My friend is hurting badly. What can I do?
February 12, 2018 3:54 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support a friend who is going through an extraordinarily difficult time (involving the disintegration of her marriage due to her husband's addiction)?

I'm struggling to keep this concise. It's a long and messed up story.

Here's the high-level version: my friend (I'll call her Jane) has been with her partner (I'll call him Bill) for 15 years. They got married several years ago.

He's always been a drinker, though a functional one – but, after a series of traumatic events in both of their lives, his drinking got out of control. Jane says that he's never been abusive (and I believe her), but it's nonetheless had a disastrous effect on her life. It sounds like the last five years have been a living hell for her.

Several months ago, Jane decided that she'd had enough, and essentially gave him an ultimatum: sobriety or divorce.

Bill has done the opposite of sobriety. Since then, he's been hospitalized multiple times, has flunked out of multiple rehab programs,'s just been a neverending stream of emergencies and fucked-up situations. His drinking is a tornado that shreds everything and everyone close to him.

He hasn't been living with her for the last month or two – he's been bouncing around from to hospital, to family member's house, to rehab center, to AirBnB. At this point, his addiction is raging so far out of control that he may literally drink himself to death. (I wish I were exaggerating. It's very bad. He came close yesterday.)

Jane knows that the marriage is over, and has been seeing a good therapist (she says it's been very productive, though painful). She has been learning not to make herself responsible for his choices, and has been keeping her distance from him. She just wants to move on from this hellscape.

But, in the meantime: the man she loved for 15 years is out there, spiraling chaotically toward self-destruction. It seems like every other day brings another call from some friend or family member, reporting the latest emergency (and often looking to her to solve it).

Her financial situation is becoming difficult without his income. She is emotionally and physically exhausted. She doesn't have much of a support network in the area. And, she has a lot of responsibility at work. I honestly don't know how she's still functioning.

She knows there will be an end to this, and that she'll survive. But...the end won't come tomorrow, or next month, or the month after that. It'll be quite some time before she has any stability and security in her life.


How can I best support my friend during this incredibly trying time? I am asking her what she needs (and she is trying to learn to allow others to help her). And I'm trying to be there to give her a shoulder to cry on, or to take her mind off things, or just to let her know that I care. But I'm not naturally good at this sort of thing.

Maybe that's all I can do. But if you've gone through something similar (or have helped another person through it): what, if anything, can a friend do in this situation?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like she needs money. Offer her a no-strings-attached loan for however much you can. Tell her you don’t need it back for at least a year. Then you can forgive it if you want.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:23 AM on February 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Or, help her find a better source of income: help her with her resume, job hunting, etc. Let her know she will be okay even if he does kill himself, as seems increasingly likely.
posted by corb at 5:37 AM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the biggest adjustments after you finally leave a marriage is just not having a consistent person's presence in your life on a daily, mundane basis. That's hard to let go of even in a toxic relationship. It can be good for a friend to text or call the person every day with a very small good morning or good night, and let them either turn it into a conversation or just a two second exchange. But ask if they want this. Some people will find it intrusive of course. But it can be very comforting to others, just to sense there's someone who is pretty much there as matter of daily contact.
posted by velveeta underground at 5:45 AM on February 12, 2018 [20 favorites]

2nding offer her $$ if you can afford it and and help her with job search.

There are no magic words you can and no magic action you can take that will heal her pain. But you can show up for her and be present for her while she's going through this. Ask her over for dinner or out to the movies, get coffee, go for walks in the park. Give her hugs if you're both cool with that.
posted by bunderful at 6:07 AM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Families Anonymous can help with dealing with the addiction, shame, judgment from others, grieving, etc. It is like Al-Anon but different, really about refocusing on yourself and not on the addict or her relationship with him. There is a website with local chapters listed. They are really under the radar but if there is one near her I highly recommend it.
posted by headnsouth at 6:37 AM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

But I'm not naturally good at this sort of thing

Well what are you naturally good at? Maybe you're generous with money as suggested above, or good at keeping in touch. Or you could be a good cook and offer to make dinner for her on a regular night of the week. Or maybe you're good at taxes and can help her sort out her changing financial situation, or you're comfortable navigating bureaucracies and can help her deal with the ones she will inevitably encounter. Maybe you are great at cleaning and can make her space really tidy and relaxing.

Think about what you're good at doing in your own life, the adulting thing that you can say "I got this" for, and ask her if you can lend her your skill at that thing. Even if she's normally good at cooking or calling companies or whatever, you doing it will lighten her load and let her focus on other things she's maybe not so good at. Emotional support is really important but there are many other ways to be there for someone without being a shoulder to cry on.
posted by Mizu at 6:42 AM on February 12, 2018 [14 favorites]

It seems like every other day brings another call from some friend or family member, reporting the latest emergency (and often looking to her to solve it).

One of the most helpful things for getting through dealing with someone else's addiction and your longtime entanglement in it can be setting up boundaries around this sort of thing and it's super hard. So in addition to the good advice you've gotten from other people (money, companionship, listening) a big helpful thing can be to help the person re-center what normal expectations are or should be with people who aren't addicts and aren't dragging you down with them.

