One of my best friends, who lives far away, is clinically depressed and extremely socially isolated. She’s leaned on me for a while over instant messenger during the day, and conversations with her are getting more and more draining. I just started a new job that makes me less available (though still technically available) during the day, and as my life has gotten fuller and more busy, I’ve started avoiding Facebook chat too and she’s noticed and commented. (“Where are you?”) It’s as if she expects me to be available on chat for hours a day to console her and hear her complain about things and tell me about things that happened to her. Unfortunately she is both medicated and professionally counseled already. One of her current stressors is that she feels like no counselors can help her, because she has been to so many and not really gotten improvement. She’s actually on the verge of “dumping” her current counselor. A year ago, she voluntarily institutionalized herself for a couple of days. She did not have enough paid time off to take more time off work, though, and had to go back to work. Meanwhile, at my new job, my productivity is suffering. I can’t keep being there for her like I was, because I could lose my job. I think she knows she is way beyond my skills to help her, but I think she’s just unaware that our current style of friendship is as unsatisfying and exhausting as it is.
Exhausted By Someone Else’s Depression
Are you in a position to talk to her on the phone, as a friend, and say, “I am seriously not equipped to do anything to help you with all of your problems. I think you should really look into seeing a new counselor, and I can help you find one. There are some other things I can do, too, like help you come up with ideas and plans and help distract you and be your supporter, but I cannot be your counselor.” See how she takes that. You might have to repeat it a few times, as she continues to treat you like a counselor instead of a friend. But she’s not mistreating you on purpose. Depression is really hard. (Can I take a moment to plug someone else’s blog? Hyperbole and a Half recently did a post about depression, which I think should be required reading for everyone as we all scramble towards understanding one another.)
As for trying to limit your own daily involvement, I think it’s okay to be honest with her. People who have treatment-resistant depression are harmed when people coddle them; that’s enabling. This is an adult we’re talking about here, with agency. It is absolutely okay to be compassionate about sharing your boundaries. You can even say, “My job performance is suffering. I wish I could be there for you during the day, but I can’t do that and keep my job, and if I lose my job, I am fucked. Do you think we could come up with some coping stuff together so you don’t feel abandoned during the day when I have to prioritize work? We both have some work to do on the topic of self-care.” When you talk with her, just think to yourself: Is what I am doing useful to her? Is it kind to her? If the answer is yes to both, it’s okay to share.