living on the edge financially. An abusive family. Withdrawing from nicotine due to lack of money. Constantly dissociating. Breathing is hard most days.

But I have a therapist and a girlfriend and at least a place to sleep at night. A fabulous dog to keep me going. I feel really lucky but it is a precarious lucky as I still feel suicidal a lot of the time. Attempted in April in fact. But have a handle on when things get bad and people I can reach out to.

I really feel the need to help him. I am all he has. His family had abandoned him. I know the system a bit better and can at least point out potential resources.

I feel bad saying this but he really drains me. My girlfriend has noted that I have a hard time recovering from my visits with him. It doesn't feel fair to say no as he is very thankful and apologised when dumping on me. But I am not sure if I can keep doing it. I feel like I have no choice though because if I don't he has no one.

Boundaries aren't something I know so I am not sure what the correct thing to do here is? Picking him and his stuff up will be triggering for me and probably set me back in my recovery. Am I taking on his stuff? Navigating human relationships is foreign to me due to my childhood.

Are there things I can do to mitigate the stress he puts me under that won't hurt him in return? How do I take care of myself while taking care of another?

I would bring this up in therapy but mine is away on vacation while this latest crisis is going on.
posted by kanata to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should sit down in a quiet and calm place, with your dog next to you, and have a long talk with yourself about what you CAN do, instead of focusing on what you can't. Make a list in your head of what you can handle without jeapordising your own health. Include even the little things you can contribute. Focus on the positive, but be very aware of your own boundaries. Then present this to your friend, framed in a positive way. "Dear friend, this is what I can do to help. First I can help you do x, then we can move on to next x." You've set your personal boundaries, and if your friend crosses them, just a simple "I'm sorry, I can't do that" or our favorite "that just won't be possible" is all you need to say. If your list is just one small thing, that's ok. It's much more than your friend is getting anywhere else and you should be proud that you can help in whatever way YOU decide you can.

And keep telling yourself that you have to help yourself first or you won't be able to help your friend at all. It's an important factor that you need to keep in the forefront.
posted by raisingsand at 11:17 PM on July 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Bless you for thinking so much about your friend at a time like this and sorry you're both having such a horrendous time. Several years ago during my worst time ever a friend needed some extreme help and I was very distressed by what she asked me to do - but did it cos she needed me to. It almost broke me totally. Shortly after I really needed her and she was nowhere to be seen.

I've never dared get so close to anyone since. If you're voice is telling you all that stuff (and your body too) that is the first step in establishing a boundary.. it is imperative you listen to it. I was thinking along the lines of looking for practical/professional leads/help too for your friend..

I would think about saying to your friend you feel this much for him and would do more.. if you were in a position to but you don't have much to give right now, as much as you would like to due to xyz. April is very recent for a crisis like that - but just share what you are safe with. If I'd heard or said something similar - I think it may have saved my friendship.

If going to his abusive house would trigger you don't go. Could you still store it? Pay for a cab?
posted by tanktop at 12:47 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sit down with your friend and have a heart to heart with him.

"John, I know you're in a tough place and I want to help as much as I can. As you know, I'm on the ragged edge myself so some of the things you're struggling with are triggers for me. I'll be happy to help you navigate the bureaucracy for social services, unfortunately I can't deal with conflict and abusive situations with you. You can probably ask the police to be present while you obtain your things if you feel threatened, I can call the non-emergency number with you and we can figure that out. I'm your friend and I want to help, but I have limited resources. I'll let you know if it's too much. It doesn't mean that I'm abandoning you, it just means that I'm protecting myself."

Hopefully he can deal with that as an answer.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:26 AM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

You say that you feel really lucky, but I remember your username, and I know how hard you've worked to get here. That's not luck - sure, there might be a tiny little salt-shaker's sprinkle of luck here, but what you have is persistence and will and determination. You're strong and you're a fighter and a survivor. It's pretty incredible, and I think of you and your dog from time to time, and am always glad to see you posting.

I say all this because you are here with a question that I believe you know the answer to, but are concerned that the answer that you feel is right is the wrong answer because it does not taste compassionate.

But, darling friend, it is completely compassionate to take care of yourself first. It is deep compassion to be able to look at something and say "I cannot help with that because it will hurt me to help with that."

