what are my responsibilities to a new lover who is suicidal?
September 12, 2022 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Found out new lover is suicidal. Help me figure out my ethics of care, and what is realistic to expect in a situation that seems very touch-and-go?

(Pre-note: I'm working on getting into therapy again; my job changed so I'm seeking a new provider.)

We are both queer, she is a trans woman (late 30s) and I am nonbinary (late 20s), we live on opposite coasts of the US. I travel to her area regularly enough to maintain relationships there generally. We met a month ago when I was in her area. During that time we experienced an unusually strong physical and emotional connection. I really like her—she is caring, attentive, brilliant, beautiful, actively interested in me—and this sort of attraction is rare for me with a new connection. I returned to my area recently but we've kept in touch in a very emotionally intimate way (e.g. following each other on social media, texting, having long calls) and both expressed a desire to see each other again when I'm next in town in 2 weeks. (We are not monogamous or "official.")

When we met in person I knew she was dealing with tough things in her life, since she is an older trans woman living in an unforgiving city. She was open about this and I welcomed this part of her. Since I left her area, I learned via her social media posts that she is dealing with suicidal ideation. She is grieving the death of her lover who died two years ago, as well as "three heartwrenching breakups" that she's gone through recently. I had expressed a desire to hold her through this grief, and she is accepting of my care. She rarely asks me for help, but she always accepts my help when I give it, and she seems to need it. She sometimes takes the initiative to be closer to me, like texting/calling.

Yesterday she made some social media posts that seemed very much like a suicide note. I freaked out and texted her. She said she "sort of" had a plan to kill herself but "obviously doesn't want to be like this." She seemed to have been triggered by an incident at her workplace that happened that day. I called a friend to support me, and my friend talked me through writing some text messages to her that were validating her feelings and trying to talk her out of the "dangerous state of mind" that she said she was in. Basically we tried to give her enough emotional support for her to get support from someone local to her. She replied and said her friend came to hang out with her, and later said she got home safe and was doing fine. (I know my boundaries here; she cannot stay alive for me, she has to stay alive for her own life and for her friends.)

I feel very conflicted about what to do at this stage. While my life is stable enough, I'm exhausted and reaching my limits due to other things. I have a fairly unforgiving set of commitments that I need to keep up, I also need care, I have no plans to live where she lives, and I don't have the capacity to regularly talk someone else off the ledge. At the same time, I really deeply care for her and I feel like it's part of a queer ethics of care that we have to look out for each other when society doesn't.

One question is: Do suicidal people get better? I see so much potential in her life; she is so caring and talented, and it seems like life has just really mistreated her over the course of the pandemic. I really believe that good things are around the corner for her. (She's said things to the effect of "I think good things will happen in my life, but I'm just in too much pain right now to believe that I can make it to that point.") She's actively taking steps to find therapy, find medical care (she just told me she had a new doctor), make new connections in her life, pursue meaningful artistic opportunities, find new housing, etc. She seems to have a strong local network of friends. I have no active role in these things (i.e. I do not personally have the capacity to call therapists for her), I just know from what she was telling me that she seemed to be attached enough to life to pursue things that seemed like new growth on her own.

Am I being delusional about her, or can I be optimistic that she might become fully present one day? And am I being delusional about my capacity, or can I be optimistic that my involvement and care can play a role (again, not a central role, but a supporting role) in helping her get back on her feet?

I feel worried that I might take the optimistic role, and become close with her, and believe that she'll get better, and then she'll decide to kill herself anyway, and I would become devastated by grief. But yet another part of it is my own need to matter to someone; while (again) I think I have decent boundaries that would prevent codependency, I definitely like to take on the role of "giver," and I like to be important to people, and I'm attracted to crises. Part of me wonders if I pushed my way into her life because I sensed she'd need me. Hence my indecision. My current thinking is that I will continue to be a supportive casual sometime-lover sometime-friend but can't get any more entangled. But I can also see another route to take, where I slowly fade away from her life, and let her local friends support her. I'm not sure if I should make any decisions in conversation with her, since we've only known each other for a month and have never talked about "us." Since the stakes are high, I appreciate any help here.
posted by icosahedron to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As a trans woman who experiences suicidal ideation, I'd just like to note that we do notice when people slow fade us when we are in crisis.
posted by transitional procedures at 12:32 PM on September 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sure she is a lovely woman and I hope she can find peace. It's certainly the case that she can get better, but

