Old friend has dug herself into a pit; I'd like to help her climb out.
January 12, 2015 2:11 PM   Subscribe

A close friend has fallen on hard times; I just found out that she is unemployed, living in poverty and is struggling with a number of addictions. I want to help, but am not sure how; I could use some advice on giving advice. Details inside.

(Some details of this AskMe have been changed to protect my friend's identity.)

My friend and I have been friends ever since middle school. She's intelligent and witty, but extremely sensitive. We've both struggled with anxiety and depression, and have helped each other get through some tough times. I know she's on meds for her depression and has a therapist.

She's in a big slump now, and I don't know how to help. She has a drug problem, and is unemployed; I only know this because she confessed to me during a party. I guess she was black-out drunk, since she doesn't remember saying anything to me. She obviously didn't want me to know, since she freaked out when I told her later what she had revealed to me.

We hashed things out, and here's what I learned:

1. She had a nervous breakdown and had to leave her last job. She was off her meds at the time of the breakdown, but is now back on and has realized that she probably will need them for life. She's been unemployed for over a year since then. I (plus everyone else in our circle of friends) thought she had a home business.
2. She's living on her Dad's money, otherwise she'd be broke.
3. She abuses drugs to cope with her anxiety. She's tried to stop many times, and is unable to; the more times she's unable to break the cycle of abuse, the more she feels that she'll never be able to, and that it's hopeless.
4. Only her Dad and I know about what she's going through.
5. She feels that she doesn't have a goal or purpose in life. She has a lot of ideas on what career she'd like to pursue, but can't settle on one. I think her last job messed her up - she said she couldn't cope with the pressure, especially after she went off her meds - and scared her from looking for another one.
6. She said she isn't suicidal, and doesn't even feel that depressed - she said she just feels more and more hopeless, the longer she continues repeating her mistakes.

I'm shell-shocked over the whole situation. I never would have suspected something like this was going on, so she put on a good act - I didn't catch any warning signs. I'm surprised that she lied to me, but don't hold it against her; I'd just like to help in some way. She doesn't want me to tell anyone else.

Here's what I suggested she try so far.

1. Grad school, since she went to college: She said she'd like to try, but can't narrow down what she'd like to study.
2. Grabbing a low-paying job: She seems pretty set against it, and thinks that it would just make her more depressed since she hated her years working them as a teenager.
3. Volunteering: She seemed open to it.
4: Applying for jobs in her field: She seemed open to this too.

What else could I suggest? What kinds of advice could I offer? So far I told her that it has to come from herself and no one else, and she said that she understood. I also suggested creating and sticking to a schedule, working from a library, and breaking the job hunt into smaller steps. Thanks!
posted by CottonCandyCapers to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would say the getting into recovery will be the keystone here. Unfortunately, no matter what other successes she might have, a drug problem will erase any gains she achieves. Conversely, a person who's kicked something as heinous as an addiction can only see any other achievement as relatively easy by comparison. Really, until that little piece of the puzzle gets put into place, not much else is going to fit or make much sense.
posted by Gilbert at 2:25 PM on January 12, 2015 [12 favorites]

Perhaps you could talk with her father, who has had longer to think this over and to know his daughter, and see what he thinks would help her? If nothing else, it might be a relief to him to have someone else who cares who he can brainstorm with, and perhaps the two of you can find a helpful approach together.
posted by Scram at 2:28 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you are offering suggestions for her to run before she can walk. She has to control her addictions before anything else. Perhaps a list of local in-patient programmes you can research together?
posted by saucysault at 2:29 PM on January 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

It sounds like right now you are in a pattern where you suggest things and she tells you why it won't work. This probably just makes both of you feel more hopeless. I would step away from probably solving and focus on being a friend.

The best thing you can do for her is hold onto hope at a time when she feels hopeless. Be the person who has faith in her, who knows that one way or another she WILL find her way through this and you are willing to be with her, as her friend, while she does it. If SHE wants to try something, be there to listen and help her figure out what to do next. If she doesn't feel ready to try, be there, listen, and assure her that this is temporary, it is hard but you know that she'll get through this.

Remind her that even as screw up as her life is right now, she is still an amazing person -after all you still want to be friends her.

