Helping a friend from a distance...
March 14, 2008 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I’m worried about an old friend of mine who lives far away and has been going through some tough times. I want to be a good friend to her, but I fear that she might rely a little too much on my long-distance friendship.

We’ve known each other since about elementary or middle school, and I’ve had some wonderful times with her. She’s fun, funny, and very sweet. We’ve kept in touch over the years through written letters, emails, and calls. I’ve moved away from the town where we grew up, but I hang out with her every time I visit.

The past several years have not been the best for her. Without going into too much detail, she still lives with her parents and has spent years in school working toward a degree that, I am beginning to suspect, might not be a good match for her. Most of the jobs she’s had over the years have been at places like coffee shops or mall stores. I’m not sure if she has much of a social life out of school or work; I haven’t heard her really talk much about other friends or outings.

I’ve sensed her wearing down gradually. I couldn’t say for sure whether she’s depressed, but she has definitely lost her spark. She seems overwhelmed, lost at sea, helpless to change things.

I believe in her. I believe that she has potential, and that she can be happy; and although I know the power and responsibility to change her life ultimately rest within her, I think she needs a big hand right now, some sort of outside help. I don’t know whether I can or should be that help.

There are two factors here that might complicate things, which I mentioned in the blurb up top:

1) The physical distance between us – hundreds of miles. I can keep up with her via mail and phone, but there’s only so much I can do from a distance. I can’t, say, take her out to a bar or introduce her to my other friends.

2) I’m worried I might be all she’s got. Last time I was in town, she wanted to spend time with me nearly every single day. It was several months ago, but she’s still mentioning how much fun she had with me in all of her letters. I want to be a friend, not a crutch. I think developing other friendships and activities would help her a lot more than I can at this point.

I know that I can’t be responsible for anyone’s happiness, that she has to see herself out of this, that the best I can do is be there… but I wonder if I’m missing something that I could be doing.

Thanks in advance; I really appreciate it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know anybody else in the vicinity of her? I have a friend who seems just like your friend. I live a thousand miles away and can't always (or really ever) be there for her but the last time I saw her, I introduced her to some of my other friends area and that has seemed to help abit.
posted by Geppp at 4:48 PM on March 14, 2008

Talk to your friend, tell her that you are worried. Then suggest that she might want to check out one of the on-line depression screenings. This one is on a university website so it should be reliable. If she says that the results show that she is depressed then you have an opening to encourage her to get help locally. Actually doing anything will probably seem impossible to her (that's the depression talking) but if she is willing to admit that she wants things to change then you can help her break it down into baby steps, encourage her take one small step, remind her that she doesn't like the way she's feeling and celebrate every little positive step towards taking care of herself.
posted by metahawk at 5:00 PM on March 14, 2008

Two key questions before moving forward:

1.) Has your friend asked for your advice in the past?

2.) Has she ever taken it?

My experience is that some people simply define themselves by their problems until challenged otherwise. They love to tell you about their problems. They love to ask you what to do. They love to listen to your solutions. They just don't ever put any of your good ideas into action. If, despite your best efforts, they never, ever, ever try your advice then who has the problem(s)? You, your friend, or perhaps both of you? The problem is sometimes that the person with the problem can't effect a solution until they own it. In their mind it's their friend's solution, so it's the friend that owns it and they don't feel entitled to the credit for the solution so they certainly won't entertain the risk associated with trying.

Insanity -definition- doing the same things over and over again expecting different results.

If the answers to 1 & 2 above are, respectively, 1.)Yes and 2.)No then I would stick with your faith in your friend :

I believe in her. I believe that she has potential, and that she can be happy;

and refrain from telling her how to accomplish her goals (or maybe your goals for her?), especially if none of your advice has been heeded to date. Just believe in her, let her know you believe in her, let her know you believe she's strong enough/smart enough/good enough to come up with her own solutions.

Hope this helps.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:23 PM on March 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

You said your friend needs a "big hand", but I suspect she just needs the hand of a friend or two or three. I think you are doing the best you can for her right now. Surely you are interested enough to get some other opinions here, which is a good thing. Give what you can, when you can, but most you can. Somehow I get the feeling that you feel overburdened right now? I doubt that is only because you have this freind with her unique problems. Always a good idea to take care of yourself first. The irony is that sometimes that means overextending your hand to another. The true beauty of friendship is that the hand extended today is the hand that may be hanging on for dear life tomorrow.

I have nothing against "big hands" or counsellors, or psychiatric diagnoses, or even lay peoples' diagnoses, but it just seems to me that sometimes "stuff" can be overcomplicated.
posted by LiveLurker at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2008

I was in a very similar situation once to the one you have described.