I have a dear friend, someone who is a lovely person. But she also has issues that I just simply do not want any part of, and she pushes my stated boundaries time and time again to try to get me to help her with those issues. I do not want a part of those issues because dealing with them is hurtful for me. It disrupts my ability to function, it triggers my anxiety, it gets me down. I helped her for quite awhile at my own expense because I loved her and cared for her and it hurt me to see her hurting, but at a certain point my therapist and I talked it through and we determined that I needed to be firmer about my boundaries with her. And you know what happened? When I tried to say to her "this is a boundary and you are stepping on it," you know what she essentially said? "Well, you're lucky, because you're getting over your own trauma, and my trauma is just as bad as yours but you've had more luck." And I pressed and made her repeat it and it was clear that this is really her belief: that her trauma and my trauma are equivalent, but that I am lucky and she is not. This is both laughable and hurtful. I understand that there is no scale of pain, and that pain is a universal constant, but to be told that being mercilessly abused by my partner for years and years, over and over, to live in that hell, is the same as her going through a breakup - not even the same, but that I'm better off? And that I'm lucky? I'm lucky? No. I am not lucky. I am a strong survivor who figured my stuff out and I worked it out and worked it through and spent entire months where I was in therapy literally every weekday working it out. I had a few sprinkles of luck, but surviving is not about luck.

As far as that friendship, that was it for me. I have never really recovered from it, and I am no longer interested in helping her. I see her for the boundary-breaker that she is (there is more but it's not germane to this question, but it got a bit creepy, the boundary-breaking) and I no longer want a part in any of it. I'll be kind to her and I care about her but I do not want her to know anything about my life because I know that inside, in her head, she thinks that I'm a lucky person to get through my abuse.

I am not a lucky person. You are not a lucky person. There's really no such thing as luck. That's like believing in magic. There's no such thing. We just worked our asses off to get to where we are and it's not like where we are is perfect but it's here and we're living and we should take credit for that.

The correct thing to do here is to say, "Friend, I love you, but I can't do this. I am so sorry. It's too much for me." Like people above said, figure out what you can do, and do that. For me, I can go out to coffee with my friend, but I don't want to tell her anything personal about myself or about my life anymore, because I don't feel safe anymore. I can laugh with her and have fun with her and talk about our jobs but I can't and I won't talk about my inner life anymore. And I know that makes her sad, but it hurts me.

I will no longer suffer to make other people feel good. If there is anything that you can do for your friend that will not cause you to suffer, do that. Sit down and have a chat with your sweet doggie about what might be feasible for you, as was suggested above. If it's nothing, so be it: it is nothing, and that is OK. You do not owe anyone but yourself anything at all.

I wish you all the best as you navigate this.
posted by sockermom at 7:07 AM on July 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

He phoned me to see if I would store the few valuables he has while he sees if he can get into the shelter. I said yes but then realised that it involved picking him up while his abusive roommate is there.

Is this what he told you, or is it your assumption? I get into obsessive thinking very easily, and whenever a possibly-stressful thing is about to happen, I think of the worst-case scenario and get very, very overwhelmed by things that might not even be true just because they could happen.

Tell your friend that you can keep his things (if you are comfortable with that, and it's perfectly okay to not be comfortable with that and say you can't) if he brings them by. You don't need to tell him that you won't pick him up or see his roommate, because he might not even be thinking about that. If he says, "Can you pick me up and be there with me?" you can say no. Setting boundaries isn't being mean to him or not being a good friend.
posted by xingcat at 7:11 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I didn't understand the "must see abusive roommate" part. Even if he needs a ride, can't you just wait for a time when roommate is gone?
posted by zug at 9:07 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am all he has.

And if you end up incapacitated, he'll have no one at all. Which is why self-care for a caregiver actually is a compassionate act, not a selfish one.
posted by jaguar at 9:10 AM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

He stated that his roommate will mostly likely be there as he doesn't leave the house much and then I could be his witness to anything. He does not have a car so would need a ride for his stuff and I have two dollars to my name so would be unable to help with cab fare.