I know my boundaries here

...do you? This is a woman you only came to know a month ago. (Right? If I'm misreading your post, you can disregard or qualify all this.) You cannot form a healthy new romantic relationship with someone who is in acute mental health crisis. It's questionable whether it's even ethical to try, because the person is so vulnerable.

Step back and let the people in her life take care of her. It sounds like she does have a good support network in place. There will come a time when she is in a better place to be forming relationships; hopefully you can reconnect then. I don't see how you have a casual engagement when you're reading her social media for suicidality. That kind of perpetual crisis does not permit intermediate, on-and-off involvement.

Best of luck to you, and I hope it all works out for her.
posted by praemunire at 12:44 PM on September 12, 2022 [21 favorites]

People who have suicidal thoughts usually get better, esp. with treatment. Medication can be extremely effective. When someone has a plan, even vague, it's clearly urgent and they should go to an emergency room, or at the very least call their doctor.

Suicide is incredibly painful for those left behind. WQhen a family member had suicidal feelings, we both found this article incredibly helpful. Art Kleiner, How Not to Commit Suicide.
posted by theora55 at 12:45 PM on September 12, 2022 [8 favorites]

Suicidal people can get through suicidal ideation without killing themselves. The way through it won't look the same for everyone. I will say that in my case, focusing on the good things to come was of absolutely no help.

I don't have a lot else to say about the situation you're in, but I would encourage you to reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, they have a page with resources for LGBTQ+. Even though you are not suicidal, they will have suggestions for how to take care of yourself in this time.

Therapy is great, but talking with someone who is trained specifically around these issues might be of benefit to you.
posted by Gorgik at 12:47 PM on September 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This is not a good environment for building a sustainable relationship.

I don't think the creation of the new relationship and seemingly crucial support role you're playing here can effectively or should coexist.

If it were me, I would either: continue in the present supportive role, but set boundaries concerning increased relationship-i-ness, or continue in building the increasing relationship, but set boundaries concerning the support.

This may seem off, but I have reasons. For your sake, and for hers.

She needs support. If you provide the support and increasing intimacy in a relationship context, it means ordinarily that the support will be gone if the relationship ends. That is obviously bad for her, and makes it very hard for you to end the relationship.

Supporting someone you care about experiencing suicidal ideation is extremely taxing. You must be able to exercise choice in the matter.

Consider also if there is a pattern here, with the "three heart wrenching breakups". Perhaps those relationships were also strained by this dynamic?

I would lean towards continuing your friendship, but holding off on any more romantic relationship for now.
posted by lookoutbelow at 1:06 PM on September 12, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I will just add, for whatever it's worth, reading this question set off giant blinking ringing alarm bells in my head. Be careful and do not forget to care for yourself.
posted by lookoutbelow at 1:38 PM on September 12, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I have lots of queer and trans people in my life who are more or less suicidal all of the time. You don't always see it because they are caring, charming, busy folk, but underneath that is a well of loneliness that can drown you too if you don't know your limits of care.

I went back and forth for a long time about what my responsibilities were. I love these people and the world is very cruel to them, and that's not their fault. I hate that they feel alone. I decided the best thing for me to do was be a steady, calm presence in small ongoing ways. I check in via text and send them memes just to say I'm thinking of them. I invite them over for walks and meals. They know they can stay on my couch, just to be with someone.

There are rules though; they can't destroy my things or spin out emotionally at me. I can hold space for someone who is angry, grieving and afraid, but I still have to uphold my chores and commitments. If that means they're crying while I fix dinner, or I tell them I've only got a half hour to chat and then I have to work (but they can sit quietly by my side while I laptop), so be it. And on good days, when the darkness is at bay, I expect them to be there for me emotionally too. We help each other. I don't keep people in my private life who can't give back.

