How to help?

My friend is sick and he doesn't want to talk about it. How can I help him?


Cary Tennis
July 21, 2004 11:34PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Here's my situation. I'm a single gay man and I have a close friend who is also single and gay. We have known each other for over two years and we hang out together a lot. We have a lot of fun together -- going out to clubs, to dinner. Last year he contracted the HIV virus and I have been a helpful friend as he works through that.

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The problem is a clash of styles in our approaches to the world. I have always believed that talking through problems has helped me to better understand them -- I have quite a few friends that I can talk stuff over with. I don't believe it's necessarily the best solution for everyone. If a person's personality is the type that likes to withdraw and work on stuff internally and then talk about it after, I think I should respect that process.

The problem is that it has been over a year since his HIV diagnosis and he has done very little emotionally about it. He won't talk to a therapist about it (I went and found the information and gave it to him and said, "When you're ready, give this guy a call"). He won't talk to me about it either but he has asked me to push more when talking with him. I don't like doing this -- I think it is invasive and if I can't get him to open up when discussing things (the way I manage with other friends) I don't want to push it. It makes me uncomfortable and in extreme situations can actually make me ill. And I believe he is only going to talk when he is ready to.

And another thing I worry about is that if I do push and he comes to pieces I will be the one who has to clean up. Yes, this is selfish. Yes, I'm a bad person. But there you have it. He sometimes feels like a volcano of emotion that is waiting to blow and I just don't want to be in charge of cleaning up the lava.

The status quo isn't going to work anymore and I would like to find some constructive way forward that would allow him to face the demons and not come to pieces but that doesn't rely on me being the instigator of the collapse. I want to help him be happy and I don't know how to do that. Any thoughts?

A Friend

Dear Friend,

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You're doing everything right. It sounds as though you understand the situation and have been a very valuable friend through this difficult time. You not only have assessed your friend's psychological state but show admirable awareness of your own. So I am curious why you say that the status quo isn't going to work anymore. Perhaps the stress has begun to wear on you and you are looking for a way out. You don't really mention how hard this process has been on you, but it has probably been quite exhausting. You may simply have run out of patience. We all run out of patience from time to time.

When you run out of patience, though, it doesn't mean the status quo isn't working anymore. It just means you have to get some more patience. It's like when you run out of gas. It doesn't mean that's it, no more driving, the status quo isn't working anymore. It just means you have to get more gas.

How do you get more patience? Sometimes by taking a break. Sometimes by setting some boundaries, or trying to forgive the person who has tested your patience.

The fact that he actually asks you to keep pushing him is encouraging. It means that he knows he is struggling with frightening fears and wants to continue. It doesn't sound like he is manipulating you, though perhaps in his fear of death he is at times reduced to a state of childlike dependence that can feel intrusive and inappropriate.

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Perhaps you have taken on too much of the burden, though. Perhaps you need to take a breather, or get some support for yourself. If he won't consult a therapist, that doesn't mean you can't. After all, when we're taking care of someone else, we often need someone to take care of us.

At any rate, the bottom line is that you are being tested. You have a choice here. You can cut and run or you can grow. Growth happens when you reach what you think are your limits and make the decision to keep going. When you are forced to revise your limits, you often find a surprising new capacity for love, endurance and compassion.

Sometimes when you do that it feels like it came out of nowhere. For some people, it feels like it came from God. Other people feel they found it within themselves. Whatever.

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It's not so important where this new infusion of strength, patience and compassion comes from. What is important is that you find it. I know you have it. You know you have it. You need to find whatever it takes to keep pushing him and lending him your courage, as he's asked you to. He doesn't want you to give up on him. He wants you to stick with him until he finds it within himself to break through.

Be there for him.

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Cary Tennis

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