My friend is too dependent on me and I can't get her to seek help for her violent mood swings. What to do?

Published February 27, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm concerned for a dear friend of mine who may be bipolar. Her mood swings are destructive and emotionally violent -- the smallest criticism, or even a misunderstood compliment, will send her into a corner of defensive darkness. This happens daily. She relies on me to keep her going in life, insisting "she can't live without me" -- except I don't know how much longer I can hold ship. Last time I tried to distance myself from her, she tried to kill herself. I'm doing my best but I'm feeling trapped by the situation.

Those of us in her circle of friends have tried to get her to see a doctor, but she always is offended by the suggestion. What do I do? How can I compel her to see someone? And if she won't, how much does one give to another person? I enjoy being her friend, but I don't like being her constant life vest.

Walking on Broken Glass

Dear Bleeding Feet,

Your friend is awfully immature to behave like this and refuse to get help. What to do is just a huge conundrum. I suggest that you and the circle of friends have a meeting and discuss what to do about her, and consider setting up an appointment with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, and then meet with her. In this meeting you can tell her how much you all value her -- and some of the things you particularly appreciate in her -- and then simply recount a few of the observations you've all made about her distress. Those of you who've benefited from therapy should say so. Then tell her of the appointment and have one of you offer to go with her for the first session to break the ice. If you do this, briefly describe to the counselor the things you've seen (which have already been recounted to her), and offer to leave. I would think she could accept this if you're united in your resolve.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 34 years old, deliriously happy in my marriage and very satisfied with the life we have created for ourselves. I am four months pregnant with our first child -- therein lies my conflict. I have always thought, "Sure, I suppose I'll have children," but I have never been ecstatic about it like some of my friends have. I have never enjoyed being around other people's babies, but think that some toddlers are pretty cute. I guess I feel guilty for being so ambivalent about this. Part of me knows that I'll be a good parent and that I'll probably greatly enjoy my own baby, but I'm also so afraid of losing myself and my own identity. There are so many things that I still love to do and dream about doing, some of them wild and crazy and fun.

Do you think that as a woman with a baby, I can still hold onto my fun and dreams?

Anxious About Change

Dear Anxious,

Ambivalence is as common as sore feet or a runny nose. Stick around and it will pass, and meanwhile do what you must do to navigate the straits of pregnancy: exercise, stay off the gin, avoid ghosts, eat pickles and never make eye contact with a dead possum. I'm sure you'll be a good mother, and as this little bean sprout gets bigger and starts dancing inside you, the reality of motherhood will come over you, and you'll put ambivalence on the shelf where it belongs. Wild and crazy and fun are exactly the sorts of things that kids love, so you're in luck there. As soon as you get the wee bairn up and running, you can strap it on your back and go be (fairly) wild and (moderately) crazy and have plenty of fun. The kid will enjoy having a mature and brainy mother with a sense of adventure. Lucky child, lucky you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I are friends with another couple, and I've always had a crush on the woman, who is a stunner, and within the last six months, I've started to fantasize about her sexually. Every time I make love to my wife, I can't help having thoughts of "Nicole" being in bed with me instead. Should I try to suppress these thoughts, or should I just consider them harmless fantasies as long as I'm loyal to my wife in reality?

Mentally Cheating

Dear Mentally,

Apparently these thoughts trouble you, and so I think you should exert control over them and demonstrate to yourself that you can. One permits a free play of erotic thoughts in lovemaking and one does not censor, so long as the thoughts are fun and exciting, but when you feel uneasy, it's time to put them in the drawer.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am at wits' end about my domestic situation. My wife and I have been married for 18 years and have two children, 12 and 8. My wife has the so-called alpha job and makes more money, and I have a more flexible job that allows time off for sick kids and school events. I do most of the household chores, the grocery shopping, most of the cleaning and cooking and laundry, in addition to the normal maintenence of the house, property and cars. I do these things because I was self-sufficient before marriage and it's just the way I am. I pull my own weight and then some. My wife evidently feels differently. She speaks badly about me to the kids and says, "If it wasn't for me, nothing would get done around here." This confuses the kids and pisses me off. I am careful not to speak ill of her to them, since this would only make things worse, and I don't believe in it. When I confront her about this, she denies it. Like the kids are lying! I have told her that if it continues, our marriage is doomed. She almost totally lost interest in sex around the time of the birth of our second child. I get no affection from her. I can live with this, but slamming me to my own kids? She refuses to go to a counselor. I see the damage that divorce does to the psyches of children. Where is the fine dividing line between personal happiness and screwing up your kids? What's a reluctant martyr to do?