Thanks for your kind responses on what probably seems to be a naive question. I have a hard time saying no and understanding if I am acting normal around people and if my feelings are normal. Therapy and Askme questions (god knows I post enough) help me try to figure these things out.

I have qualms about saying no because in the face of being in Chinese prison what I am going through isn't that hellish.
posted by kanata at 9:14 AM on July 12, 2014

I have qualms about saying no because in the face of being in Chinese prison what I am going through isn't that hellish.

You tried to commit suicide three months ago. That is pretty much the definition of hellish. Please don't endanger your progress, your stability, or yourself.
posted by jaguar at 9:16 AM on July 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is not a naive question. This is the type of question that I myself have struggled with many times and you and I are not alone in this. Many people struggle in this way. Do not apologize for coming here and for going to therapy for help.

I'm just too goddamned kind for my own fucking good. It's taken so much work to learn how to stop just being reflexively kind to literally everyone but myself, and I've radically, radically changed my behavior and the way I move about in the world in order to stop putting myself in situations where I get hurt.

And it still feels bad sometimes, a lot of the time, to be honest, to think of myself first, but it feels less bad than the loss in progress and the not sleeping and not eating and the daily thoughts of suicide when I first wake up. I don't have those things anymore, and I consider that to be a great success. And it's because I put myself first.

Remember when I said above that pain is a universal constant, and there is no pain scale? Your own worst pain is the worst thing you will ever go through. And your own pain is very deep, darling friend, you know this. It is OK that you have too much pain to deal with a friend who has what you consider to be "more" pain than you have. It is OK. Your pain matters, your suffering matters, and your well-being matters. So much. Do not minimize your own struggles here. I am so sorry that your friend was in a jail away from his home and that he is struggling with his mental health. But he is a person with agency and he found you: he can find other people to help him, too. This is his battle, not yours. You are not obligated to help anyone but yourself.

Here's the thing: he's in a bad situation with his roommate, sure. I was living with a man who abused me and it was horrible. You know what I did? I left a bunch of stuff behind, because that was the only way I was going to get out. Things that I can never replace are gone forever because I valued my life and well-being more than my possessions. Your friend? He, too, can leave things behind. He does not need you and your car. It might seem like that is his only option, but it is not.

You have this Internet stranger's permission to say no to this friend at this time. I consider myself to be incredibly compassionate and to be a good person and I am telling you, from one good soul to another, it is ok to walk away from something that hurts you. Even if the thing that hurts you is not malicious. Even if it's not ill-intentioned. The friend I talked about above? She's a good soul, a good person, she is not malicious. She means well. But she still hurts me, so I'm still walking away.

It's easier to walk away when the person or thing is doing things that are Definitely Wrong that are Causing You Pain. I know this, because I've been there. But I've also made the choice to leave behind people that, through no fault of their own, and through no ill will, have not been good for me. It is OK to take care of yourself.
posted by sockermom at 9:32 AM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

How much stuff does he have? Would it be possible for him to carry it to a meeting spot, say a block from his place, so you can meet him there and feel safe?

I have been on the street 2.5 years. I have a backpack and a commuter bag and I very often also carry grocery bags with food I have bought that is typically consumed within 24 hours. Earlier this year, I arranged a safe deposit box to store my important papers. I also had a class on homelessness years ago.

A lot of homeless people have stuff in storage in hopes of getting off the street again. A lot of them are paying $60 or more a month to store their belongings. A lot of those belongings are really crappy quality and could be easily replaced at a yard sale for probably less than the amount of money they spending to store it. I mean think about it: $60/mo x 6 mo = $360. You can also go buy NEW stuff at discount places these days.

If he needs a place to store some important papers, like his birth certificate, yeah, offer that. He can carry that and meet you somewhere away from the roommate. Plus maybe a few momentos. But if we are talking a big pile of blankets and furniture and what not, that is probably more of a space burden than you expect it to be. And when I ended up on the street, I figured it would be six months. I am still here 2.5 years later. Some folks end up on the street and stay there for years and years and years -- a decade, two decades.

I know he thinks he will be the exception. I know he wants to stash his stuff somewhere and go pick it back up a few weeks or months later. But with mental health and drug issues so bad he spent time in foreign prison, the odds are high that he has a long road ahead of him. There are probably no quick fixes.

