I’m worried sick about my friend but I’m reaching a point where I am unable to handle the situation.
In short, my friend has been on a downward spiral for 18 months, culminating in support from crisis services and a monthly psychologist appointment. She has in the past had CBT, DBT and counselling. She is on medication at the moment. At the moment she barely leaves her flat, lives alone with no partner, her social circle is small and her relationship with her family is rocky.
We have been friends since childhood and have historically been very close. However in recent times I am finding her increasingly critical of me. She is often unpredictable, can be short tempered and sometimes highly emotional. This is not a short term problem - it has been building over time.
For a period of time, we spoke weekly (we live far away from each other geographically) but the conversations were intense and never under 3 hours; it was always very difficult to end the calls once on them. I had to reduce this time after a year but I sense this has caused friction. I still call regularly but not at a set time.
It’s possible that the intense nature of these conversations has been having an effect on me. I still spend a portion of our conversations listening to her mental health struggles, experiences with therapy and the crisis team etc. but recently I have also tried to introduce other topics of conversation. This has resulted in a series of increasingly angry messages accusing me of forcing her to “wear a mask/sugar coat her pain” and suggesting that I have been laughing in response to her distress or changing the subject. I don’t accept this characterisation of the situation at all, although I do acknowledge that I have tried to diversify our topics of conversation at times.
She then asked me if I would find a way to change my behaviour so that she doesn’t have to sugar coat matters around me. She said that she needed to be more blunt/honest with me. In truth this alarmed me as I already receive messages regularly that involve suicidal feelings and plans, interaction with crisis services etc. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of even more bluntness. (She has professional involvement so I’m comfortable that there is a plan in place for risk management - that’s not something I need advice about).
I do feel that I try to offer emotional and practical support in a non-judgmental way (albeit imperfectly I’m sure). I’m very careful in my responses, often to the point where I feel as if I am walking on eggshells. I’m definitely not perfect at communication but I’m generally considered to be a good listener by other close friends and my husband.
Anyway, in response to being asked to work on myself, I confess that I snapped (or perhaps asserted myself, I’m not sure which) and said that whether or not I was a supportive enough person would not be up for scrutiny/dissection any more, that I was doing what I could to help but that despite my best efforts I might not have the capacity to be what she needs, that the intensity of the conversation was taking it’s toll on me and that I would have to disengage from the topic. At the same time, I reiterated that I cared about her. Doing so caused me a huge sense of guilt but I also felt a wave of relief.
Her response was to say that I have hurt her deeply and not to contact her if I didn’t want to support her when so unwell. I sent her a conciliatory message after that but I sense she is deeply angry with me. She hasn’t responded but she is likely to do so in a similarly angry tone at some future stage.
Question is: was I right to set a boundary here or should I have shown more compassion? I feel an awful sense of guilt for “abandoning” someone clearly in a state of distress and genuinely still feel open and willing to help. On the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to say no to a request or push back on anything without being described as “hurtful”. Even if I do suppress my feelings and try to give her what she wants, I still receive criticism (always labelled “honesty”) about what I’m doing wrong. Whilst a certain amount of self reflection seems reasonable in friendships, this level of it makes me uncomfortable here and like I can’t be myself. It feels like the only way forward would be to reach out again, apologise and agree to change (in some intangible way) but the prospect of it makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Is it possible to restore this friendship without becoming an emotional punchbag? I genuinely don’t want to give up on her but this might be beyond me.
Thank you for listening.