If reading about suicide and suicidal ideation would be troubling for you, stop here.
Dear Captain Awkward,
One of my closest friends from university told me that she had been in love with me for about 3 years. She also told me that she was really depressed since leaving university last summer and hated her job, and that she’d been thinking about hurting herself, and that I had been an awful friend over the past year, and that as she now knew for sure that I didn’t love her back we could never see each other again, and she was only telling me because she felt she had to, and that I couldn’t tell any of our mutual friends.
She was fairly drunk at the time, so I don’t know which bits of it to take seriously and what to do about it. Her feeling this way about me makes SO MUCH SENSE but it really hadn’t occurred to me at all before this year, and even then I hadn’t really taken the thought seriously. She had always said she was straight, and I’ve been out the whole time she’s known me. Obviously people lie about this sort of stuff for other reasons than fear of external homophobia, but I just didn’t put it together.
I don’t know what the best thing to do for her is. Should I leave her alone like she said? Or should I try to get in touch more and see how she is? I don’t want to make things any harder for her than they have to be, but I’m also slightly terrified that she’ll kill herself. I know she’s not told our mutual friends what she told me so I don’t know what sort of support system she has. I have a feeling it’s pretty non-existent. I think some of her friends from home might know at least some of it, so I got in touch with them in the first few days after I saw her in the hope that they could talk to her and see if she’s okay, but I didn’t want to tell them anything she hadn’t already told them. And I got in touch with our mutual best friend from university and told her I was worried and that she should get in touch with her, but again I couldn’t really say why. I sent her a few texts over the next few days, as she had intimated that she might hurt herself over the next few days and I was quite scared, and I did finally get a response (I think when she realised why I was texting) so I know she is alive.
The thing is, I have been a terrible friend over the past year. I’ve struggled to feel particularly friendly towards her for a couple of years. We had quite a big fight two years ago, when she asked me to do something for her and I said no. I felt completely justified at the time, but she was very hurt by my actions. I felt like she was asking way too much. It felt to me like what she wanted from me was something you might perhaps expect of a boyfriend, but not of a friend. Like I said, this makes more sense now. No matter what excuses I had at the time I do realise it was pretty heartless to refuse when she was clearly so upset. After this, we had a pretty horrible time of it. She would come and rage and cry at me in the middle of the night and I was at a loss as to what to do. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it because (in my self-righteous eyes) she was behaving so horrendously that I didn’t want to tell anyone and make them think less of her. I didn’t even realise it was depression until what was going on came out amongst all our friends after the year had finished and one of them pointed this out. Anyway, we made a peace at the end of that year, but I didn’t have a chance to get over it really as we ended up spending quite a lot of the summer together looking for somewhere to live (we didn’t end up living together thank goodness – I really didn’t want to live with her but was terrified about what would happen if I said that), and then had to work together really closely the next year organising a club, which would have been stressful enough without all the extra baggage. I just felt like I hadn’t had any space to take a step back and deal what had happened, so when we moved apart after university it felt like the perfect opportunity for me to get some space and distance myself from the whole thing.
So we’ve seen each other a few times over the last year when mutual friends have had parties, but not met up just the two of us. She’s called me a few times, often while drunk and upset, and I did call her once or twice at the start of the year but not as often as she’s called me. And I’ve ignored pretty much all of her text messages, which I didn’t even realise I had done until she said and I checked my phone and she was right. When we have seen each other over the past year I’ve felt like she tended to monopolise my time and I didn’t like it, to the extent that I didn’t invite anyone from uni to my birthday this year in order to avoid having to invite her. That’s how awful I’ve been. I feel really bad about it, because she has clearly been feeling really depressed and alone. Now she’s said all that stuff can I change my behaviour without making her life harder?
So, yeah, I need your help. I can’t talk to any of my closest friends about what’s going on and I just feel helpless. Should I start getting in touch with her more to see if she is okay, or will that make things harder for her? Would I become the focal point of her depression even more? Should I talk to one of her friends from home about it to make sure she’s got someone looking out for her? Or could I talk to our mutual best friend from uni? And what can I say if I do talk to someone? I need to get across how depressed she is, but I have absolutely no desire to out her. I really don’t know what to do if I can’t help her directly myself.
Confused and Worried
Dear Confused and Worried:
It’s not your fault that your friend became romantically interested in you, and her current depression is in no way your fault. It’s not your fault that she held onto those feelings for years without expressing them. It’s okay that you didn’t want to live with her. It’s okay that you got annoyed at her sometimes for monopolizing your time. It’s okay that your friendship drifted because you weren’t so into it.
Also, maybe what she asked you for two years ago WAS way too much and you made the right decision about what you were willing and able to do.