So I don't think it is a great idea for you to "store his stuff" other than, say, about a backpack full of important papers and memorabilia. Something like that.

Beyond that, you can offer to try to help him get information. Since you are in housing and apparently have an internet connection, when someone is on the street, finding information and finding resources and programs is quite a challenge. Keep in touch with him. Help him get hooked up. Try to get him information he needs. But try to focus on helping him find what he needs to find to get on his feet and not just leech off of you. Very needy people often wind up being leeches. They often don't know what else to do. And letting them do that tends to keep them stuck. It tends to not help them solve anything.

You could also consider letting him use your mailing address and phone number for job applications, bank accounts and the like. If you can find a local program that provides a mailing address for homeless individuals, refer him to that instead. So do some research first and if there isn't an alternative, then consider offering that if you feel okay with it. Having a place he can pick up mail will help him a whole lot. But do not offer to bring him his mail all over town. Let him pick it up. Do not become his step and fetch.
posted by Michele in California at 10:41 AM on July 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Boundaries aren't something I know so I am not sure what the correct thing to do here is?

It's only recently that I even learned of the concept of boundaries, much less began to work on asserting them, so I feel you on this question. If you're not used to setting boundaries, when you start to do it, it feels weird and wrong and guilt-inducing.

There are trained professionals who can help your friend as he transitions to the shelter. It's not your job to be witness to any violence or abuse that his roommate might carry out. That is the job of law enforcement. This is a bright-line boundary.

If you want to help him with transportation, he needs to make it a safe process for you. If he is unable to do so, then the correct course of action is to not take on that errand. If he is able to get to your place thru other means, and leave his stuff with you in a safe, low-stress way, then maybe it is something you are OK with taking on. But it's OK to opt out of that as well if you think there is any small chance of it enmeshing your life with his in a way that will harm you.

Material possessions, as valuable as they may be to him, are less valuable than your well-being as a human. Possessions are replaceable. You are not.

My is sense that taking on his stuff, literally and figuratively, would be a stressful choice for you. I think it is 100% OK to opt out of that role.
posted by nacho fries at 10:49 AM on July 12, 2014

When you are on the street, getting fed is a big damn deal. It can take weeks or months to get into a shelter (and I am not a big fan of shelters). You do have at least one soup kitchen where you are and it apparently serves breakfast and lunch: Bread of Life Society
Summary: Soup Kitchen, including on site health clinic & counsellors.
Kitchen Meals:
◾Breakfast Monday-Friday 8:30a.m-11:30a.m
◾Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30-12:30, doors close at 1pm.
◾No dinner service available.
Another site says they offer: free emergency assistance/clothing, food, bedding, basic essentials/produce give away 3 days week...

Since you are also apparently pretty broke, digging up info on emergency food closets and the like for your friend might help you access additional resources if you are not already taking advantage of things like that. So this might be an opportunity to improve your situation while doing a good deed instead of being victimized and bled. That would be all to the good for both of you.

So if you can meet him someplace safe, pick him up, keep a few items of his (but not too many) and drop him off not far from the above soup kitchen or at this soup kitchen, then you can be assured he will able to eat two meals a day if he gets up and bothers to go get it. It's July. If he can find a safe place to sleep outside, he is unlikely to die of exposure this time of year. I know that sounds harsh but the reality is folks go camping for fun all the time. Sleeping outside in pleasant weather is not the end of the world. But hunger is a big issue and if you hook him up with one or more soup kitchens and emergency food pantries, his first few days on the street will be a helluva lot easier.

Frankly, being on the street and not living with an abusive roommate might be an improvement in his quality of life -- assuming he can get enough to eat and take care of hygiene and the like. And those are things you can help him figure out by feeding him information. I have frustrations and I would like to get off the street but, seriously, sleeping outside is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Most nights, I am perfectly comfortable.
posted by Michele in California at 11:15 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

My number one question is, do you trust him? Do you have genuine reason to believe he's trustworthy? Deciding that you *don't* trust him isn't a value judgement about him, it's a practical assessment of what your boundaries will have to be and an estimate of how hard you'll have to work in order to maintain him.

