i.e. “Your Old High School Friend Is Not A Pacifier”
I have a dilemma I hope you can help me with. I seem to have acquired an internet friend with needs a bit beyond my capacity.
I’ve struggled with depression all of my adult life. Fairly recently I decided to go on medication, and wonder of wonders, it’s helped so much. Because of that, I’ve been able to make some healthy lifestyle changes.
I wanted to share about my experience, so I wrote a Facebook post. It was overwhelmingly positive. Many people reached out to me to share their experiences as well, including an extremely distant acquaintance from high school. Call him Fred.
Fred has also had challenges with depression. From what I can gather, he’s having some challenges with drinking and drugs too. Ever since my post, he’s taken to checking in with me every couple of days.
At first I thought that was nice–people supporting people in their shared experience. But his check-ins have turned into demands. Call me! I’m triggered! Call me! I’m suicidal! Call me! I’m in trouble.
I know how hard it is to ask for help. I get that he’s not in a place where he’s going to be graceful at it. I would really like to be supportive. He’s in a lot of pain, and he’s isolated. However, he’s stressing me out.
When he contacts me, it’s with demands that I stop what I’m doing immediately and talk to him. We’re not on equal ground–he isn’t willing to schedule a call to talk to me at a time where I have time and energy to pay attention. And his check-ins aren’t about me, they’re about me asking how he is.
Last night I stayed up (far past my sleep time) trying to get a sense of the territory of his dilemma. Two hours in, I asked him a question to try to understand, and he responded, “Plz stop analyzing it. It’s not helping!!!! You can analyze on your own time.”
Of course I am open to hearing that what I am saying is not useful. However, I’m not his therapist. I’m not even his friend. I’m just a concerned fellow citizen. This was at 1 am in the morning, after I had spent the entire afternoon worrying when he told me that he was drinking and thinking about killing himself. It really bothers me to be told that I am on payroll.
I don’t want to be a bad human here. I want to be supportive as I can. However, I need a way to set some boundaries so that I don’t have to feel worried, guilty, and sleep-deprived all the time.
(preferred pronoun she)
This is not okay. It is not good for you or for Fred. Good job you, for recognizing pretty quickly that this dynamic is bad. I am still boggling at “You can analyze on your own time.” (Um…this is your own time? All time is yours?) That’s beyond sad, or sick. That’s “entitled asshole” territory, and while Fred is in pain and not his best self right now, it doesn’t mean you have to put up with any of it.
Good news, I have suggestions.
1) Immediately: Become unavailable and hard to reach. Use security settings on the sites where you interact and your phone to mask your presence from Fred. Remove the element where he can monitor you and draw you into conversation unawares. Don’t pick up calls from him. Delay replying, if you reply at all. Break that pattern where he expects you to respond immediately to his needs. In addition, take a look at your social media profiles and remove/hide information about your home address & where you work if those things are visible. And tell other people around you what is happening. Don’t be alone with Fred or the information about what he is doing.
2) Either with the help of the links below or Google or your therapist, write down a few helplines or other mental health resources that would be readable and accessible to Fred where he is. For example in the USA:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
- NAMI Peer-To-Peer support or, if immediate anonymous online sharing is his thing, their app.
- The Depression and BiPolar Support Alliance Online Support Groups
You don’t have to do this, by the way, but I suggest doing it because it gives you somewhere to point him when you disengage. It helps you say to yourself “I genuinely tried to steer him toward good help.”
3) Believe this: Fred needed help before he came across your post online, and he’ll need help after he came across your story. You did not become responsible for him the second you told your story or the second he decided that you would be a good unpaid on-call resource for him. You didn’t become responsible for him by listening to him so far and you don’t owe him more of the same. He’s survived this long, and whatever he does or doesn’t do about getting help is not up to you. Run this all by your own mental health team, too. They’ll tell you that Fred is not your responsibility and you owe him nothing – not more attention, not more attempts to help, not more of your time.
4) Tell Fred in so many words to stop contacting you about mental health crisis stuff. He most likely will not like it or take it well. He does not have good boundaries right now and he has been acting extremely inappropriately toward you, so, stay strong and email (definitely use a written medium here) what you need to say:
“Fred, I’m so glad you could relate to my story about getting help for depression and I hope you’ll follow through on getting a diagnosis and some good treatment for yourself. Here are some resources that helped me when I started looking into this for myself (include links).
I am not a trained counselor, and I can’t be your sounding board about this anymore. It’s not good for me, and I want you to you to stop contacting me. If you start feeling like you might hurt yourself, please call (links: emergency services, suicide hotline, go to the emergency room and check yourself in, call your doctor, etc.). You deserve care from a real professional who will know exactly how to help. I have done as much as I comfortably can, and I won’t be responding to further calls or chats or texts. I wish you well.”
This isn’t you being mean or selfish. This is you doing the best you can for a stranger while also taking care of yourself. You are steering him toward actual resources that might help him. Emphasize self-care when you write to him, if you want. “This isn’t good for me, so I am ending it.” You are allowed to prioritize your own well-being! You’re recovering from a bad mental health place right now, and you need to go slow, not take on a giant burden of someone else’s issues, especially not for someone you don’t even necessarily want in your life!
5) Brace yourself and enforce the boundary you set. Fred may start to spiral when you give him this news. He may escalate contact, make threats about self-harm, or say terrible things about himself or you to try to get you to react in some way, like, “I knew you were only pretending to care” or “Everyone pulls away from me when they find out about my illness” etc. Like he’s daring you to prove you’re the exception by giving him what he wants. It’s a manipulation tactic, even if it is the depression talking, and you gotta ride it out. If you think he’s in immediate danger of following through with self-harm threat when he calls you, direct him to immediate care- “Fred, I’m hanging up, please call 911 and get some real assistance” – ONE TIME. After that, institute a policy of not picking up the phone and non-response no matter what he says or does, and block him from contacting you at all, which I know sounds cruel but it really is about your safety and peace of mind. If Fred calls you 37 times and you answer on the 38th time to tell him to stop it, you’ve taught him that it takes 38 calls to get your attention and you had to deal with the anxiety of all 38 of them as they rolled in. Keep reminding yourself that you asked him to stop contacting you and that you don’t actually want to be in contact with him, at all. He has the choice to stop contacting you and call one of the numbers you send his way instead.
Why do I mention your safety? It’s very telling (and scary) to me how quickly Fred made this all your problem to take care of and how quickly he latched onto you. You’re using language of “permission” – he won’t accept talking when you are free, he won’t accept you interrupting him to ask questions, he will keep you up past your bedtime and expects immediate responses from you. You don’t even know this guy and he doesn’t know you, like, he’s lucky you take his calls at all, so what else won’t he “accept” or “allow” once you’ve known each other a while? Professionals have set schedules, hours, fees, and rigid ethical codes to guide them, whereas Fred seems to think he owns your time and attention out of the blue. Every safety instinct I have says that you need to disengage completely from contact with him as soon as possible. I want to be clear – I don’t think that Fred’s controlling behavior is a manifestation of depression or any other mental condition – I think he’s a controlling dude who thinks he’s found a woman he can control, and he is pulling on the levers of your shared diagnosis to get your constant attention and sympathy. It’s already wearing you thin. You were so smart to realize it and ask for help. Now direct him to some real help and disengage.
You are a kind, brave person who tried to do a good thing. You did not set Fred in motion. Please be very good to yourself and don’t be afraid to lean on your Team Me.