I would say— talk about this openly with her. Do not use euphemisms for suicide or dance around it. Talk about what dating her casually might look like when she sometimes wants to kill herself. Decide in advance what sort of caregiving you're open to, and where you draw the line. Can she refrain from calling you if you say you're not a main support? Can you stop yourself from obsessing over every sad thing she posts on social media? Will she follow through on therapy, housing, medical care, her support system? Can you stand back and let her handle it her way?

If you can't hold these lines, or face the risk she might die, don't get closer.
posted by lloquat at 2:06 PM on September 12, 2022 [31 favorites]

The gender identity stuff you mention here is a red herring.

Suppose that you had been dating a 19 year old for a month, and then you started having an extremely difficult time emotionally.

Would it be morally acceptable for you to dump your despair onto that person in ways you knew full well would cause that person to feel some responsibility for it?

I daresay you would know better: you would realize that one of your obvious responsibilities to a considerably younger, extremely new partner would be to protect that person from the darkest aspects of your mindset, at least early on.

Please prioritize yourself - value yourself enough not to fall victim to emotional manipulation, immaturity, and selfishness - and cut bait.

(I speak as somebody who has experienced lifelong suicidal ideation, and who while in his 30s has dated people a decade younger. I never would have let one of them feel the slightest bit responsible for my mindset. Even at my most abject I would have understood that to be an inexcusable violation of trust. Depression does not excuse you from your obligations to others. When a little time has passed and you feel more removed from this situation, I think you will come to see why you have a right to feel furious.)
posted by foursentences at 2:13 PM on September 12, 2022 [6 favorites]

Fair warning that I may come across as insensitive.

I've seen too many people suffer because this became a manipulative dynamic. I'm not saying your friend is manipulating you.

My advice would be to not get involved. Encourage this person to call 911 or text 741741 if they need support.

If you aren't a trained mental health professional you shouldn't put this responsibility on yourself. I would say that a trained mental health professional should not take responsibility in this way for people they know personally either.

There is a reason therapeutic relationships have boundaries on them so that they are not accessible 24/7.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2022 [9 favorites]

Gently, this screams codependency and is full of red flags. You’ve known her one month and are already exhausted from the emotional labor of keeping her alive. You are not her therapist or another mental health professional and, to be brutally honest, you owe her nothing at this point. You stand to lose yourself in this situation and then who will you be able to help? It is so easy and so dangerous to lose ourselves in someone else. Nothing good will ever come from it.

She needs to get professional help and get into a better headspace until she begins a new relationship (whether that be a committed, exclusive romantic relationship or something else). You need to prioritize your mental health here, set a boundary, and step away. This is not anything you can fix. It is so brave that she has taken the first step of getting help by contacting doctors and therapists. Now you need to take a huge step back and let them do their job. It will never be your job to save someone from themselves.

Sometimes the hardest decisions in life are also the most necessary. You cannot save her. Now is the time to put yourself first and step away.
posted by Amy93 at 2:49 PM on September 12, 2022 [9 favorites]

From experience: suicidal people do get better. However, the nature of the disease is that suicidal people do not believe they will ever get better while they are suicidal. And they will strongly assert their belief to you. You should not believe them. The disease is the one talking to you. Ignore it. It is wrong.
posted by agentofselection at 2:56 PM on September 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Just to note, IF you decide not to deepen the relationship under the current conditions, and iF she tries to guilt you out of that, that would be a sign you absolutely need to hold onto your decision.
posted by away for regrooving at 3:19 PM on September 12, 2022 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should worry way more about potentially falling into something codependent/worry about whether you can find and maintain a healthy relationship dynamic than you should about, as you say, potentially becoming close with her and then losing her to suicide. You can't know or predict what will happen and the risk of loss (of all sorts) is inherent in becoming close to people. The risks of getting involved in a relationship dynamic that's really unhealthy (and feels especially hard to extricate yourself from because a partner has big mental health stuff) is both larger and kind of has the potential to be a bigger overall burden.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:54 PM on September 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'd also suggest that you proceed with extreme caution with anyone that uses social media to express suicidal ideation -- especially in a format that isn't anonymous. I'd say in that situation it's even more important to not get involved.