She’s trying really hard to make it all your fault with her drunken FEELINGSDUMP. She wants you to leave her alone forever! She wants you to worry that she’ll kill herself and feel guilty! She wants you to keep everything secret from your mutual friends! Here you are suddenly texting her and showing an interest in her life the way she’s wanted you to all this time, except it’s super-fucked up and dramatic and secret and you have to do everything entirely on her terms.
I think when people threaten suicide you get to break their confidence about that. You get to call anyone and everyone, from family members to the local emergency services, to save someone’s life. I once had a friend threaten to kill himself if I didn’t do (x totally unreasonable and fucked up thing that I wasn’t going to do). I sent emergency services to his home. He was embarrassed and furious at me and it ended our friendship. Okay. Maybe it was a serious threat and maybe it was an attempt to manipulate me. Either way, he is alive.
If you think it will do some good, talk directly to your friend. “Friend, I want to respect your request to end contact with me, but your comments about harming yourself the other day really worried me. I must ask you to call someone – a therapist, a hotline – or even check yourself in somewhere if you feel like you are in danger of hurting yourself. Can you call someone today? Can I call someone for you?”
If she threatens suicide with you in any way again- via text, on the phone, email, whatever – find out where she is and call emergency services and send them there. If it’s a false alarm? Better than death. If she gets really angry and embarrassed? Better than death. If it’s expensive and awkward and leads to massive inconvenience? Better than death. Let the pros handle it.
Also, there is a list of hotlines in the US (and outside the US in the comments) here. I’m sure if you called one yourself and told them what’s up with your friend, they would have helpful and kind things to say. It would be good for you to talk to someone who is trained about this stuff.
I think you did a great thing by contacting mutual friends and trying your best to keep your friend’s confidence. If you feel like you need to break it in order to stop her from hurting herself, tell yourself “Really angry with me is better than really dead” and do what you have to do. A good script for her closer friends:
“Friend and I had a very awkward and painful conversation the other day where she asked to end our friendship. She asked me to keep the conversation in confidence, but I want some people close to her to know that she is extremely depressed and mentioned harming herself more than once. Can you please check on her and encourage her to get some professional help as soon as possible? I don’t want to embarrass her, but from the things she said I think we should take this really seriously. She’s asked me not to contact her, so it can’t be me.“
Once you’re no longer alone with the knowledge of her mental state, you don’t have to monitor it. If she contacts you and says something suicidal, call emergency services. If she calls you and yells at you for telling her friends how depressed she is, you can say “I can live with you being angry with me if it means that you get the care you need.“
Her pain and shame and depression are entirely real, and it must feel truly fucking horrible inside her head right now, and my heart goes out to her and to everyone who has been in that dark place. She may in fact harm herself. She may claim that it’s all your fault, if only you had (loved her back) not told mutual friends (loved her back) not called the emergency number (loved her back) she wouldn’t have done it. She may claim that something you did (telling/calling cops/not loving her back) triggered it. The humiliation of having other people know might be extremely triggering.
No matter what you do, her actions are not your fault. A suicide is a person who has gotten to the point where they are willing and motivated to commit extreme violence to themselves. Also, to say “I love you, but you don’t love me back, also I might kill myself, don’t tell anyone!” is emotional manipulation in the extreme. Frankly, it’s what stalkers do to terrify their victims and keep them engaged. If you’re still feeling unsure and guilty, think about what you’d do if your friend said “I think I might murder someone this weekend. Don’t tell anyone, though!” and you had even the smallest reasonable belief that they might do it. That would not be a confidence you are obligated to keep. You are allowed to take care of yourself around this. You are allowed to call in the cavalry. You are allowed to take her threats very seriously and take very serious action. You don’t have to fix her. You don’t have to be the kind of friend or lover to her that she wants you to be. You don’t have to give your life over the possibility that she might harm herself. Even if you were *a* therapist you wouldn’t be able to act as *her* therapist.
Based on the parts of your letter where you say that you were “terrified” of telling her you didn’t want to be roommates, I think it will ultimately be good for you that this friendship is ending and your instincts to pull away were exactly right, but that’s the long run. In the short term, you can’t be the only person who knows this secret about your friend both for your sake and for hers. Even if it *were* just for your sake, it would still be okay to tell someone.
The second poem here, by Mary Karr, is relevant to your interests.
“…More than once you asked
that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera
I loved so my ghost might inhabit you and you ingest my belief
in your otherwise-only-probable soul. I wonder does your
death feel like failure to everybody who ever
loved you as if our collective cpr stopped
too soon, the defib paddles lost charge, the corpse
punished us by never sitting up. And forgive my conviction
that every suicide’s an asshole. There is a good reason I am not
God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.
I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,
each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.
We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.”
Call someone. Call everyone. Depression is treatable. Embarrassment is survivable. Awkwardness = better than death.