How can I help my depressed friend? CAN I help him?
September 24, 2017 11:00 AM   Subscribe

My best friend is clearly stuck in a spiral of poor health and depression that may end up being the death of him, but he lives on the other side of the country and I feel worried and helpless. What, if anything, can I do to help him?

I have a very dear friend who is in his early 60's. We met almost 25 years ago when we both lived in the same city. We've stayed in frequent communication since I relocated across country 9 years ago and it's quite clear to me that he's become seriously depressed. The entire time I've known him he has lived alone. He's never been married or even had a serious long-term relationship, though he has always longed for a family of his own. At this point I'm literally his only remaining friend and confidant; he hasn't made any effort in years to develop any other friendships. His close cousin died a couple years ago, which I know hit him very hard, and he doesn't have any other relatives left in the area that he could look to for assistance or emotional support.

For most of the time I've known him he's been living off a modest inheritance, or what's left of it since the stock market crash of 2008, and he's well aware by now that he's on his way to being totally broke. Though he'd trained as a chef he hasn't had a job for years, and at this point with his current physical condition and health issues that's not likely to change anytime soon. Despite my continued friendship, emotional support and many offers of help (within my limited means) he seems to be too emotionally paralyzed to do anything about any of it. He spends almost every day drinking most of a bottle of wine and surfing the Internet. He frequently gets maudlin about his salad days, missed opportunities, and the direction his life might have taken but for poor choices, especially when he decides to buy a fifth of liquor and finish it off over a couple of hours and then really go off the deep end for an evening. His current "lifestyle" is causing his health to deteriorate even faster and I think he feels like he may die soon - lately he's started referring to himself as a "dotard".

I've had a standing offer for the last few years to get him a moving pod and a plane ticket here and give him a place to live, at a minimum while he works to sell his house back east but possibly (probably) for the rest of his life. He has almost taken me up on it a couple times but then he never followed through. One of his big hurdles is that he has a lot of stuff he accumulated back when he felt like he was more or less set for life, and he isn't able to face the massive project of deciding what to keep/sell/give away/throw out. He has mentioned the idea once or twice of hiring a professional organizer to help him with it, but he never got around to doing it. From what he's told me there are boxes sitting out throughout the entire house due to a brief spell of organizational energy he had a couple of years ago...and there they've sat ever since. Needless to say he doesn't encourage visitors.

He's one of the closest friends I've had in my entire life and I'm increasingly worried about him. I may be his only escape route out of this hole he's dug for himself, but there's no way I can afford to go back for however long it takes to help him get moved across country, nor to pay for the medical help and therapy he needs. And of course I couldn't force him to do anything even if I did. I don't know what to do.

I'd like to hear any ideas or advice you folks have, even if it's only to confirm that all I can do is stay his friend, and accept that I've done all I can do and that he's determined to slowly kill himself by degrees.
posted by Greg_Ace to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Generally I think you have to let people go to hell the way they want to, to paraphrase Deadwood. I think it's likely that all you can do is stay his friend, having known people in similar situations to your friend who were determined to drink themselves to death and bring down anyone who tried to interfere.

If you feel like you have to try, though, maybe there's some middle ground where you can fly and go get him, fly you both back to your house, and just have him stay with you for 3-6 months? Leave the house and all the stuff, pay bills online and have mail forwarded? Then make a plan if/when the situation improves? It's possible that time away from his house with nutritious food and maybe some nice walks in nature and someone to help him navigate physical and mental health resources will make a difference; it might not and probably won't, but it could also be a lifeline for your friend if he wants to change but doesn't feel capable of it on his own.

If you go this route, you'll have to be honest with yourself about your ability to set boundaries and how much of your own energy and resources you're willing to give to such a project, though--I can't think of examples of similar situations where the intervention was successful without harm to the relationship.
posted by stellaluna at 11:46 AM on September 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

Is he actually depressed, such that he is psychologically incapable of motivating himself to sort his life out? Or is he just a bit of a miseryguts who likes to phone you up for a moan when he's drunk?

I'm not sure you can really tell which of the two situations you are looking at from the other side of the country. If he is depressed then yes, you should fly out, get him on medication, clean his house up, and when he gets better from his depression he can take it from there.

If he's just a grumpy old sod, he doesn't actually want anything to change, and he'll resent you if you try. What was he like when you lived nearby?
posted by tinkletown at 12:21 PM on September 24, 2017

Best answer: Ask him how you can help. Ask him what he'd really like to have happen, and keep asking until the answer is real, that is, win the lottery is not real. He has a bit of money and he has a house, so he may be able to manage financially for quite a while. Share your netflix account or whatever and watch some of the same shows, read some of the same sites, that will give you stuff to talk about other than his misery. See if he'll agree to take a walk every day, even if it's just to get more wine. Even a little exercise and sunshine is a help. Maybe there's a library he could visit, or anyplace where he could develop some mild friendships, that's is also a big help.

You can't actually save people without a bit of cooperation from them, and they aren't likely to appreciate it in any case. Do you best and kudos for being his friend.
posted by theora55 at 1:31 PM on September 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a tough situation. If you're really willing to invest some time/resources, I'd offer to pay for a professional organizer and then fly out to be with him while the organizing gets done. A week or so, perhaps? Then take him away with you back home for a "little vacation." It sounds like the worst problem here is inertia, which of course depression amplifies horribly. If you can just dislodge him the once, it may be possible to get him looking at the future again.