So this can include the addict (which it seems like she's got a handle on, even if it's difficult) but also their complicated web of people who may be enablers, addicts themselves, low functioning in their own way, or not dealing with this person's addiction. It's possible in the past she's been the filter for his addiction, downplaying it, being the person who could deliver the guy to the event or the family function and would do the driving, the management. Now she's done. This means that there's a hole in the fabric of all these OTHER people's lives that she was filling and so there's a lot of agita from other people around it on top of what she is dealing with. Some people may even be mad at her. This is so hard.

Helping her realize that these other people's pain is, while sad and sometimes devastating, not hers to manage can be a supreme kindness. Having sympathy as she deals with that aspect which is sometimes more complicated because these people aren't the people who have treated her terribly but may now be starting to. It can be incredibly isolating.

This happened somewhat with my father after his wife left him (for every good reason) and he spiralled downward. I was his closest family member and got a LOT of "YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING" pressure from people who were his friends and family (so also my family) and it was the hardest part of all of it. I was okay at boundaries with him but it was harder with other people. Having a friend tell me "It's okay to tell these people you don't want to hear it, that it's not your job to save him" was incredibly helpful.
posted by jessamyn at 7:00 AM on February 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

One little suggestion is to set aside your own view of the situation and let your friend feel all of the feelings without judgment. When my sister went through this (she died in her early 40s), my parents were mostly heartbroken and sad, but they were sometimes angry, and sometimes ashamed, and sometimes full of regrets about how they interacted with her, and sometimes resigned, and sometimes a tiny bit relieved to be at the end, and sometimes just totally numb.

I saw people interacting with them who had made up their own mind about the situation - it was a tragedy, or it was an outrage, or it was (and oh man I hated this one) god's mysterious plan for their life. And those people expected that my parents' own feelings and emotional processing would be consistent with that. Try not to do that. Let her feel whatever she wants to, however she wants to. Understand that even completely contradictory conclusions about what she is going through - that her husband is a victim and that he is a perpetrator - can both be right.

Oh, and: Comfort in. Dump out.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:37 AM on February 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

It's pretty hard for people to just suddenly start making more money, but would you be in a position to help her find maybe a short- or medium-term lodger who could help with the household expenses? It might be a lot easier for you to do all the legwork, including getting a lease created and vetting applicants and doing background checks etc before bringing the best possible pre-vetted candidates to her to meet.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:29 AM on February 12, 2018

If there's a meeting in your area, Al-Anon.
Listen, listen, listen.
She may need help managing her finances, she may be eligible for a personal loan from her credit union, etc. You may be able to help with errands, getting documents, that sort of thing. If she hasn't already, she should get any money out of shared accounts and shut off credit cards. If there's a lease, she should get him off it. She should put a watch on all credit accounts. If he has a car and she can put it somewhere, maybe he can't crash it. If he has keys to her car she should either park in a secured spot or change the ignition.

Addiction is a horrible beast. The best help you can give is to listen.
posted by theora55 at 10:10 AM on February 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here's how I've been supportive of one of my best friends through a similar time in her life:

1. I'm more financially stable than she is; I've loaned her big sums of money, some of which I plan to forgive when she's in a position to pay it back (because I don't want her to think I don't think she will ever be able to; I know she will, and I want her to feel my faith in that), AND ALSO if we're going out to eat, or grocery shopping, I combine and pay for whatever we both get MOST of the time, and look for other small ways to be financially supportive within my means without getting up in her business.

2. I hold her to high expectations, but gently. I messed this one up with a previous dear friend, and it hurt us both a lot. Now, when my friend hurts me by accident or through carelessness or distraction, I tell her, rather than protect her from the fact that her difficulties are hard on the people around her AND signal that they're not abusive (unless they are), so she can experience healthy, loving, constructive interpersonal challenge and learn to trust her emotional experience as a nuanced thing.

3. I try to be as flexible as I can about plans. We were going to go out but now you surprise have your kids for the evening? Cool, let's cook at home, no sweat. You were going to come to my house but now you're stuck at work? Let me pick up take out and come to your office for dinner.

4. I don't cross my own boundaries for her. If I'm not up for a night of being flexible, I say so. If I can't happily be flexible about breakfast plans, we won't ever get together before work. I don't spend or loan more money than I can comfortably never get back, and I don't offer to do tasks or errands that will make me grouchy.

5. I ask her nonjudgmental questions when my spidey senses go off about something she's planning to do: "If you really want to do x, I support you, but I want to ask: Is it really what you want? I have conners and I'd like to share them if you're open to it." This isn't for everyone, but I really value this in both directions in my most trusted relationships. When I'm at this point with someone, I usually ask if they want that kind of feedback before engaging in it.

6. I find places for lightheartedness and play. Even a 5 minute dance party in the kitchen can go a long way toward reminding a person that life is worth the times that are a slog, even if the slog lasts years. Cute animals, funny (NOT MEAN) videos, great jokes, glitter -- anything that brings some lightness and ventilation into things is huge.

This sounds like such a tough road for your friend and the people around her. Get your own supports lined up, too. It's incredible to be near someone surviving something like this in her life, but it's also brutal. The difficulty of your experience of this is real, too. If you don't have a therapist, get one. Can you find time to gently stretch every day, or take a walk, or anything physically caretaking? Do that. If you're a meditator, bring that forward. Lean on other friends to keep yourself balanced and in good working order. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
posted by spindrifter at 7:43 PM on February 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

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