Ask a Helping Han #2: How to Handle Conflicting Mental Health Needs

Dear Han,

This year, my best friend of 13 years showed up to a party at my house a complete mess, with visible self-harm wounds. She lives across the country, and was in town for this event. I was shocked, as I haven't seen self-harm wounds on her before. She then got pretty drunk and proceeded to berate me for being a bad friend, not noticing how depressed she was, and not committing to our friendship the way she wanted. I was, of course, appalled. Long story short, we have since become much closer; I helped her find a therapist, talked to her about my own mental illness, and apologized for not seeing how much she was hurting. Our relationship has greatly improved since then, and we have both apologized for perceived wrongs. She is now in therapy and on medication and is doing better than I have seen her in years. That being said, she is still in a very delicate place emotionally. I know how this feels, so I want to proceed carefully.

Here’s the thing: she is constantly late. Like. Very late. She's basically nocturnal, and doesn't realize that people cannot always work around this schedule when she is in town. This holiday season, she kept me waiting for an hour and a half after our meeting time, because she "just couldn't get moving after she woke up" (at 3 pm; we were meant to meet at 6:30 pm). The following day she was supposed to come to my home, and was four hours later than planned because she overslept. Mind you, she did not set an alarm to make sure she woke up on timeand this was a behavior she had before she was depressed. To complicate matters, lateness is very emotionally triggering for me. it sends my anxiety rocketing and can lead to full panic attacks. I feel like I cannot confront her about this, because her mental health is so delicate right now, and her major criticism of me is that I am "mean" to her when things don't go my way; a specific example of meanness she has brought up is when I've snapped at her for doing things like being four hours late. Should I try and talk to her about this? She has anxiety about leaving her house and her comfort space, but I have anxiety about not sticking to plans. How can we balance our respective terrible brains?


Anxious and Off Balance


Dear Anxious,

Ahhh, the constant excitement of trying to balance various people’s mental illnesses! I do think this is worth addressing with your friend, and I actually think you can be pretty straightforward. The key is discussing it not at a time when it has just happened and you’re upset about it, but instead at a time when you’re calm and can bring it up in a way that hopefully won’t be interpreted as “mean.” Potential script:

“Hey friend, can I talk to you about something? I’ve been hesitant to bring this up because I don’t want to upset you, but I feel like discussing it is better than just silently stewing. The past few times we’ve had plans, you’ve been anywhere from an hour to four hours late. I know that when you’re having a rough time, you struggle with getting yourself going, and I understand that—but the thing is, it makes me incredibly anxious when things don’t happen on the schedule they’re supposed to; sometimes it even triggers panic attacks. If we make plans to hang out at a certain time, I’d really like it if you’d make an effort to actually be there when we agreed on. Is that something you can work on? I love spending time with you, but it really stresses me out when I have to spend hours sitting around wondering if you’re going to show up or not.”

If she tries again to frame this as you “getting your own way,” it’s extremely fair to push back—the plans that you are making are being decided by both of you, so if she wants to make the plans for later in the day, she needs to say so up front. If this were up to, say, half an hour late, I would tell you to cut her some slack—but hours late is extremely disrespectful of you and your time, and it’s okay to say so.

I also want to note that just because your friend is struggling doesn’t mean that you have to let her do whatever she wants. Between her being mad at you for not noticing her depression (that she didn’t tell you about) while she lived across the country and her calling you mean for communicating your needs to her, she sounds like she has pretty unreasonable and one-sided expectations of your friendship. I’d urge you to consider just how much catering to her you’re willing to do. It sounds like you’ve jumped through hoops to help her get the help she needs, and rather than be appreciative, she’s mad that you would have any expectations of her at all. Maybe take some time to think about whether this friendship is really working for you before you keep going out of your way to keep her mental health stable at the expense of your own.



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