If you have strong boundaries and ability to compartmentalize it's not as big of an issue, but you probably wouldn't be posting fretfully if you were in that camp.

(Fwiw slow fades and ghosting should probably be its own topic but I'm of the opinion that it's much better to be kindly clear about what's happening vs just ghosting someone. "I'm not in a position where I can interact in a healthy way around this so I'm going to take some space and hope the best for you as you navigate this difficult situation" is much kinder and ultimately less potentially damaging than nebulous possibly-perceived-as- abandonment, which may simply reinforce all those crappy beliefs. If you speak up kindly about your own need to take space due to being poorly equipped for the situation, or the need to self monitor for codependent tendencies, or whatever is your own personally focused reason, then it's less likely to add to whatever filters that person is seeing through. This isn't foolproof by any means. But I believe giving information is better than letting someone's ruminating mind fill in the blanks.)
posted by crunchy potato at 4:21 PM on September 12, 2022 [7 favorites]

(We are not monogamous or "official.")

it would probably be a good idea to keep it that way for the forseeable future.

It would also be better for you to unfollow or mute her on social media (proactively telling her why, if you think she's likely to notice and be bothered) than to either panic every time she's vocal about being hopeless/suicidal or to try to get her to keep it to herself when she's feeling that way so that you won't panic. I disagree very strongly with the idea that she has some obligation, either to herself or to others, to keep her crises to herself. One very good thing about sharing her personal business in public venues is that it ensures her partner(s) (that is: you) will never have to be the only person(s) who knows the state she's in, and will never have to feel solely responsible for intervening or guilty if something were to ever happen.

you are responsible for letting her know that you care about her, on an ongoing basis, for as long as that remains the case. you are not responsible for her in the way that a person is responsible for a dependent.

she rarely asks me for help, but she always accepts my help when I give it,

so then I don't understand where exhaustion comes into it if she is not asking you to exhaust yourself. doing a slow fade because you can't tolerate the emotional consequences of your voluntary choices seems very unfair.

I definitely like to take on the role of "giver," and I like to be important to people, and I'm attracted to crises.

there are certainly people like this in the world. I can't tell from your question whether you yourself are really one of them. but people who are like this tend to give without being asked until they are sick of giving, and then they disappear. cruel in effect whether or not it is cruel in intention. you can choose to drop her, but you could also choose, instead, to stop looking for a rescuer angle and content yourself with being the casual friend and lover she seems to think you are and want you to be.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:42 PM on September 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

First some numbers to help you get oriented. According to the CDC, in 2020:
  • 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide
  • 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
  • 46,000 succeeded.
Unfortunately a disproportionate amount of those people were part of the LGBTQ community, but there is still an enormous difference between the number of people thinking and the number of people acting.

While it's never pleasant to have someone thinking of suicide, the vast majority of people who reach that point turn away.


Other commenters have made good suggestions about whether to stay involved or not, but I want to head off a line of thought for you before you go there:

You are *not* capable of making the difference in whether she commits suicide.

You can be there for her, make her life more comfortable, and definitely you should show all the compassion you can muster for both of you, but in the end her decision will be driven by internal factors you have no way of affecting.

She may be confused about that and fully believe it when she tells you that if you did X or didn't do Y it would make the difference. Not only is it not true, but if you start internalizing the idea you will quickly find yourself miserable and have to abandon her for your own mental health.

It's an easy mistake to make. Whatever you choose to do, please make sure to keep your self emotionally safe.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:18 PM on September 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

I feel like part of being with a trans woman, or any marginalized person who has less than you do in terms of privilege, is accepting the relative bleakness of their reality, and being willing to sit through it as they process that and not try to rescue or play savior. If you can't do that-- and it concerns me that mild non-specific ideation has you this upset-- then it would be better for you to step away.
posted by coffeeand at 10:08 AM on September 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

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