Married With Children

Dear Married,

Your disgruntled wife is frustrated by some unmet expectations, which may be unfair on her part, but nonetheless you, the unmeeter, need to try to work this through. My guess is that she is just plain burned out. The problem could be with her work, your character or hers, her depression or yours, or some combination of everything. She's striking out, unable to say what it is that troubles her. Propose counseling again, and try to do it in a warmhearted way, not as a stick to beat her with. Unpiss yourself. You're the one with the best handle on the situation, so you have responsibility for keeping your anger in check. A little lightness would help, surely. If she refuses to consider professional help for herself or for the two of you together, then you can only do the best you can for yourself and the kids. Happiness for yourself will be a long-term project, divorce or no divorce. Be cautious.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm blue. I feel like a fool. The reason is my ex-boyfriend whom I still have feelings for. He is intelligent, witty, funny and charming, and when he said he wanted back in my life I told him he had left me for someone else without the decency of telling me and I didn't want to be his second choice. So then, one Saturday morning at 4 a.m., I awoke to snowballs being thrown at my window. It was my ex, yelling that he is here to be my knight in shining armor, that he was a fool to let go of me. He thinks about me every day, and is it still possible for us to be together?

I'm a nice person. I want to believe in what people say. So I trust him, and say yes, it's possible, and we have a great time together until dawn and then he has to go to Ikea -- a friend is waiting for him with a truck and he can't possibly cancel. I ask when we will do something next. He says we'll get together soon.

Soon turns into never. We talk, but he's always busy with work, flying off here and there. Now it's over a month, and Valentine's Day is coming up. He hasn't returned my phone calls for a week. I've had that flu that's been going around as well as a cold for over two-and-a-half weeks. Everything seems out of control and too sad to be true. And what I want to know is, is there any hope for a person like me? Who trusts in the better half of people and can't turn down someone at their doorstep early in the morning? I feel taken advantage of, and feel that my vulnerabilities have been used against me. And how can I give my ex a wake-up call that it's just plain unacceptable to do these things to people, whether you're a dot-com millionaire or not?

Optimist, Falling

Dear Optimist,

Don't regret your having trusted him, and don't let this dismal experience dim your optimism. You did the right thing to open the door -- anyone with a warm beating heart would be moved by such a speech at 4 a.m. -- and you are no fool. He is. There is no blame attaching to you at all. Your vulnerability is that you're human and when love is offered by someone you love, you accept it. But clearly he is in no position to offer love to you or anyone else. So let him go.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a young man who's got the beautiful sons, got the beautiful wife, got the good job, got the friends, got milk, but not got God. Wife got God big time, and understandably wants us to attend church every Sunday morning as a family unit. I go along to get along, and she appreciates this. But ...

I cherish my limited time during the weekends to relax and read and play. I resent that I must wake up early, get dressed as if going to work and spend three hours in church rather than doing things I enjoy. I've spoken about this to my wife, who is unyielding on the topic -- "We must attend church together." Am I being selfish or should I push my interests?

Not an Atheist but Not Religious Either

Dear Not,

Oh, just go to church. Why not? It's important to your wife, and doing it shows respect to her, and being in church as a family gives her respect among her churchgoing friends.

Make space for yourself somewhere else. Tell your boss you'll be at work at noon on Wednesdays from now on. Or maybe you have a favorite hobby that your wife finds boring, such as winter camping. Propose a family camping trip to Manitoba in February as an experience to draw you all closer together.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have weathered so many storms in our four years -- his relapse into alcoholism and an unfortunate prescription to a libido-killing, personality-altering drug; my subsequent feelings of rejection and a brief, self-destructive dalliance; impossible differences between me and his highly dysfunctional family -- but we still love each other thoroughly and want to focus on what comes next in our life together.

