My suicidal friend drives me crazy

I like her but she is draining my life away!

Published August 20, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Hi Cary, 

I have a friend/co-worker who was recently hospitalized for having suicidal thoughts. We have become close over the past year, but apart from a few instances of odd behavior, I never saw this coming. She is a bit younger than me (she is 24, I am 30) and a very intelligent person, helpful and thoughtful at work and in our friendship. I consider her one of my closest friends and up until this point believed I would do nearly anything for her.

She recently was discharged from her stay at the hospital and since then she has become increasingly emotionally dependent upon me. She engages me in conversations that make no sense to me and asks me for advice at every turn. Her family is far away, and she actually says it is because of them that she is having these thoughts and problems. She has one other close friend nearby, but doesn't rely on her nearly as much as me. This is probably because we work together and see each other nearly every day. It has gotten even worse as she is now back at work. She is on medication and mopes around the office and cries into her cellphone in the bathroom. The slightest little thing will set her off crying. And when she tells me what she is crying about, to me it sounds like the most ridiculous things.

She told me she was suicidal again one day at work and I immediately took her back to the emergency room, where I stayed with her until my boss told me to come back to work. While we were in the E.R. waiting for her to see the doctor, she mentioned that this was the only way she could "get attention." I wasn't sure if she meant attention from me, or even what type of attention, but I didn't understand it.

She was discharged from the hospital the same day this time. She asked if we could hang out over the following weekend so I said Sunday she could come to my house and we would spend the day together. My boyfriend was there on Saturday night and consequently Sunday morning, with the intention of leaving because I had planned to be with my friend. She ended up requesting to come over earlier, which I said was fine, and then I mentioned offhandedly that my boyfriend was still at my house but was just leaving. She proceeded to burst into tears, accused me of being rude, insinuated I was a bad friend and unsupportive and told me she would never put me in "this situation." I told her she was being irrational, and tried to defend myself as best I could, but I was really too appalled by her behavior to say much.

I really feel like I have always been a very good friend to her. We got off the phone and I was shaking from this conversation. I asked my boyfriend to leave and I sat alone for a few minutes trying to wrap my head around this situation. I realized I was worried she might do something to hurt herself, so I called and left her a message saying that I was at home alone, and she was still welcome to come over. She called me back a few minutes later, cheery as anything, and said she was coming. I spent the day walking on eggshells around her in my own home, afraid I would say something to trigger her again. 

I find myself getting very frustrated with her, especially after this last incident, and my patience (which I thought was infinite, especially with a friend who is suicidal!) is wearing very thin. I find myself beginning to think she is doing all of this just to get attention, which sort of makes me feel like I'm not being understanding enough. She continues to make constant demands upon my time, making me feel guilty if I have other plans, because she needs "to have one-on-one time" with me. But I don't want to! I want to continue to help and support her, but she is draining the very life out of me. I feel like she is taking all the energy I have to sustain herself. How do I distance myself enough from this without setting her off again? How do I get rid of the guilty feelings my resentment toward her is causing? 

Frustrated Friend

Dear Frustrated Friend,

Wherever we live, whatever stratum of society we occupy, we will find that a certain percentage of people around us are disturbed; they are addicted, or compulsive, or depressive, or have personality disorders; they are histrionic, or narcissistic, or borderline, or something.

Such people present hazards both moral and practical. We must manage our interactions with them. If we let them into our lives without restriction, they will drain us and drive us crazy. So we improvise defenses.

Such people may be dear to us. They may have many wonderful qualities. We may feel that they have not been understood by others and have received a raw deal. We may be taken by their charm and their loyalty.

But we must protect ourselves. If the relationship is optional, we may cut off interactions entirely. Otherwise, we must manage it. It's not a happy situation.

Maybe we learn to lie, and if we are good at lying it can work well. Maybe we learn to not answer the phone or the doorbell; maybe we learn to be blunt and confrontational. Or we refer such people to appropriate clinics. Or we come up with wholly original plans involving kidnap and circuses, one-way passage on a freighter, a Sumatran commune. One way or another, we learn to protect ourselves against the sometimes unwitting predations of people with serious personality disorders.

It sounds like your friend needs more help than she is getting. She has been admitted to the hospital twice but apparently isn't under regular care. I'm not trained in psychology, so I wouldn't presume to diagnose her, but, gee, it just sounds like she is in trouble. She's taking medication, but it doesn't sound like she is receiving regular professional help to overcome or adapt to her problem.

But I do best when I address the problem of the person who writes to me and that person is you.

You're the one with the problem.

No, that didn't come out right! I don't mean you're the one with the personality disorder! I mean you're the one that I'm trying to help. You're the one whose problem I need to address.

So again, I say that many of us at one time or another will form friendships with difficult people.

Whatever your past has been like, I can say with some certainty that now you face a situation that requires you to learn how to achieve balance in your relationships with others, and how to set boundaries when others have none.

There may be reasons that she sought you out as a friend. She may recognize something in you.

Perhaps nothing like this has ever happened to you before. Or perhaps there is pattern. Were there explosive individuals around you when you were growing up? Did you "walk on eggshells" in your family home? Do alcoholics, addicts and disturbed individuals seem to single you out and befriend you?

I'm not saying any of this happens. But if there were unstable personalities in your family and you became attuned to meeting their needs, then your relationship with this friend would fall into an understandable pattern that you have some control over. On the other hand, perhaps your lack of experience with such pathologies left you without antibodies against them, like a person raised in a bubble.

So in concrete terms I suggest two things. One, urge your friend to get additional help and at the same time set some firm boundaries with her. Make a pact with yourself not to be cowed by her emotional displays. She has no right to intimidate you or take over your life.

Two, learn as much as you can about personality disorders and setting boundaries. You could start anywhere -- on the Web, browsing in a library or bookstore, or by visiting a 12-step group or some other support group for people with difficult relationships. You might consider getting into some one-on-one counseling or therapy in which you could talk about this baffling problem with a sympathetic but objective ally.

Families teach us some things about how to get along in the world. Education teaches us a great deal more. But your experience with this person illustrates what neither family nor education teaches us: how to set boundaries, how to have tough love, how to have compassion for disturbed people but not let them run our lives.

I wish you the best. 

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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