#26

Intervene

I have a friend who went through a possibly mentally abusive relationship — I don’t know all the details — and a bad break-up. She then had some bad depressive episodes, and has been seeing a therapist on and off for five years. (She can’t always afford therapy but sees the therapist as often as money allows.) Things only seem to be getting worse and worse.

Now, I have no idea what goes on in her therapist’s office, but it seems like it’s not working out for her. I talked to her once about this, but she reacted very negatively to me suggesting she try a new therapist. This was three years ago. Since then, a close family member of hers died and things have gotten even worse for her and her family, to the extent that I don’t know if they’re even paying that much attention to her. I think she’s also cut some of them out, but I’m not sure of the details.

I feel our relationship has become impossible. She’s started putting me down in front of friends. When I ask for apologies, she blames my behavior and discredits my feelings. She’s mean, now, but cries when I try to talk to her about it. She recently disclosed suicide plans to me. I don’t want her to kill herself. She’s my friend. I love her. She’s in so much pain.

I read your answer to the letter writer about the friend with chronic pain, but I’m not sure I can just cut her out of my life. I’m too worried.

It might be crazy, but I’m considering staging an intervention to try and get her to a new therapist. We have a close circle of six friends who I might be able to convince to help. I don’t want her to feel like we’re ganging up on her, but I’m also not sure what to do. Do you think a group intervention would work? Is this crazy? To me, the only other option is to create a bit of distance between us, as you suggested in your other column. I’m coming from a place of love and concern, but also exhaustion.

A recent episode of This American Life returned to a formerly discredited study on political canvasing. Properly analyzed, the results were complicated, but one finding seems relevant here: to change someone’s mind, it may be more effective to let them talk through something themselves than to talk at them with evidence and arguments.

No, I don’t think you should hold an intervention. I think you should spend some time with her, one on one, and ask her open-ended questions about her current needs and support network. How is she feeling about her past relationship now? How it still affecting her? How does she feel about her family? How are they treating her? Are they a positive or a negative force in her life? How does she feel about her therapist and the work they’re doing? Does her therapist know about her suicidal thoughts? What does she want out of therapy? Does she feel like she’s getting it or moving towards it?

These are intimate, extraordinarily invasive questions, but less invasive and presumptuous than an intervention. In your letter, you stress repeatedly that you “don’t know the details,” so I can only assume you think it’s inappropriate to ask. But she disclosed specific suicide plans. You told her to change therapists and you want to do it again. Serious lines have already been crossed. It’s unnecessary and outright dangerous to let politeness or etiquette hold you back.

It’s time to rally those six friends, but not in the way you suggest. Rather than a one-time, dramatic confrontation, try making an effort to spend more time with her individually, so that she is alone as little as possible. Take turns taking her out and bringing by meals. Take her on small, easy outings — lunch, coffee, to the store to get things she needs, a walk around her block. Encourage her to voice her thoughts and detangle her emotions, and listen without judgment. If she decides she wants to make concrete changes in her life, or she wants more or different professional help than what she’s currently receiving, or she sees impediments to these changes (if she needs to find an alternative way to fund more consistent therapy, for example, or she feels trapped in her current work or living situation), help her with the practical stuff: finding resources, making calls, driving her to appointments. Check up on her. Tell her how much you love her, as you told me, without focusing on your own pain or sense of being slighted.

Don’t take this on alone. You will burn out and feel injured, exhausted, and unappreciated, as you are beginning to already. Don’t keep the situation to yourself. Tell all the dependable, trustworthy people in her life that you’re concerned, spread out the emotional labor, and tap out when you need a break. This is not a betrayal of her confidence. She needs a community, and so do you.