The problem is that we've lost the ability to be intimate. Sex is difficult, nearly impossible, for me -- for reasons I don't understand, I freeze into an emotional paralysis when confronted with an intimate sitution. I don't know how to let go of myself anymore, and he doesn't seem to either. We used to have an amazingly satisfying sexual relationship, and I grieve for what we lost. At 28 I'm too young to have lost the sensual side of my personality.

The love is there, but not that spark that unhinges all these inhibitions. How can we find each other again?


Dear Longing,

Your sexual feelings for him are tucked into your brain, where all the emotional memories are stored, and they have been derailed by betrayal and wrongdoing and dread. But start over, as if you barely know each other (this may be true), and court each other, and these memories will return. Let the bad associations fade, and help to right yourselves by practicing appreciation, kindness, generosity and physical intimacy of the simple variety, caressing, whispering, snuggling. Be gentle and affectionate with each other, and desire will return, and when it does, you'll know it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 23-year-old guy and I've fallen for a wonderful woman (she's 22) whom I've known for a couple of years. We've been nothing but the best of friends, and lately I find myself more and more in love with her, but we are nothing alike: She likes music that I would never listen to, movies I would never see, food that I would never eat, etc. It's silly of me to think things wouldn't work out because of our differences, but how off-base am I about this? About the only thing we have in common is our desire to live in Tokyo. (We're both foreigners there.) Should I pack up my love for this wonderful woman or is there some way to be more accepting of her tastes?

Troubled in Tokyo

Dear Troubled,

People fall in love with unlike people, opera fans with jazz hounds, carnivores with lotus eaters, and it makes for good comedy, which is hardly inimical to love. A little friction is good for keeping up one's interest. And, given time, she will gradually educate you to accept her tastes and even share some of them.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a graduate student nearing the end of my Ph.D. studies with a feeling of dread that I have spent the last five years training for a life in research, which is something I don't really want to do. I have been in school for a zillion years because I am pretty good at it and it's the default mode for me. I like teaching a lot and I like thinking about ideas, but I dread the prospect of getting an assistant professorship somewhere and getting on the hamster wheel for 70 hours a week for seven years until I get tenure. And then I start my life?

What I really live for is writing fiction. (I am a social scientist, in urban studies, so this is a bit at odds with the day job.) In my more rational moments I don't pretend I could ever make a living off this, and frankly I am afraid to try. I have sent a few short stories off to magazines and literary journals and heard nothing except for one rejection letter in which the editor said that I'd never be able to write because I've had too much university. Maybe he was right.

I like to read novels, cavort with my husband, write letters to my family and garden. I prefer being alone to being with lots of people. At the end of the day, I like to leave work and go home and garden. How to avoid the hamster wheel?

Doctor Lady

Dear D.L.,

Throw out the idea of tenure. Take a part-time job teaching and enjoy yourself, thinking about ideas with the students and with colleagues who will envy you for your courage in getting off the hamster wheel before it started. In the other part time, write fiction. Have your friends read it and ask them to tell you which parts made them more alert, and which made their eyes glaze over. This is how we learn to do better. What your rejection told you is that the rhetorical devices you've been immersed in as a graduate student have distorted your narrative voice. You can learn to write in a different voice, but this takes time, and lots of writing, but if it's what you want to do, then do it. Take your nose off the grindstone and smell the flowers and put words on paper.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 29-year-old research associate who manfully (or, in my case, womanfully) took this temporary posting in Chapel Hill, N.C., because I felt I'd learn more from this job than from a similar posting in New York. Little did I know that I would be sucked into a vortex of isolation, despair and (yes) malaise. My co-workers have formed happy little cliques that do not include me. (I have true friends but they happen to live elsewhere.) The worse I feel, the more unmotivated I am at work. So how do I get out of this funk? I've joined volunteer groups, and am taking French, but I am in the slough of despond.

In Crisis

Dear Crisis,

It sounds to me as if you are depressed. Plain, ordinary, small-"d" depression. Go get treatment. This won't necessarily improve your social life, but it will change the color of your mood while you create your own happy clique of rejects of other cliques, and work on getting a posting back with your true friends in the city so nice they named it twice, the city of proclivities.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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