If you *don't* trust him, then don't store his stuff and give yourself distance from him right now. Because you're in a fragile state and need more time to get your own life stabilized before dealing with having someone untrustworthy involved in your life.

If you *do* think he's trustworthy, then hopefully the following will be helpful:

His roommate situation has gotten physically and emotionally abusive and he is looking at being homeless pretty soon. He phoned me to see if I would store the few valuables he has while he sees if he can get into the shelter. I said yes but then realised that it involved picking him up while his abusive roommate is there.

It sounds to me that you're OK with storing a few of his valuables, but that you aren't OK with going to his (possibly dangerous to you) apartment. That's fine, that's a good boundary. So tell him that you are OK with storing his valuables, but not with going to his apartment, and he'll have to figure out how to get his valuables to your apartment himself.

I also figured out that the shelter is full of drugs and I feel afraid for his sobriety while there but I don't have a place for him to crash.

His sobriety is his responsibility, not yours. It's boundary-crossing to make his sobriety your responsibility. Ultimately, he's the one who's got to figure out how he's going to stay sober.

Is there some specific way that he's asked you for help and that you could help him without taking on undue responsibility or risk? If he asks you for something it wouldn't be an undue burden for you to provide -- such as a ride to an NA or a therapy meeting that you're able (financially, physically, psychologically, etc) to give him, for example -- sure, it's fine to say yes. On the other hand, if he doesn't ask for that help and/or you don't have the ability to say yes to a request without personal sacrifice/destabilization, or if saying yes to a request would mean becoming responsible for his basic welfare as a whole (basically "adopting" him), then DO NOT OFFER OR GIVE THAT HELP.

I know the system a bit better and can at least point out potential resources.

If you're OK offering to point out potential resources, and it's something he's asking for (or at least asking for implicitly, like if he keeps saying he's trying to get XYZ service but doesn't know how or can't find resources to figure out how, etc) then go ahead and offer. Giving asked-for advice or offering asked-for know-how, that you *want* and are *able* to give, is completely OK for you to do as a friend.

Are there things I can do to mitigate the stress he puts me under that won't hurt him in return? How do I take care of myself while taking care of another?

Being a friend to him is basically about being supportive of *his* efforts to take care of his life, and offering him opportunities to be supportive of your efforts to take care of your life (by being open with him). One way you might give him more of an opportunity to be supportive of *you* is by telling him when your reach your limit and can't continue a conversation anymore or can't do something for him (such as be his sounding board for certain difficulties or can't help him in certain ways). It will help him feel good to know that he's helping *you* and being supportive of *you,* so don't deny him that opportunity. Just be upfront about your needs -- his needs don't negate yours, and you guys aren't in a competition for who's neediest or anything.

One thing that would probably help in terms of your own confidence and state of mind is to take things more at face value and to be direct. He should be direct with you about what help he wants, you should be direct with him about what help you can give (and if something would set you back in recovery or destabilize you, you can't give that help), and you should be direct with him about what you need or how you feel. Being direct and honest can be tough, because it requires trust. But if you're both real friends to each other, that trust is deserved and possible. IF HE STARTS DOING DRUGS AGAIN or you realize that he *can't* be trusted for some other reason, then that's a different situation, and you'll have to reassess your boundaries and what lengths you'll need to go to in order to maintain them.
posted by rue72 at 8:05 PM on July 12, 2014

Aww, you guys made me cry. It is odd how I never thought of my attempt as hellish cause I read that and just thought "Nah, it's just my life. Not a big deal. He's worth more than that."

He messaged me that his roommate apologised and all is well. I tried to explain that it was classic abusive behaviour of making nice but he brushed it off. I told him that I would take him to the local mental health clubhouse to become a member and where lunch is a dollar and introduced him to people that could help navigate the system. If needed, they might be able to help with housing in the future as well. And that he can call me if he needs me but that I can't be there if he needs to move and his roommate was there.

He was put off that I couldn't guarantee future help and said some things that were hurtful so I am at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I feel guilty but a tiny bit of satisfaction at being able to say no at least once.
posted by kanata at 9:03 PM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's ok if he's hurt. Really. Just do what you can do, without endangering yourself, and let him figure out the rest. Your being his only friend is not actually your fault.
posted by jaguar at 9:15 PM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

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