Dear Aunt Acid,
My roommate and I have been friends for going on ten years now — we’ve been fairly close intermittently throughout that time, if not always confidantes. We’ve only been roommates for a few months. Her job had odd hours and often a commute over an hour long, so I’d been cutting her some slack on some household chores. When she told me she’d accepted a job at a different company, I was thrilled for her, and asked when she was going to resign her bad-hours post. She told me, laughing awkwardly, “Oh, I quit my old job a month ago; I figured I should wait till I had a new one to tell you.”
At the time, I managed to say, “You should have told me that, I knew you were good for the money,” but in an equally breezy way. Both of us are from households that don’t communicate well, and one of her frequent excuses for her not doing chores is her depression, so I’m very wary of how to express my concerns to her without exacerbating the root of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe it’s valid that depression impacts functionality. I know everyone’s mental illness is different, but I also have depression and anxiety; unlike her I am not in therapy or on medication, and have a 9-hour workday. I don’t think its ableist to hold her accountable for her actions, particularly when my primary household issue with her is that she neglects her cat, forcing me to take care of him for her.
How do I confront my roommate/friend in a way that will result in her changing her behavior, instead of sending her into an unproductive guilt spiral? How do I manage my own anxiety enough to even bring up my concerns (let alone express my anger?)
Anxious Ado Annie
A functional roommate meets only two criteria: she is at least a decent communicator, and she is at least moderately considerate of you, your time, and your space. Your roommate is 0 for 2. Being that other people do not change – unless or until high-stakes circumstances force them into a serious reckoning with themselves – your only real options are A) accept this unhappy state of affairs as the status quo, or B) make like Nancy Sinatra, lace up your boots, and get to walking.
You talk a lot about mental illness here, and believe me, I understand. I’ve wrestled with debilitating anxiety my whole life like it’s some kind of vengeful angel. Various close friends of mine have been smothered by depression. Both conditions can make life significantly harder in ways that seem opaque, even mystifying, to outsiders.
In this case, though, it feels like the depression is a red herring. You know, like communism in Clue.
Moreover, you know it. You say yourself: It is not able-ist to hold her accountable for her actions. It is her actions, not her brain chemistry, with which you are at your wit’s end. That’s because you are sharing space with someone whose primary relevant characteristic is not that she’s depressed, but that she’s selfish. She is taking advantage of you, because you are nice and also because you are scared of giving offense; and you, for the same reasons, are letting her. As you have discovered, that sucks. It’s exhausting to be imposed upon, to be the always responsible party – to be, in essence, the parent in what is supposed to be a household of grown-ups.
Is that what you signed up for? Do you want to be the mom here? Or, like, the constantly annoyed and put-upon roommate in The Girl On The Train, that unsatisfying drink of pulpy fiction? I do not think you do. Your letter implies that you don’t. Your mission, then, is clear: for your own sake, for your own mental health, GTFO. Be a protagonist in a better story.
That said. Her mental health may not be the paramount issue here, but it’s still relevant. (Like in Clue!) Even if it weren’t, you would be, by virtue of longstanding friendship if not the codes of human behavior, required to be kind. But the fact that you’re familiar with her various struggles means you can and should be additionally sensitive.
Break it to her in a gentle, straightforward way that you don’t feel like you two are a great fit as roommates. You can still be friends, of course; you would simply do better to find different living arrangements. You can even offer to help her find a new situation, whether in the form of a new roommate or a different sublet, if you think she’ll have a difficult time and you need a release valve for your guilt.
Then, though, please let it go. After all, your job is not to make or keep her happy, to circumnavigate what you perceive to be her issues or to manage her moods. Really! None of that is, or ever was, your job. You’re not compensated for it; it doesn’t even sound like a rewarding volunteer position. If, after parting ways, you still feel compelled to martyr yourself for a high-maintenance fellow creature, perhaps you can adopt your own cat.
PS – You mention that you are not in therapy for your anxiety and not on medication. That’s fine! But your implication seemed to be that you were a bit superior to your roommate because you are able to be high-functioning and untreated at the same time. For all I know that’s the case – your roommate doesn’t exactly seem to be the prize pumpkin at the fair – but I would caution you against that mentality in general.
Even if you don’t need to hear it, maybe other readers do, and for that reason I will say: Seeking help isn’t a confession of weakness; it’s an expression of strength. And self-care isn’t indulgent. It’s essential. We cannot in good conscience ask other people to deal with our shit until we have done some work getting our shit together. For many, many people, therapy and medication, especially in tandem, are an indispensable part of that process.
Are you in need of advice? Feel free to ask Aunt Acid a variety of questions at firstname.lastname@example.org at any time.