She is probably feeling very alone in her life - you can be the one person who knows the truth and doesn't judge her.
posted by metahawk at 3:02 PM on January 12, 2015 [32 favorites]

I wish I could favourite metahawk's comment one million times. Hope and love are everything to a friend in need.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:19 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

She abuses drugs to cope with her anxiety. She's tried to stop many times, and is unable to;

I would suggest to her that there may be an underlying biological issue here and that she should look up somatopsychic conditions that might account for her anxiety. I firmly believe that a lot of drug abuse is rooted in undiagnosed medical conditions and this is part of why so many people fail to break the cycle of addiction in spite of desperately wanting to and trying like hell.

As just one example: Low blood sugar can cause anxiety and chronic low blood sugar can make one gradually become paranoid because the body dumps adrenaline to raise the blood sugar when it is in crisis. The adrenaline puts people into fight-or-flight mode and if you don't know it's medical, you start looking around, trying to figure out what you are reacting to. If you find yourself doing that regularly enough for no apparent reason, it really starts to mess with your head and you start becoming paranoid and feeling unable to trust people.

I have a history of low blood sugar and researched it in my teens. Once I understood this aspect of low blood sugar, it helped me be less anxious and less paranoid (and I also stopped waking up routinely from nightmares in the middle of the night, with heart racing, once I began dealing with my low blood sugar). I eventually got my low blood sugar under control and, years later, finally got a proper diagnosis for the underlying serious medical condition that caused my low blood sugar. Finally having a proper diagnosis was life changing in the most positive, wonderful way imaginable.

I don't have a history of drug abuse or drug addiction, but I do, for example, consume diet coke like it is going out of style -- which contains extract from the coca plant, which has medicinal uses. I have a couple of relatives who are judge-y as hell about consumption of cola drinks. The way they talk, you would think drinking cola is right up there with, say, being a serial killer in terms of moral depravity. So before finally being diagnosed appropriately, I was lectured to death about their opinions that my picky eating habits and consumption of colas was the real reason I had health issues.

Which is a long way of saying that I have firsthand experience with somatopsychic conditions rooted in an unidentified medical condition and how incredibly frustrating they are. I was also perceived for a long time as "lazy" and that sort of thing. I just didn't have the energy and mental focus. It wasn't a character defect. It was a physical defect.

If she does have some sort of medical condition at the root of her issues, not addressing that fact will keep her stuck. Conversely, a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment has the potential to finally break this frustrating cycle.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 3:44 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you kidding me? She doesn't need grad school, she needs a 12 step program.
[or something similar]
posted by oceanjesse at 6:35 PM on January 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Giving advice to people who haven't explicitly asked for very concrete specific feedback or advice (and often even then) is usually counterproductive.

Rather than telling her what to do, you can let her know what you're willing to do, like driving her to 12-step meetings and helping locate a good therapist. Or you can (even better) offer help with ideas she has herself, without taking over. But there's no point in playing twenty rounds of "Yes, but" ("Why don't you...?" "Yes, but..."). It'll just make her feel like you've got your act together and she doesn't ("CottonCandyCapers has all these solutions and I can't get it together to do any of them; I must really be hopeless.") and put pressure on you to come up with the perfect solution to fix her (and there is no perfect solution to fix her).
posted by jaguar at 6:43 PM on January 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Your kindly suggested courses of action, from an addict's perspective, sound as feasible as a casual stroll on the moon. Addicted people engage heroic effort, every day, just to keep the wheels spinning -- getting out of bed, obtaining y to get effed up on, holding down a real (or illusory) job, all that omission/commission lying, etc. -- that actual forward momentum seems impossible.

she said she just feels more and more hopeless

Yeah, and that's the key thing to hear. That hopelessness will overwhelm most, if not all, of her self-improvement resolutions. Her qualified openness to your suggestions probably stems from love for you and appreciation of your expressed concern; basically, she wants you to feel better. But she also wants you to get off her back. But she also probably (in one of those weird moments of addiction-adjacent optimism) thinks she might be able to pull it off! (Added bonus? None of those suggestions include her not continuing to be an addict.)