But you're going to have to decide in advance a painful and tricky point. Even if he agrees to the plan, he may end up sabotaging it, wasting a lot of your money and time. Can you stand that? Can you live with yourself if you can't stand it and the experience ends up drawing a line between you?
posted by praemunire at 1:40 PM on September 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

I am so sorry. But you can't save this guy, no matter how much it hurts you not to be able to. You can be his friend. You can keep the lifeline available in case he ever decides he wants to grab it. You can tell him how much it is killing you to see him like this. But you can't save him.

Go to Alanon.
posted by windykites at 3:01 PM on September 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

This post came off as extremely codependent to me. You can't make this person live differently or get mental healthcare. The second paragraph is describing a person who is not interested in changing anything right now, and no amount of forcible intervention on your part is going to change that, until he realizes, on his own, that he wants things to be different and seeks resources to make it happen. If you take him in and try to change him and he isn't ready to change, it will destroy you emotionally and possibly financially, and the friendship will implode. You can be there for him with attaching yourself to the outcome of your friendship, without seeing yourself as a savior. Just be his friend. Listen and be there. Don't move him into your house, don't pay his bills, don't organize his belongings, don't try to pry the wine or liquor out of his hands.

I agree with windykites that you need to go to Al-Anon.
posted by zdravo at 3:31 PM on September 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Does he like animals? Maybe incept the idea of getting a dog? He'll have something to take care of, to get a job for, to stay healthy for, and that will also give him immediate emotional support. It may also lead to increasing his human socializing--dog park, classes, etc.
posted by danny the boy at 5:09 PM on September 24, 2017

Best answer: And if jumping straight to adoption is too much, fostering or volunteering at a shelter could be a gateway.
posted by danny the boy at 5:12 PM on September 24, 2017

I"m wondering if it might improve the quality of the friendship if you limit (decline to participate) the maudlin phone calls when he is drunk. The conversations would probably be more satisfying and you would have a better sense of how he is coping and your support would be more helpful if he is sober. If you need help on how to do that, there is lots of good advice on the green about setting boundaries with alcoholics.
posted by metahawk at 5:15 PM on September 24, 2017

Volunteering with animals or anywhere else would be fantastic if he would do it but it doesn't sounds likely and I wouldn't expend your energy pushing it.

A pet seems like a very bad idea. He doesn't seem to have his act together enough to consistently train and care for a living creature and there is no one else to back him up. Aside from the fact it would be unfair to bring an animal into a home that isn't equipped to care for it, I have visions of pee and poop mixing in with the boxes and piles and that isn't good for your friend either.
posted by metahawk at 5:22 PM on September 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Personally there are many things that I should do that I really think I could do if I had someone sitting next to me chit-chatting. For example, getting organized - almost everything I own - especially knickknacks - has a story and if I could tell those stories to someone as I go through the stuff I think it would be easier to get rid of it. Does that ring any bells for you or your friend? Sometimes seeing someone else making the effort/sacrifice to spend time with me or support me is all that I really need to feel like I matter.

The idea of visiting him sounds good. While you’re there you can offer to support him in cleaning or organizing but don’t pressure him. I think you making that effort to visit him will mean a lot to him even if he doesn’t tell you. Set your own boundaries for how much you want to be around him while he’s drinking.
posted by bendy at 7:57 PM on September 24, 2017

Honestly I'm kind of surprised (but I probably shouldn't be) at the answers here that are trying to shame OP for trying to save his friend's life.

I love animals, and I think dogs are better than most people I know. And I would still say that the risk a dog will have to go back to a shelter is vastly outweighed by the possibility that the relationship saves a person.

Maybe it's because I've been in a place where I've felt like I don't have anything worth living for and all I needed was someone's permission to care about literally anything again. Maybe I've read too many stories of like parrots adopting themselves to dudes who have given up and it turning their lives around.

If someone feels like they have *nothing*, maybe the answer isn't insisting they're wrong, but giving them *something*.
posted by danny the boy at 8:17 PM on September 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

Make sure not to lose communication.

Always be the bigger person to do the first contact. I suggest if you can offer him a vacation as well. So you can be together just for a week. Try extreme sports (if he can) or try places he has never been before. Distraction to his daily routine may change the way he thinks.
posted by reekbeek12 at 4:34 AM on September 25, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the advice and excellent ideas. It was good to get some feedback and validation that I haven't been obtusely misreading the situation or neglecting some obvious thing that I could be doing.

Those who mentioned codependence concerns and Alanon, rest assured that I'm not about to drag myself down after him or destroy my own life. I'm staying well-grounded and I've had lots of experience in developing stout clearly defined boundaries and a realistic limit well within my emotional and financial budgets for how far I'm willing to go. I'm also very fortunate and grateful that I have supportive friends locally.

I hope I can somehow coax him out of this spiral, but if he's determined to take this route to the bitter end, then so be it. I'll be sad but at least I'll know I made my best effort to throw him a lifeline regardless of whether he elected to grab it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:58 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

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