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How to "Be" With A Friend's Struggles

answered 05:37 PM EST, Sat October 13, 2012
Lam7825 Lam7825 Tacoma
My girl friend has anxiety disorders, depression and agoraphobia (all formally diagnosed and currently under medical/prescriptive care). She also suffers from some mild OCD habits, though I've seen people with worse symptoms, myself included.

The more we get to know each other, the more she shares with me. She doesn't let many people get close, as she has trust issues. Recently, she shared her obsession with death, as in her obsession with wanting to die to end her physical and emotional pain. She apparently journals her thoughts about death and dying frequently. At one point in her life she was a "cutter" but she hasn't done that in a very long time. We've spoken about that specifically and she has assured me that that obsession is in the past and is not a part of her thoughts anymore. I wouldn't have known except that she and her grandmother told me- her scars are not evident because it was so long ago.

She couldn't relax the other night as she was totally focused on a death poem she was writing, and paused the DVD we were watching as she finally had the inspiration to finish the poem. Then she insisted on reading it to me aloud, pausing for effect at certain points, like it was a dramatic stage performance. I didn't say a word, and then she put her journal away and we went back to watching our movie. We never spoke about the poem at all since then.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do- embrace her thoughts, ignore them, or confront/challenge them. She is going to counseling for help with her many emotional issues, and I want to help. This issue concerns me though, and I'm not sure what I should do.


Dr. Richard Schultz Says...

Hello, and thank you very much for writing, and for addressing your question to me.

It is clear that to be human is to struggle and to experience pain.  To be human is also to have connection with others.  So, it is understandable that, as we go through life, many of those with whom we will become connected will also be struggling or in pain.

I very much appreciate your interest in knowing how best to react or respond to your girlfriend's feelings, thoughts and behavior.  Indeed, many of her symptoms do sound quite painful and distressing for her, and they may also at times be quite upsetting to hear about, or to watch her experience.  There may be times when you can understand her quite well, and can be of significant comfort to her, and other times when what she is experiencing will be far more ambiguous or harder for you to grasp or address.  This may be frustrating for you. 

It is clear that you are a caring and sensitive person, with very positive intentions.  Please know that, despite all of the caring, affection and support you wish to offer your girlfriend, the biggest part of her recovery resides with her, and will be driven by her own motivation to adhere to, and engage with treatment, and to work each day to heal from her wounds, and manage her way through life.  Despite this fact, I am sure there are times when what your girlfriend says or does puzzles or frustrates you (such as in the "death poem" scenario you provided, for example), and you may feel motivated to nudge or push her toward thinking or feeling or behaving differently.  This would obviously be a very common experience for one to have in the presence of someone they care about who is in pain.  What I can say to you is that it will be best at such times to maintain a position of "engaged disengagement" or "interested disinterest."  Kind of an in-between place that keeps you warm, but doesn't burn you.  It will be good for you, for her, and for the relationship. 

So, the bottom line is that there really is no answer to the question of what you "should" do, I am sorry to say, because there is NO universally correct standard of how one "should" respond to someone who obsesses about death, is anxious, and writes death poems.  But here are a few more tips:

1)  To be the best friend you can be to your girlfriend is to first and foremost be grounded in yourself.  Give what you wish to give because you already have enough love for yourself to allow the overflow.  Be mindful of when you might be pushing yourself past your limits of generosity or effort, in an effort to sooth or "fix" her, as you may end up resenting her for it, and she may feel the same way back.

2)  When you find yourself at a loss of what "to do" (embrace/ignore/confront/challenge) in response to her, you can simply state the truth; that you are wanting to respond in a helpful way, but are not sure what she is needing at the moment, and perhaps she can give you some guidance.  Try not to assume you know what she wants, and ask her instead.

3)  Please make sure that your own pain and struggle in life is also getting air time in the relationship.  It sounds like it could be easy for her dramatic feelings and behavior to take center stage and leave little room for you.  Don't let this happen, as it will potentially also lead to the consequences described in #1 above.

4)  Finally, observe over time whether the person you are seeing yourself be in the relationship is one you like being.  See if what you need to do to adapt to her struggles causes you to make adjustments or sacrifices that you don't like seeing yourself make.  If this begins to occur, pay attention and make an alteration in your stance.

I hope you have found some of what I have written to be useful.  I understand that these are somewhat broad recommendations, although I believe you will be well served by attending to them.  Of course, if you have any further questions, reactions to what I have written, or would like to update me on the relationship, please feel free to write back.


Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.


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Page last updated Oct 14, 2012

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