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Dear Emuna: Fatal Friend

June 12, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

The more I get pulled into my friend's serious problems, the more sick I get.

Dear Emuna,

I am an 18 year old girl, a senior in high school. I am clinically depressed and used to hurt myself in many different ways. I even overdosed once. Now I am better, I take medication, see a therapist and have learned to control my addiction to self-harm. I have also learned to manage my depression but I still have one huge problem - I am a magnet to people like myself! Everyone I know comes to me with their problems and I just can’t say no to helping people.

I’ve given myself anxiety attacks by trying to solve other people’s problems. Whenever a new situation comes up it gets harder and harder for me not to cut myself. Now a close friend of mine has started to get physically and emotionally abused by her parents and I’m the only person she talks to about it. She tried to go to the cops but they refused to believe her. All the weight of her situation is getting put on my shoulders. I try really hard to be a good friend but the more I get pulled into this girl’s problems, the harder it gets for me not to self-harm. I have literally gotten sick from all the pressure. I have started avoiding her calls so I can try to deal with my own issues but doing so could lead to her doing very drastic things and it would all be my fault! I can’t abandon her if she claims she would kill herself without me, but helping her has caused me to cut/ burn/ puke/ bruise / get no sleep and I just don’t know what to do anymore. Please help!

-- Trying be a good friend

Dear Trying,

This is the time for you to learn some important life lessons – and there’s not a moment to lose.

There is a difference between being a friend and a therapist.

1. Everyone has to know their limitations. There is a difference between being a friend and a therapist. There is a difference between being a teacher and a therapist. There’s a difference between being a rabbi and a therapist. The kindest and most helpful thing you can do for all your friends who are turning to you with their problems -- and particularly the last girl -- is to refer them to professionals. Their issues are beyond your capabilities and skill set. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. They are beyond most people’s capabilities and skill sets. Only those who are trained to handle these situations, only those who have experience in dealing with these problems, should be involved. Significant harm can actually be done to individuals (and often to marriages as well) by well-meaning friends and acquaintances who offer advice without the benefit of wisdom and experience. Knowing when to refer is crucial to being a good friend and advisor. You are lucky to be learning this at an early age.

2. You have no obligation to sacrifice your own life to save your friend. If you were completely healthy and could, out of the fullness of your heart and with limited personal consequences be of real help (which is doubtful as stated above) then perhaps it would be appropriate. However, since none of these conditions are met, you need to take care of yourself first. This is not selfish. You cannot be a good friend if you are not healthy.

3. Whatever happens with these other girls (and I pray it’s only positive), it is NOT your fault. There is only one person whose choices you are responsible for – and that is you. They are responsible for their choices, as painful and destructive as they may sometimes be.

I can’t reiterate it more clearly or emphatically. Your friends, and especially the victim of abuse, need professional help – and the sooner, the better. The only possible real harm you could be doing is feeding the illusion that talking with you is enough to solve their problems. It is actually to their benefit for you to pull back and send them to someone with appropriate training.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

My husband and I have been happily married for more than 25 years. Thankfully, with God's grace we have full lives replete with rewarding jobs, children and grandchildren. As you can well imagine our very hectic schedules come with our fair share of stress and financial strain, similar to but hopefully no worse than most of our peers in our community.

Around six years ago, my husband began to gain weight. With only brief interludes of feeble attempts at dieting he has been on a steady upward climb. Once, last year, I had a heart to heart with him letting him know that if he would like to lose weight I will do all I can to support the effort. We spoke about health, increasing self esteem, energizing ones self-feeling better physically and mentally, and enhancing one's image in the eyes of co-workers and children etc. I reminded him that the desire has to come from him -- no one could force it upon him -- but if he says the word, I will be there to provide dietetic meals, support his efforts to exercise regularly etc. He appreciated that I reached out at the time, but he did nothing about it.

A year later, there is just no end in sight. He is almost unrecognizable from the husband, father and grandfather we know and love. Additionally, he is depressed and his self image has suffered drastically. I know that he would attribute his weight gain to financial related stress, but losing weight can make you feel better without costing any money! He is very sensitive about the topic and I don't know how to go about bringing it up again. I can (and do!) provide dietetic and healthy food but I cannot control what he does outside the house or when no one is looking.

How would you advise tackling this dilemma?

-- Want to help

Dear Want to Help,

I am assuming (which is probably something no one should ever do) that you have ruled out medical issues. Sometimes we assume (that word again) a psychological or emotional cause or a lack of will power and forget to check the obvious physical possibilities. Thyroid conditions among many others could certainly be at the root of this situation and should be ruled out definitively before returning to our original suppositions.

The problem with wanting to help is that the subject has to want to be helped (like the famous light bulb joke). As I told the previous reader, we only have the power to change to change ourselves – and look how difficult that is. Some families have staged interventions when a serious problem (like alcoholism) continues unresolved but that frequently involves unpleasant ultimatums which I don’t think you want to impose here.

I think you can only try positive words and actions. Try to build his self-esteem through expressions of love and validation of specific actions and qualities. Suggest you take a walk every night as a way of spending time together. Tell him how much you enjoyed the opportunity.

Ironically, the more confident he feels about himself, the easier it will be for him to stick to his diet and not the other way around. He needs your support and belief in him now more than ever.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

I have four young children – ages 2, 4, 6 and 8. I’m a stay-at-home mom because I have the financial resources and I really want to be there for my kids. Everyday I tell myself that any projects I want to undertake can take place at night after the kids go to sleep. They have full days and we are all exhausted by the time their bedtime rolls around. I love my children dearly but by that point, I can’t wait for some “me” time. However, as much as I plan this, something always interferes. One child has scary thoughts and needs me to lie with him until he falls asleep, frequently taking longer than usual due to said thoughts. Another had a fight with a friend and needs me to lend a sympathetic ear before she can calm down. Bedtime ends up taking at least an hour and a half, at which point I am done. I can’t do another thing. And everyday I feel the same frustration. What should I do?

-- Pulling My Hair Out

Dear Very Frustrated,

Leave your hair alone. I think there are two possible solutions to your dilemma. (I assume that your husband has important commitments in the evenings; otherwise he could also be pitching in!) The first is that sometimes you just need to hire a babysitter so you can get out and recharge your batteries. This doesn’t solve your every night problem but it makes the rest of the nights easier to cope with.

Accept that your nights are devoted to your children’s needs. Any extra time is a bonus, a treat.

The more important solution however (this is one I learned through long, hard, exhausting, frustrating experience!) is to change your attitude and expectations. If you expect to have “me” time or quiet time or whatever it is that you want to do time every night, you will inevitably be disappointed. It is just not available to a mother of small children (it’s frequently not available to a mother of big children either). It is much better to just accept that your nights are devoted to your children’s needs, even if those needs are just to fall asleep. Then any extra time is a bonus, a treat.

It’s also crucial to recognize that this is normal. It goes on in almost every home (I know; we all have that one girlfriend whose children go to sleep on a perfect schedule, stay in their own beds throughout the whole night and then make breakfast for their mothers in the morning!) and is a struggle for almost every mother. It’s a part of parenting.

Instead of feeling resentful, look upon it as an investment in your children’s future, as a way of helping them feel secure and loved. Was anything that you were doing to do with your evening anyway near as important as this

-- Emuna


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