Dear Friend, I Cannot Stop You From Hurting Yourself
Even if you’re slowly killing yourself with resistance. Even if you’re wallowing in your own inability to change. Even if you’re in the midst of the most crippling panic attack and all you want is for someone to lift you out of the pain that is threatening to consume you. I can’t be responsible for the change you need to make.
Yesterday, one of my best friends called me, sobbing. I know that she’s been struggling with an eating disorder for awhile now, but I hadn’t realized how severe her experience was until then. She’d had a long, tough conversation with her equally ill roommate, and she was caught in the catch-22 of wanting so desperately to be cured vs. failing at the only way she knew how to survive.
Hearing this, I felt helpless. Usually, I’m the friend that can come up with at least something to say that can make the feelings seem smaller, even for a moment. I had no idea what to say to her. Because these weren’t just feelings, they were the voice of a pernicious and deeply manipulative disease that had a literal mind of its own.
I couldn’t help her, no matter how badly I wanted to, because I was talking to someone who wanted to hurt themselves.
There’s this saying in 12-step rooms that we won’t change until the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing. I make up that the pain isn’t bad enough for her, that it may never get bad enough for her, if she isn’t able to see her own impact.
Hearing her breath hitch in her throat as she tried to express the pain of being stuck in something she’s not ready to break out of, I couldn’t help but think of my father.
My father died due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease when he was sixty-five years old. He was sick for nearly ten years before his mind started to drift beyond the bounds of reality. I moved home because I thought it was my job to heal him. Of course, by the time I got there, he’d already resigned himself to whatever fate had in store for him.
Yes, I was petrified of losing my father. I was furious at him for giving up and wanting to live out the remainder of his days in a nostalgic dream. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t listen to me or my mother. Why, so seemingly, he didn’t actually want to get better. I judged that he was a miserable coward for accepting his lot, and I felt ashamed for judging someone so paralyzed by their own fear and depression.
Depression, addiction, and eating disorders are all selfish diseases. They make the affected person consider only themselves and their own perceived needs. There is no room for empathy or humility or anything else that could potentially break them out of their self-inflicted misery.
I’m learning now, that the only way to even try to wake someone up is to speak about the impact their behavior is having on me, and set boundaries around that impact.
Looking back, I don’t even know if my father could’ve heard me. In some lovely & cyclical fashion of the universe, I now have an opportunity to try again.
Someone who I dearly love is actively trying to hurt themselves, and I can’t stop them. I am absolutely terrified that this will kill her. That I will again have to watch someone I love sacrifice themselves to the disease that is slowly destroying them. I cannot take on the selfless caretaker role, not again. I truly don’t believe that I’m strong enough. I know that to attempt helping would only make us more codependent and further enable her compulsion.
I think that we have this impression that if we choose to have needs and honor the impact that other’s behavior has on us, we are somehow exacerbating the problem. I know I’m afraid of pushing someone more into their own despair and self-loathing if they become aware of how they’re affecting me. We have no way of knowing how someone will react to being held accountable. We do it because it’s the best way we can honor ourselves and care for others, even if they are unable to accept it at the time.
Of course, there’s a distinct differentiation between — “I can’t be your friend until you get help,” and “I can’t do x, y, and z for you because it’s hurting me to watch you go through this.” One is a damaging ultimatum, the other is a plea for healthy separation and clarity.
So, here goes nothing. It’s my turn to speak up.
I cannot cure you of this, no matter how hard I might try. This will probably kill you, and devastate those who love you, no matter your intentions. I cannot continue to hear about this and support you with blind empathy, because it hurts me to hear you self destruct. I fear that I will lose you to your own resistance, and I’m not willing to put myself in that position again.
I understand a piece of the pain that you’re in. I wanted to hurt myself for a long time because I believed I deserved it, and it felt like the only way I could survive. The only way I got out from underneath it was by hitting rock bottom, and getting humble about my own powerlessness against my disease. I am still working, and healing, and shifting the story that I embraced as my one true reality.
I cannot help you, nor should I try. I am not a professional, trained to systematically separate you from the devil in your mind — so intertwined with your own sense of self. In fact, I am probably doing more harm than good by naively supporting you in whatever you’re experiencing. Somehow hoping that if I can show up well enough, I can inspire you to change. That’s not care, that’s enabling you to continue on in the same vein without consequences.
In the end, as much as I hate to admit it, whatever happens to you is not my fault or my responsibility. I know you will never change unless you want to. I am happy to take action with you, but I won’t sacrifice my own safety and wellbeing to care for you. I refuse to stick around and watch you snuff out the life that feels so precious to me.
I love you, and I can’t stop you from hurting yourself. That’s your job, and it always has been. I’ll do my best to be here when the dust settles, but I’m still figuring out how to show up in a way that takes care of what I need.
Please, be patient with me, if you can. These are old wounds that I’m trying to heal. They’re not all about you, but you are reopening them. I think for my benefit.
I don’t know if we’ll get through this. In the meantime, I just need you to know that all I want is for you to feel better and to know that you worth taking better care of.