I've got friend fatigue!

This troubled woman is wearing me down but I can't say no to her

By Cary Tennis
Published August 15, 2012 11:59PM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have a friend, well, until about two weeks ago I had a friend who I thought was in serious trouble. She suffers from depression and I thought she might kill herself. I took some actions to help her that she did not like and now we are no longer friends. I ended the friendship. And while I feel bad about it, surprisingly (to me) I don't feel bad enough to reach out at this time.

I am 51 and I have known my friend for about 15 years. We have never lived in the same city but we met at a "self-help" seminar and have stayed in touch, traveled some together, and have visited during holidays. She is smart, interesting and has a heart for helping people. During this time I have seen some patterns emerge. She has had several jobs during this period for nonprofit organizations that have all ended badly. She usually ends up in conflict with senior management over an issue of integrity, or so I've been told, and then when reprimanded, sinks into depression and stops going to work. Obviously, if you don't show up for work eventually you will be fired.

Her immediate family has rejected her and her sister has gone so far as to get a restraining order making it impossible for my friend to see her mother who lives in a nursing home. I don't know why the restraining order was sought or issued, and when I asked my friend why, she says she doesn't know. She has friends besides me, but there is something about the relationships that seems off. I'm not sure why I feel that way but they do seem one-sided. In hindsight what I may have observed secondhand is that she meets someone, they become a close friend, but then something happens and I never hear her mention that person again. But I'm not there in person, so it is just my perception of what is going on based on my knowledge of her over the last 15 years.

About a year ago she took a job overseas with a large nonprofit organization in an Islamic country. She was alone, but on her meds. She was broke and needed the job desperately so it seemed like a good idea. Then the pattern started again. She couldn't get along with her boss. It was over an issue of integrity. The issue being that her boss lacked integrity. She was involved with a man who worked for the same organization, which was a workplace violation, and he ended up, in her words, "throwing her under a bus." She dropped into depression and I started to worry. I am, or was, her healthcare proxy and had power of attorney in case she became sick or died while overseas. Because I was worried, I called the woman whom she had designated as my backup in case I couldn't or wouldn't help her in case of an emergency. I needed to talk to someone else who knew her. This backup person is a Facebook friend, so I was able to contact her that way.

It didn't take long before my friend stopped going to work, and was eventually let go. She came back to the States, still broke, and with nowhere to go. My boyfriend and I offered her a place to live, but because my boyfriend has allergies, she couldn't bring her dogs with her. I am so relieved that she never took us up on our offer.

She did, however, go stay with our mutual friend, the backup person, and it was a complete disaster. I would hear from both of them about how awful the other person was. Eventually, my friend was kicked out of her other friend's house. I support this woman's decision to kick my friend out of her house. It wasn't working on so many levels. But I came to the conclusion that both of them have a lot of issues.

So now my friend is upset with me for contacting her other friend behind her back and says I have been horribly manipulated. As usual it is never my friend's fault. My friend asked if she could use me as a reference as I have in the past, and I told her not to list me as a reference. She contacted me and asked if we were still friends. I said, maybe we could talk in a month.

I know my friend is having a really, really rough time. I could offer her money, but I'm not going to because of the way she has completely squandered the little she had when she knew how hard it would be for her to find work. I hope she is still on her meds, but who knows. While she could be right, it really is everyone's fault but her own that she can't keep a job or a relationship, my guess is that the truth lies somewhere between it's all her fault and it's all their fault. I think she is making bad decisions repeatedly and that they are exacerbated by her depression. Or maybe she is depressed and as a result makes bad decisions. I don't know.

So when is it OK to call it quits on someone who needs help? What I want you to tell me is that I've done my part and it's OK to walk away. It's not that I don't care about my friend, but I really don't care enough to be involved anymore. I kind of have friend fatigue. I really think she believes what she says about her situation and her life. But after 15 years, I think she believes what she wants to be true instead of what is true. If it weren't for the fact that she is depressed, I would have walked away a long time ago.

What do you think? Should I just give it time and then contact her?

Feeling Used

Dear Feeling Used,

If someone drives into a ditch once, you help them out. If someone drives into a ditch every week, after a while you drive by. You've done your part and it's OK for you to walk away.

Friendship is voluntary and reciprocal. When it ceases being voluntary and reciprocal, it ceases being friendship.

I don't think you have to repeatedly rescue friends from the non-fatal inconveniences of their own making.

It's a friend's job not to be a constant burden. If she is a constant burden, and it's clear that she has some choice in the matter, then she's not being a good friend. She's using you. Your friendship has become a trap or obligation. Some obligations we do have. Sometimes our friends fall into hard times and if we can genuinely be of help then we make sacrifices for them. But this isn't like that. This is some pattern of behavior that she's indulging in that isn't helpful and that you can't change.

We think to ourselves, They would stop doing that if they could. But maybe there is a reward structure in place that keeps them doing it. Maybe the ditch feels safe and familiar. Maybe every time she drives in there, friends show up to help her! Like magic!

If so, pulling back may be the one thing you can do to actually help her. If she won't listen to reason, she may respond to circumstance.

Even if it doesn't help her, it will certainly help you. As it is, you are enmeshed in an exhausting and wasteful enterprise. That's not a wise use of your being.

In contemplating pulling back, you might resist. If so, ask yourself, What have I been getting out of this one-sided friendship?

Is there a part of you that wants to be the rescuer? If so, maybe you can look for more fruitful uses of that impulse to rescue people. Maybe you could volunteer somewhere where you can help people who actually want your help and can put your suggestions to work, and will express their gratitude in a tangible way. That might be more satisfying.

What you are doing is not helping. You're just the pasture she's grazing in.

She will keep doing these things until she stops. That's not under your control.

People do change sometimes. I've seen that. You have, too. They change on their own or with some help. They change in response to an event or sometimes out of the blue. People change and sometimes they call or write and say, you know the way I was acting, well, I see what I was doing and I'm sorry I caused you all that trouble and I'm working to do better.

That does happen. It's nice when it does.

So it will be interesting for you to let her go and pay attention to what happens after you let her go. You will probably miss her a little. If you pay close attention, you may learn what you were getting from your interactions with her.

So let her go and pay attention. What part of you wants to reach out to her? Is it the part that keeps unsatisfying friendships long after they have ceased being satisfying? Why? Is that the best part of you? Where did you learn to maintain unsatisfying friendships? Did you learn that in your family?

We are only on earth for a short time. We are not responsible for the inner workings of other people. When our interactions become pointless and fruitless and troubling, we have to let people go.

Just let her go. You don't have to make excuses or explain. Just let her go.

Let her go, let her go, let her go.

Cary Tennis

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