I moved away from home for college and graduate school. My friend (best friend from childhood through my early twenties) told me that he was counting how long it would be until I came home and visited. He was also going through some depression and loneliness at the time. I told him that I thought he needed talk to more people, reach out to his friends that he hadn't talked to in a long time. It was hard for me to say it, but once I did he admitted that he'd been depressed and lonely, and I think it was a big relief for him. I hung out with him with some of those friends a couple times, and he eventually started doing it on his own. Obviously this is a little oversimplified, but that's the gist of it.

So in my situation, it was really helpful to say something. You don't have to tell her that you think she's using you as a crutch. But you could just tell her that you're a little concerned about her, and it would be good for her to have some other friends.
posted by number9dream at 9:49 PM on March 14, 2008

but I wonder if I’m missing something that I could be doing

Have you told her any of this. You sound like a really caring friend, and I understand how concerned you are not to become the sole support for your friend, which in the end, would not be good for her. But, she does need someone in her life right now, and for better or worse, that someone seems to be you. I think you should continue writing, calling, emailing her, but be sure that its not too often. Make sure that you're there for her to give her some good solid advice on how she can improve her life, and make sure she understands that you have her best interests at heart. Keep boosting her morale (tell her how much of a great person you think she is, how gifted and talented she is, and how much of potential she has). Tell her that you may have mentioned her to some friends of yours, and how impressed they were to hear about her (this may or may not be true, but I'm sure she'll appreciate the sentiment, even though if she does have a negative image of herself, it may be a bit hard for her to swallow).

I've been in her place, and have had a friend like you who decided to take a chance on me, and it has helped me tremendously, although I too fear that I don't end up using her as a crutch. (Just be sure that she knows that she can do whatever it is that she puts her mind to, and to then tell her to go out and do it, no matter how difficult it may seem at first. I'm sure that will help her a lot). Your friend needs constant positive reinforcement, for every small step that she takes.

Best of luck!
posted by hadjiboy at 12:10 AM on March 15, 2008

This isn't about how to help her find friends. This is about her finding peace of mind.

When I was her (only person from my family to go to college/only one of my group of (Evangelical Christian) friends to go away to a Secular school), I had a really rough time. I became clinically depressed; my entire reality had been totally shaken. I was lonely, vulnerable, and clinging to the last remnants of my former happiness.

My ex-friend Becky was a close friend who graduated from high school the same year as me (she was homeschooled, I was public-schooled). We were in church together, shared our lives, spent the night at each other's houses, cared about each other.

When both went away to different colleges
, I knew that things would be different and that I would miss her. But I was wrong in believing that she would miss me. It was very saddening that she became so caught up in her blissful new life with her new friends that she totally forgot about me.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Devastating Anecdote follows:

I would call her email her, all sorts of things, but she just wasn't as invested in me as I was in her. It didn't even occur to her that she should care about me anymore. The summer after freshman year, I thought we would start where we left off the year before. But that year, when I needed her the most, she was nowhere to be found. And we lived in the same town and had all the same friends.

I once called her to ask her to lunch with me, but she was already meeting someone else, another mutual friend who had apparently become her bff. I was really upset that she was always meeting up with Other Friend, but never seemed to have time for me. It wasn't like I was not around.

Her response was, and I quote, "I Don't Owe You an Explanation."

Needless to say, things were never the same ever again.

She still has a blissful (if deluded) life with her husband, whom she met the first week at her midwestern Evangelical Charismatic university, and their wonderful, perfect baby in their wonderful perfect home in Rhode Island. But she didn't stay skinny and beautiful. She got fat and so did her husband (I know I'm being petty, but what would you do?)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - -

What I needed from her, and what she needs from you, is your friendship, time, and support. The least she could've done was to inform me that she and I had drifted apart and were no longer friends. Although I admit her behavior was saying it pretty clearly--think He's Just Not That Into You for friends. At that time, I was so desperate for a connection and emotional survival, that I didn't (want to?) see it. I know I was needy, but she was so totally aloof that I felt like a worthless piece of shit.

The best thing she, a supposedly good friend, could've done was say something like,"My heart goes out you, and I wish I could come over and hang out with you right now like we used to, but I don't know what more I can do to help from so far away. Have you ever thought of talking to somebody, like a professional? They might be able to give you the kind of attention and support that only a real live person can."

I am happy now. But it took a really long time to get here, and only after a montage of disappointing associations with self-centered jerks, bad relationships with men, and people who only told me what I wanted to hear and not what I needed to hear.

I am at peace. But only after renouncing the faith that would let her and so many of the other Evangelical Christians I met henceforth feel justified in hurting me when I cared so much for them and leaving me when I needed them the most and addressing my pervasive pain and sadness in therapy.
posted by mynameismandab at 11:00 AM on March 15, 2008

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