My friend is losing his mind

I wish I could help, but he's moved away and won't communicate

Published January 4, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


A close friend is losing his mind. We've known each other since early childhood and might as well be family by now.

He is an artist, and lives up to many of the stereotypes. He is unrealistic and impractical. He is immensely gifted in a small number of areas and deficient in many more. He is self-absorbed.

These things have always been true, and more than tolerable, because he used to be a joy to be around.

Now he is depressed, paranoid and disturbingly misogynistic.

Two years ago he lost his job in the video game industry. The circumstances, as he relayed them, were cloudy. Given his great talents, he was surprised to find himself jobless.

He never really recovered. He became depressed, and his natural inclination toward isolation worsened considerably.

Although we were lucky enough to find ourselves in the same city after years of separation, by the time I moved there, he had retreated to his apartment. I could only find him there or at a particular coffee shop.

His dependence on weed and alcohol grew.

Along with all of this, he has become an ardent misogynist. That would bother me anyway, but I am gay and many of my closest friends are women.

It's hard to say exactly where the misogyny comes from. It's also hard to say what relation, if any, it has to his loss of employment. But his depression, paranoia and misogyny have all worsened at about the same rate, and become especially noticeable after his termination.

I've tried to be a good friend to him. I've been patient with hateful emails excoriating myself and other friends for mostly imagined crimes, as well as many links to anti-woman garbage he's found on the Internet. I try to calmly brush that stuff aside while still providing some kind of interaction. He's closed his Facebook account and will not answer phone calls, so we primarily communicate through email.

He has also moved back home, leaving the city we both love.

So there is a lot going on.

At times I've been worried he might harm himself. When his emails grew particularly grim and vile, I called his mother and expressed my concerns. She assures me he is doing "much better" and further that he is seeing a therapist on a regular basis.

And yet, he has declined to see me or anyone else over the holidays. He has not answered phone calls, emails or texts. And based on our most recent exchanges, I would say he is not better at all.

I no longer know what to do. He is at home under the care of his parents. He is (I think) seeing a therapist. It is out of my hands but I feel strongly that he is not better and may pose a risk to himself, a risk that his parents do not see.

I am at a loss.


A Friend

Dear Friend,

You would like to do something but do not know what. There are a few simple facts that it helps to keep in mind. One of them is that you have no power to fix this person's mind. It is wise to remain vigilant and to keep in touch, so that if he makes a suicide attempt or begins to make threats to others, you can take action. But right now, you are in the unenviable position of standing by and watching.

As an advocate, you can watch and if he leaves therapy you can urge him to continue. If he is on medication you can urge him to continue the medication. You can advocate for stability and long-term commitment to treatment. You can be a voice for sticking with it and weathering the storms. You can advocate politically for more mental health services. You can donate to places the provide such services. And you can get support for yourself through groups that help family members and friends of the mentally ill.

I am convinced that some of our tragedies, in a statistical way, would be averted if public policy favored more public mental health services. It wouldn't stop all the terrible things that people in violent, unbalanced mental states commit, but every now and then, if more mental health services were available in more towns and neighborhoods and if more individuals found it easy to say, you know, it looks like you're having some mental health issues and here is a good place to go for help, every now and then some awful and unnecessary tragedy would be averted. Every now and then, some prison cell would not be filled; some car would not turn over; some judge and some lawyer and some public defender and some families would not have to go through the tedious and grinding administration of justice that follows an act of violent madness. Every now and then the money we spend on greater availability of mental health services would pay off.

And likely nobody would notice because nothing would have happened. Life would go on as it had been, and now one would look up and say, gee, nobody's shot up the Carl's Jr. here in, like, 10 years. Isn't that nice? Nobody would say, gee, there are fewer depressed people and fewer living on the edge and fewer threats being made to the mayor. Nobody would notice except researchers who keep records of such things and correlate them with public health policy.

So that is one side of it. My opinion is that as a society we are very lucky to have the mental health services we have, but we could have more, and we could be more open about mental health and mental illness, and we could treat it more like other illnesses of the body. For instance, there are certain acts that are just out of bounds and if you perform one of these acts the state will act precipitously. For instance, if you steal something. Acts against property or against a person's body get the attention. But in this other realm, the realm of the mind or the spirit, acts against our own spirit or the spirits of others do not get the same attention. And in certain ways that is a good thing. I am a bit of an absolutist about free speech and creative speech. At the same time, there is a kind of violence to the spirit that does not get the attention of the courts until it manifests in a shooting or a stabbing, and that is sad and unfortunate.

So how do we as individuals respond when we see someone slipping into madness? What can we do? Most of us, as individuals, aren't equipped to heal mental illness. And even if we are mental health professionals, we can't just randomly shoot people with sanity guns. We can't force them to pursue the courageous and difficult path of therapy, lifestyle change, deep personal reflection, meditation and/or drugs that may lead to a better life. We can't reach out and cure people.

We can't inoculate them. Although in a way we can. I mean, for certain people who are already not doing well, a precipitating event such as job loss might be met, in an enlightened, generous and wealthy society, by elaborate and vigorous mental health intervention. It might. And we might thereby be spared a certain amount of social madness and its sometimes tragic results. Maybe.

So there is a lot you can do, but there is also a limit to what you can do.

In the end, there is just you, seeking peace and serenity in a turbulent world, wishing and perhaps praying that your friend gets better, keeping vigilant watch, advocating for consistent care, and marveling at the beauty that remains.

By Cary Tennis

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