How to navigate a tricky friendship?
November 15, 2016 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Friendship can be hard sometimes, but even more complicated when both people suffer from different mental health illnesses. How do you work it out or get out of the relationship if that is the best answer? Details inside.

I will try to keep it brief but it is complicated, of course. A transfer student, I will call Carrie (age 22) with bipolar disorder is introduced by a mutual friend (male) to an incoming student, I will call Ellie (age 18) with treatment resistant depression and anxiety. Since neither know anyone at their university but the mutual friend and both have mental health issues they spend a lot of time with one another. They rely heavily on one another during their bad stages (Carrie is not medicated at this point, and Ellie is but not working well) which luckily seem to come at opposite times so it seems to work okay. But neither makes any progress in making any other friends, including their roommates who don't interact with them.

Carrie got much worse at the end of the first year and over the summer break but finally went home and got some help (parents are not in picture much or helpful) and new meds. They both return to school but mutual friend does not, so it is down to just the two of them. Ellie really wants to branch out and make friends this year, has a boyfriend and is hoping to get more of the whole "college experience". Carrie, however, has not made any of this progress. Wants to do all 1:1 stuff with Ellie but if Ellie says no, Carrie says it is ok to bring boyfriend. Asks / begs daily to come over to hang, drink, watch tv etc. She barely goes to class so doesn't do much work. Ellie is trying to balance class work, boyfriend, illness and join some new groups.

Carrie is getting more desperate and clingy, Ellie is more frustrated and can't figure out what to do. They have one class 3 days a week so she cannot avoid her and feels bad trying but it is beginning to impact her mental health more.

What are ideas to cope? Carrie has often made suicide threats and Ellie is worried about completely severing the relationship as it leaves her with no one. Can a friendship like this work and if so how do you put limits on it?
posted by maxg94 to Human Relations (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Carrie has often made suicide threats and Ellie is worried about completely severing the relationship as it leaves her with no one.

If Ellie wants to, set up a regular "check in" sort of meeting (coffee once a week after class?) but make clear to Carrie that this is all the time she has available right now. Ellie can support Carrie in getting more support (support groups, health services, etc) but does not have to be Carrie's lifeline. The general AskMe maxim is that you have to put on your own oxygen mask first (i.e. Ellie should be mindful of self care and should be proud of he progress she's made) and also that being in a relationship (friendship or other) with someone who is not maintaining their own self-care (even for good reasons) is tricky and often very unrewarding.

Bipolar is really hard because people often do have personality changes that can make them very difficult to be friends with. And it requires some firm boundaries sometimes and that's not always in everyone's wheelhouse, particularly the anxious. Put simply: it's not your job to save her life and that is not a role you should assign to yourself. A friend would help Carrie get the help that she needs ("Here are some warmlines for people to talk with, I will see you for coffee on Wednesday") but not give in to begging or otherwise compromise her own mental health.
posted by jessamyn at 9:40 AM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Using suicide threats to keep someone in a relationship(even platonic) is abuse, full stop(mentally ill or no). Unfortunately bipolar friends are insanely hard to manage even if you're in a great place yourself. This sounds a lot like a codependent relationship, and the only thing that is sure fire going to fix that is if the enabler(Ellie) leaves and goes no contact.

Ellie needs to know that she is not responsible for Carrie's actions or feelings. Bipolar is a reason for abuse, but it is NOT AN EXCUSE. It's Carrie's job to take care of herself first, and that is not something to feel guilty for. Unfortunately having a friend with codependent or abusive tendencies come into your life is very easy if you're empathetic, which it very much sounds like Ellie is.

A good friend will not exploit Ellie's empathy. A good friend would see that their illness is causing them to abuse the trust and friendship, and they'd back away and re-establish boundaries. Carrie is not a good friend. That has less to do with her bipolar and more to do with her lack of boundary respect and tendency to threaten and manipulate.

Ellie deserves someone who will respect her and not exploit her kindness. Codependent people will bleed her dry until she's a husk, they do not listen to help, nor is there any change that can be made without Ellie issuing an ultimatum and not backing down(and that means going no contact if those boundaires are not respected or obeyed). If Ellie wants the pressure to ease off, she can ask, sure, but if Carrie doesn't want to give up this abusive cycle that benefits her then it's up to Ellie to save herself and run for the hills.
posted by InkDrinker at 10:30 AM on November 15, 2016 [10 favorites]

Carrie is in crisis or moving towards a crisis. Ellie should find out what the university recommends if someone is having a full blown mental health crisis and keep phone numbers handy. It would be very kind to guide Carrie to help on campus since it sounds like there is no one else to do this right now. Plus, that puts responsibility for Carrie ultimately back onto Carrie.

Other than that, Ellie needs some strong boundaries, possibly her own check-in with professional guidance. In fact, maybe that's where Ellie should start - by confirming guiding Carrie to services is an OK plan.

Ellie should not be encouraged to see the suicide threats as emotional abuse if she can get help herself and maintain boundaries. It's OK to drop the friendship, but it is cruel to label and leave your fellow human being injured, in pain, and without any explanation or resources.

With the guidance of someone trained in this area, telling Carrie that she seems to be suffering and in distress and "I'm not a professional but I'll help you find someone to help you feel better" would be an admirable display of character and kindness by Ellie.

Carrie has no one and it sounds like she'll flunk out soon enough.

Ellie is not responsible for standing by Carrie. But it's OK to connect Carrie to help she needs.
posted by jbenben at 10:52 AM on November 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'd like to add this will not be the last time in Ellie's life that she'll be confronted with someone's pain and anguish, so it's good if she gets some guidance on how to do the right thing by others AND herself.
posted by jbenben at 10:57 AM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

First of all, I feel so much for everyone in this situation. I was part of a group of friends like this for almost two years, and it hurt me really badly. As I'm still processing, my words are definitely going to come out rawer than they will later on down the line...

It sounds like Ellie is in a place where she is reaching out. She has her boyfriend and any other activities she's trying. It sounds like she knows what she wants and she's certainly capable of reaching out to get it.

Ellie is worried about completely severing the relationship as it leaves her with no one.

This reminds me of the often-quoted article about sick systems. Particularly the bit about ending them. To paraphrase a bit, "Two things happen: Panic and pain, and then a feeling of huge relief." She'll make new friends. She'll make stable friends. She'll move on. Carrie is at a place where she is ready to be a stable, healthy friend for Ellie. The last thing Ellie needs is someone dragging her back into the trenches of fighting someone else's mental illness (which will probably exacerbate her own as well).

So my advice would be for Ellie to drop her. Draw boundaries. Say what she can and can't do as a friend, direct Carrie to mental health services, and back out of that situation. You always have to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting someone else. It feels callous and wrong to draw lines like that when you're in a sick system, but trust me, it's better than making hospital trips and suffering under the stress of a friend for whom she's the only confidante.

Best of luck.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 3:13 PM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

It is hard for Ellie in this situation! Probably taking to a therapist and see if the therapist can help Ellie. At the same time, see how to introduce the therapist to Carrie.
posted by mysunshine at 8:48 AM on June 25, 2017

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