Aunt Acid: When Friends Are Depressed Or Disagree -The Toast

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Dear Aunt Acid,

I’ve got this friend who comes from a clouded place, and I’m deeply concerned about her emotional wellbeing. Even when she’s good, she seems to struggle to take any joy in it, as if perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. And when she hits a low, she really bottoms out, to the point where even the self-care she usually aces begins to falter. She gets paralyzed by her anxiety, almost to the point of catatonia, so she ends up lying on the couch crying in silence, afraid to move — sometimes for days on end. I’ve spent the last few years encouraging her to find and see a therapist. (Her work insurance will definitely cover the expense.) She has padded gingerly in that direction, and has even gotten herself on a few waiting lists, but has never progressed further. I’m growing concerned that by continuing to provide nonjudgmental emotional support while not getting her closer to addressing the underlying issues, I may have crossed the line from supporter to enabler.

I feel I should be doing more to actively push her towards seeking some kind of formal intervention. Do you have any advice about the proper role for a friend in this situation? One thorny problem: I feel I should be setting firmer boundaries, but I genuinely do not know how to pull back or withdraw, even partially, from someone whose mental health issues are partly rooted in abandonment and social anxiety.

–Running Low On Spoons


Dear Spoons,

Think of depression like a rhino sitting on a person’s chest. The person wants to get up. The person knows that standing up would be a lot more fun than lying flat and squashed. It’s just, there’s this rhino, you know? And it’s so much bigger than the person is.

You’re being a good, supportive, encouraging friend to a person who’s been pancaked, and who can only do so much to help herself. I understand it’s frustrating. I understand that you want to see progress, because under most circumstances people can make progress, and progress is rewarding both to experience and to witness. You may even expect to see progress as time passes, because you’ve been trained to expect it from reading personal essays and watching TV.

Some of us don’t get better, though. We just get older. Or we get better for our own reasons, on our own time. Do you know how long I went without therapy, how many panic and anxiety attacks I suffered through, how many times I threw up in public – on subway platforms; in front of churches; on the curb halfway out of a cab – before I finally Got Help? Years. It was years and years and years. My friends must have been at their wits’ end with me. My first-boyfriend-then-husband certainly was.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know therapy would help. I knew it the same way smokers know that cigarettes will probably kill them. But smokers won’t quit because you hound them, and friends won’t finally do the hard, frightening work of finding the right therapist simply because you show signs of losing patience and wondering if maybe you should be “actively pushing” them toward more productive choices.

My friends and lovers helped me best by being there. By talking openly about their own experiences with therapy. By listening when I voiced my fears about therapy and what it would mean about me if I went. By reminding me that everyone is broken in various ways, and that seeking help isn’t an admission of weakness so much as a signal of strength.

Your providing “nonjudgmental emotional support” is not, as you fear, enabling your friend. It’s helping her survive. I’m not even sure what “enabling” means in this context. She’s not shooting heroin. She’s not masterminding crimes. She’s trying her hardest to squirm out from under an enormous beast. On good days she can do it, at least for a little while. On bad days, she can’t. She may or may not ever be able to get out from under it for good.

How can you help? Really see the rhino, because it’s there. She’s not being lazy when she gets stuck on that couch; she’s suffering. Your job isn’t to fix her. It’s to empathize. To remind her that help is available, and that your help is also available.

Take breaks if you need to, even from the friendship (you seem perhaps a tad over-invested?). Take care of yourself, too. Everyone has limits. But remember, as much as it hurts you to see her like this, she’s hurting far worse.

Dear Aunt Acid,

I recently realized I’m more conservative than most of my friends by a wider margin than I previously thought. This is a combination of (a) issues coming up in conversation that hadn’t before, (b) me getting older and braver and less sway-able by the opinions of others, and (c) me coming out of a college liberal phase, while they’re actually liberal. I’ve been friends with people I disagree with since my friends and I were old enough to have opinions, and it hasn’t ruined any friendships so far. But I’m starting to worry that they don’t all feel the same. They frequently talk about their views as though the natural and inevitable consequence of caring about [health/a particular group of people/whatever], so I worry that they think I’m an uncaring jerk.

Example: A while ago, a very tense discussion with “Alice” ended in me saying, “Look, I have to go study, so I can’t keep talking about this. But I love you.” She said “I love you too. But I also love [group of people].” I said I did too, and I thought it was unfair and unkind to imply that I didn’t, and then ducked into my room before I started crying. That was right before a school break, and I caught Alice before she left and said I wanted to say goodbye and I love you since we’d ended on a sour note before. She said, “Yeah. Bye, love you” and didn’t make a lot of eye contact. Neither of us brought it up after break, but now I dodge certain topics in conversation. I can’t tell if this is just a more mature and pernicious version of my childhood fear that people only talked to me because their mothers told them to be nice to annoying people, or if I’m actually in danger of losing my friends. How do I tell, and if I am, is there anything I can do about it? 

–Current Paranoia/Future Loneliness


Dear Loneliness,

I’d prefer to tell you you’re only being paranoid, but what on Earth did you say that prompted Alice to reply, “I love you, but I love [group of people] too”? You can hold conservative views without disparaging, or seeming to disparage, whole subsets of the population.

If your friendship with Alice and co. matters to you, bring up the issue of political differences and ask them frankly whether and how they think you can get past what divides you. Because dodging topics isn’t a great long-term strategy. As Frances the badger says, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?” (More about Frances, who is like a furrier Ramona, here.)

Maintaining relationships despite clashing on important issues is possible, even in this age of wearing our sincerely held beliefs on our Facebook sleeves. The key, usually, is to underline your respect for the other person, even while you disagree with the other person’s positions. Part of being respectful is not proselytizing, even if you think the other person is bound for the warm place.

I have a wonderful friend of almost a decade now who does not believe in carbon dating and who does believe in predestination, who likes Libertarians and doesn’t like movies. (Luckily at least she appreciates When Harry Met Sally.) On paper, perhaps we shouldn’t be able to overcome our differences. AND YET. Being friends with her is great. We get to have spirited, often surprising conversations. And we get to feel open-minded just for enjoying the other’s company.

What allows us to maintain perspective is that both of us have plenty of like-minded companions as well, people with whom we don’t have to explain some key part of ourselves. It may help you to seek out some fellow conservatives to add to your social circle. But don’t give up on Alice and co. We don’t always benefit, as people or as a society, from siloing ourselves off with our missiles and our assumptions. Tell your friends that they’re important to you, that you respect them, and that there’s more that unites you than divides you – like presumably you all read The Toast! If, in the future, arguments start getting heated, maybe you can agree on a safe word to shut down fights. I suggest “Mallory.”

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