Is my friend suicidal?

She burned all her diaries; she says she wants to "go home" -- I worry about her but I also need distance!

By Cary Tennis
Published August 1, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


I have a friend I've known and loved for more than 20 years. She's smart, pretty, verbal, sensitive, spiritual and deep. She's been there for me, mostly from afar (we live in different cities), through all kinds of ups and downs. I like to think I've been there for her too. (I'm not sure she'd agree, which is kind of why I'm writing.) Nevertheless, we've listened to each other cry. We've laughed together. We've discussed, delighted and commiserated.

When we were in our 20s, she burned all her journals. I really thought I'd lose her then, but she says she is not capable of suicide. She says she feels at odds on this planet, and wishes she could "go home."

Over the past several years, her personal situation has taken a nose dive. I wouldn't feel right going into the details, but pick an area, any area (finances, love, hope, purpose) and it's been affected.

I've tried to listen. I've tried to be there for her. But the torrent (that's how I experience it, as a torrent) of negativity feels unendurable to me. I feel like a total failure as a friend. I feel deeply that a good friend, a "real" friend, would be able to sit with someone she loved and do nothing, simply listen, simply bear witness. To anything. No matter how sustained the misery. No matter how impossible the hope.

But I can't seem to do it! My friend keeps saying she wants to "go home," and I hear, "I want to die." Even though she's also said she will not kill herself, I can't stop myself from saying, "Please get help." And then she feels unheard, unloved, misunderstood and alone. She won't (or can't) "get help." Not from doctors, not from medication, not from groups, not from anywhere. There are probably certain kinds of "help" she'd accept (energy work, for instance), but she says she can't afford it. She is so stuck and so miserable, and there's not a damn thing she's willing or able to do about it.

A few months ago, I finally stopped lending her my ear. Since then, we've traded a few "likes" on Facebook. I emailed to wish her a happy birthday. But, by some sort of unspoken mutual agreement, we've ceased most communication. I imagine she feels like she's released me with love.

It bothers me. Not every second of every day. But certainly it bothers me every time I think about her. My AA sponsor tells me that it's OK to protect myself. But I feel like a weakling and a loser not to be able to give my good friend the one thing she says will help: an ear.

I keep wondering if I wasn't so codependent, if I didn't experience her outpourings as "torrents of negativity," then maybe I could be a "real" friend to her. (Alternately I wonder if maybe what she needs is to be allowed to hit her own kind of bottom, at which point she'll either die or survive, like the rest of us.)

While I sit around wondering, I'm estranged from a person I've loved and who has loved me since I was a teenager. It seems like a terrible waste. Every time I think about it, I second-guess myself and my motives. I also wonder what I'm supposed to be learning from this. Am I supposed to learn to protect myself? And if so, why does protecting myself feel sometimes like I'm trying to justify a fearful, half-assed, selfish response?

What do you think?

Selfish or Self-Protective?

Dear Selfish or Self-Protective,

Since you mention being codependent, I suspect you may feel you have only two choices: either listen to her all the time or cut her off completely. Why not instead start to practice love with boundaries: Be her friend but also set limits. Listen to her when you have the time and energy but end the conversation when you have to go.

You can do this. It may feel awkward and unkind at first but you can learn with practice. Here are some concrete methods. Meet with her 45 minutes before you have to be at an AA meeting; that will ensure that you meet, but the meeting is short. If you are always the listener and she is the talker, say, "Please, now it's my turn. I want you to listen to me. I want you to hear what I am going through."

This might save the relationship. It might also show her that her friends may have boundaries but they are not going to desert her.

We really do have to protect ourselves. That does not mean abandoning others. It just means accepting the fact that we are all in the same boat. You can't rescue her and she can't rescue you because you're both in the same boat.

Not everyone stays in the boat. If you spend enough time around alcoholics you will know this to be true. I recently heard that a 23-year-old nephew of a friend of mine got drunk and shot himself. These things happen. We don't seem to be able to stop them. That is just how it is. We must accept the world as it is.

Accepting the world is not selfishness or lack of caring. It is realism.

It is painful to lose friends. But your sponsor is right. You are protecting yourself. Moreover, you are responding in a realistic way. You care about your friend. You can see her and set limits. But you cannot rescue her, or know what the future holds for her, or know what secret plans she may be hiding from everyone.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alcoholics Anonymous Alcoholism Co-dependence Friendship Mental Illness Since You Asked Sponsorship Suicide