My friend is out of control

Should I just avoid her, or have a frank talk?

By Cary Tennis
January 14, 2013 6:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'm a graduate student in my mid-20s and my best friend is someone whom I have known since kindergarten and we've been friends since we were 10. My best friend is someone whom I love dearly. I want more than anything for her to be happy, but she's been kind of a mess for a while now and it's starting to affect our friendship. For the past four or five years she's never been single for more than a couple of weeks and has dated a series of men who in a variety of ways have all treated her extremely poorly. I'm not a fool and I realize these poor choices in men stem from her lack of self-worth. I've tried to be there for her as best as I can even though I've always hated these guys, and I've always told her that while I might not approve of her dating choices, I love her no matter what, and I can't judge her decisions to do what she feels she needs to do.


Recently things ended with her last boyfriend and she's been single for the longest period of time since she was in high school. I think the combination of being on again/off again with her ex, coupled with having no serious dating prospects, has gotten to her and is causing her to act even more irrationally than normal. The past couple of times I've tried to hang out with her in public settings, the results have usually been her acting out in a way that ends up being fairly embarrassing at the end of the night. The first incident occurred when I invited her to a tailgate that a bunch of my graduate-school friends were throwing before a football game. My friend wound up getting blackout drunk and throwing herself on one of my classmates who has a girlfriend. When he tried to stop her, she got extremely upset and kept bothering him and then complaining to everyone else about how she was probably hotter than his girlfriend and he couldn't like her that much anyway since he kissed her back initially. This all sounds childish, I know, and I really don't care what anyone else does in their personal life. It's just upsetting to me because I'm not an undergraduate anymore -- these classmates will be my professional colleagues in the very near future, and while I'm all for having fun I was always do so while maintaining a good reputation. When I try to explain these concerns to my friend she just shrugs her shoulders and tries to blow off the whole incident as "no big deal."

The next incident happened more recently when my parents and several members of my extended family bought tickets to a black-tie charity gala event. I invited my friend along since we are both single; I didn't want to be the only one without a date and I thought we would have fun together. Unfortunately, she wore an extremely inappropriate dress for the event and spent most of the night trolling around and handing out her number to cute staff members and conning older men into buying her drinks. When I was reluctant to participate in her antics she gave me a drunken speech about how I should have higher self-esteem. By the end of the night she was telling me crazy stories in an attempt to convince me to let her drive her car, which I wouldn't do because she was so intoxicated.

I know she's going through a rough time right now and I don't want to make her feel guilty for these incidents (I've been drunk and acted a fool a few too many times myself).  But she doesn't seem to understand why acting this way with my graduate classmates, or at a society event, is worse than when we got drunk and made mistakes when we were roommates in undergrad. Nor does she seem to understand why it's upsetting to me.


I'm concerned that my friend is out of control and doesn't seem to understand me when I try to explain how this behavior has consequences outside of waking up feeling a little embarrassed and hungover the next morning.

So my question is, if the time comes where she expects or wants to be invited to a public event, should I flat out tell her that I can't invite her to come because I can't trust that she'll behave in a responsible manner? Or should I just make excuses until she manages to get her head on straight and grows up enough that I'll be willing to try again?



Guilty of Being a Condescending Friend

Dear Guilty,

You can tell her that she's got a problem or you can just not invite her. When things get really bad you can do an intervention. Short of that, it's agonizing to stand by and watch someone fall apart but if she is in the grip of an addiction then it will take its course no matter how stridently we object. All our words of protest will have the same force as if we were objecting to someone's cancer. Of course we object. Of course we do not want it to happen. But the thing is beyond our control and beyond her control. It has her in its grip. She will deny it because that is one of the characteristics of the thing that has her in its grip -- to induce her to deny its existence. And we will stand by helplessly and watch. It's not that we don't care. We cared about Amy Winehouse, too. Sometimes people are helped by interventions, and by being remanded to treatment by the courts. But you and I are essentially powerless over the process of addiction.


Let me tell you a little about my own experience, to give you an idea of what she might be going through. I remember out-of-control. I remember not remembering. I remember being reminded and still not remembering. I remember feeling ashamed when told but expecting all's-forgiven. I remember finding all was not forgiven. I remember saying, Come on, get over it, big deal, I had a little too much of this, a little too much of that, these things happen. I remember that look like, You just don't get it, dude. You were out of control.

When people get out of control other people stop inviting them to charity galas. I remember not getting invited to things just quietly on the sly. I also remember having it explained why I wouldn't be welcome, that I couldn't be trusted to keep my shit together. I remember this one time when I was holed up in a North Beach hotel trying to get things under control a person had a cappuccino with me in a North Beach cafe and told me that speed was destroying me. I was like, Whatt? Look at you, she said. It hurt but it didn't get through. I had no concept of the larger disintegration taking place.

People told me all sorts of stuff and I brushed them off. I did remember, though. I didn't understand. I wasn't able to put people's advice to work. But I did remember, and it may be that my dim recollection of those few frank conversations figured in my eventual crackup and sorting-out. It is also possible that I was, like all addicts, hermetically sealed off from my essential nature until the hard shell cracked and light filtered in.

Cary Tennis

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