Create the expectation that your friendships should be balanced and mutually supportive.
No relationship is truly equal—there will always be someone who is more of a talker and someone who is more of a listener. There will be periods of time when one person is needier than the other. But no matter what, there has to be room for elasticity, for your role in a friendship to change and evolve. If you feel like you are constantly listening to your friend’s problems but she never listens to yours, that is not a balanced friendship. It might even be toxic.
I had a friend I talked to almost every day. We had been friends for more than 10 years, and because I cared about her and loved her and also partially because 10-plus years of friendship breeds a particular kind of loyalty, I used to spend hours listening to her problems and giving her advice. If it wasn’t relationship problems, then it was problems with her job, and if it wasn’t problems with her job, then it was problems with her family, and if it wasn’t problems with her family, then it was problems with the medications she was on, and if it wasn’t that, then it was it was something else. There was always something. Whenever we talked she would ask me, “How are you?” and I would say, “I’m doing OK, I guess,” and then she would launch right into whatever horrible problem she was currently experiencing. I still love this girl a lot, and I care about her, and I’m rooting for her, but at some point I had to be honest about our friendship—it was completely one-sided and completely unhealthy and unfair to me.
It is not your responsibility to save everyone.
This past summer I spent five hours a day on Facebook chat with my brother, while Gchatting with a friend who was dealing with a particularly scary episode of psychosis, while fielding phone calls from several different people in my life who were contemplating suicide, while also dealing with a vengeful ex-boyfriend, while also dealing with being uninsured and having a fancy set of health problems, while also working full time, writing full time, helping my parents move into a new house, and starting a new romantic relationship with someone who was also working through a lot of mental health issues, while also trying to be a person. It didn’t work out so great. I was not a person. I was just this weird deflated bag of nothing that took in everyone else’s problems, and what happens when you are everyone’s confidant and no one is your confidant is that eventually you explode. And sometimes that means you explode all over the people who love you the most.
For me, it would happen with my mom. I’d go home for the weekend after dealing with a long week of DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA, and my mom would knock on my door with a bowl of freshly sliced fruit, and, apropos of nothing, I’d lose my temper and be the pissy, ungrateful brat I always end up being when I don’t have a regular outlet for my feelings. It’s not OK to do that to your family or your partner or your best friend, and it’s not OK to do that to yourself. Do what you have to do—go invisible on Gchat if you are finding it impossible to do email without getting into a huge conversation with your friend about their latest horrible life decision. Make a vacation auto-reply that says “I will be away from email from X date to X date,” and don’t explain yourself. Put your phone on silent. Don’t be afraid to write back to texts with a simple “Hey, there’s a lot going on right now—call you in a couple days?” Get off Facebook, get off Twitter, get off Instagram, get off all of it, and take a mental health day. Take a mental health week or month, or however long you need. Be a bad listener, zone out, and then acknowledge that you just can’t be a good listener right now. At times I’ve had to say, “I’m so sorry. I’ve been crying all day and haven’t slept in three days, and I feel awful because I can’t focus on what you’re saying right now, and I feel like I should try to lie down. Can we talk in a few days? I really want to hear about this thing that is happening with you, but I honestly feel like I’m about to faint.” Be explicit about your needs, because guess what? Ain’t no one gonna guess them for you.
And sometimes, you just can’t.
You are just one person, and you cannot carry the weight of someone else’s life on your shoulders. That said, if you are dealing with a friend who is in danger of hurting themselves, do whatever you have to do to be there for that person. When you feel like your friend is safely out of danger, encourage them to seek professional help. Talk to your friend and find out who else they trust and can go to for support. Encourage them to reach out to others, then reach out to your friend’s support network yourself—let other people who know your friend know what is going on with her/him so that you are not the sole person responsible for her/his safety.
When you feel like you’ve seen to that, then see to yourself.
Be honest with yourself about what is realistic and healthy for you. If a lot of people are relying on you for support, assure them that you very much want to be there for them, but that you need to be there for yourself as well—not just as well but first. Don’t feel guilty for needing time away from other people’s problems. Reserve time for people who make you happy and hold you up. Spend time with your favorite books and records and movies. Listen to “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige on repeat until you’re flying through the streets of your happiest dreams.
It can be an ugly thing to talk about the toll it takes on us to be there for others. We all want to be the most patient, amazing, kind, and generous friend/girlfriend/sister/daughter we can be to the people in our lives who need us. But we have to remember to take care of ourselves—after all, we can’t be there for our loved ones if we’re falling apart. And sometimes, the best way to take care of yourself is to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t right now,” so that later, when you can, you will be whole and strong, and really, that’s all that any of us can ever hope to be. ♦