You've shared the experience of dealing with depression, so I bet you have more understanding of that hopeless feeling than many. Just think of her situation as Depression Plus ("now with added icantpossiblydothat!"). She's got to tackle the drug problem first, if she wants to improve her situation. Supporting her in recovery (by whatever method works for her) is pretty much the only way you an actually help her, right now.
posted by credible hulk at 11:45 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

No offense, but suggesting grad school to someone struggling with addiction and is barely hanging on? Grad school is for the goal-oriented person who knows exactly what they want to do--not for someone who is just looking for something to occupy their time. I understand where you're coming from but I think the best thing you can do is get her looking for a therapist and support groups. You have to address the underlying issues before throwing a bunch of career goals in front of her.
posted by Anonymous at 12:59 AM on January 13, 2015

It might be helpful to think of your role, if you want it, as helping her develop coping mechanisms and the ability to find direction (how to deal with stress without using drugs, how to develop a career/education plan, how to find meaning in her life, etc.) without actually doing the coping or direction-directing for her.
posted by jaguar at 6:45 AM on January 13, 2015

Best answer: Hi! I am a social worker. If a client presented with these issues, the first one that I would tackle - the linchpin, as it were - would be the drug addiction. Even if she is self medicating with drugs, it can still really do a number on her and prevent her from climbing out of her bad situation.

I would look into inpatient drug recovery programs as a priority. If her Dad is aware, and she's living off his money, he may be willing to pay for treatment. If not, there are some lower-cost options.
posted by corb at 12:38 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm your friend-- numbers 1-6, although I'm not entirely sure about #6.

I lost my last job due to my mental health issues. They thought I was on various drugs (I wasn't), I eventually relapsed with my battle with addiction because of the rumors and realizing they weren't going to believe me that Depression or GAD or an Eating Disorder is a real, diagnosable, there are codes for these conditions and insurance recognizes that conditions. I subsequently entered a dual-diagnosis treatment facility, but the shitty health plan I had via COBRA only allowed me to stay for 30 days. I'm "better" in the drug sense in some ways, but I still have a drug/alcohol problem. Now it's fueled by my lack of employment. I thought things would be better. Now I am penniless, worried about my car being repo'd, can't work on my eating disorder and "just eat" because I can't afford to go grocery shopping, etc. etc. The lack of responses and my job interviews so far not amounting to any jobs makes me more depressed. Suicidal/I hate being a burden on my SO and family/I am hopeless depressed. I have never been this depressed. The financial issues exacerbate my GAD. And now I'm watching myself slip back into addict mode, only I don't know what's what and how bad it is because of the awful circumstances.

I'm going to speak for your friend and say it's really fucking hard to seek gainful employment when you're dealing with these issues. Odds are against her that she's going to be as productive as she could be or in the right state of mind to accept a job offer without first getting formal help. Same goes for grad school. I had to drop out in 2012 because I couldn't handle the work on top of my health issues that weren't being addressed and it was a goddamn blow to my self-esteem that I was dropping out when I've always considered myself intelligent and academically successful. Given that her dad can help her to some extent financially, is going to a treatment facility feasible? I'd avoid straight-up drug "rehabs." I'm talking about facilities where multiple problems are addressed. I can provide recommendations via PM if you wish.

What does her therapist say about all of this? I ask because I read this post and all I can think aside from seeing myself in your friend is that she NEEDS a higher level of care. Being properly medicated, seeing a psychiatrist regularly for check-ins, seeing a therapist on a weekly basis-- those are all great, necessary things. But when they're not helping to improve the situation, then you need a higher level of care. Residential treatment isn't the end all be all, but it's more care than she's receiving now and I'm inclined to think she'd benefit assuming the opportunity is on the table.

I'm 100% with Metahawk. She doesn't need suggestions or solutions. She needs a non-judgmental friend who has her back. I had an argument with my SO last night and he complained that I'm so miserable (gee, why would that be?). I was having trouble articulating to SO what it is I need. Metahawk expressed exactly what I was trying to say. Everyone knows the situation is depressing, sucks, etc. The validation is one thing. But being willing to listen, not judge, not offer advice she didn't ask for (this can easily elicit feelings of guilt in the other party, not to mention judgment and further "proof" that she isn't doing enough) is a very precious thing that she could use. You sound like a great, emotionally intelligent friend. Feel free to PM me if you want to talk further.
posted by overyourhead at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2015

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