On-Call Friend

Dear Fu,

I’ve got a long-term friend about who has several things that make life difficult for her. She lives with chronic pain and struggles with depression. I don’t want to presume to understand what it is like to live in her body and her brain, but she frequently is not a very good friend to me (unwillingness to commit to plans to see each other, unreturned texts and phone calls). I’ve suffered from depression, too, and though my response tends to be curling up on the couch and asking for attention from my loved ones, I understand that she tends to withdraw, often without warning.

It’s hard not to take this personally, or to gauge how much of her neglect is because of her mental health struggles and how much of it might just be her using mental health activism as an excuse for thoughtless behavior… As a feminist and believer in the importance of self-care, I feel guilty for even questioning that.

Without being pushy or initiating contact that may be unwanted, I make sure that she knows that whenever she wants/needs to talk, I am around and ready to listen and help in any way I can. She does take me up on my offers, and I believe I have been a good friend to her.

The problem is that I’m not sure what I am getting from this relationship anymore—I’m on the giving end on a lot. Other than when she needs/wants support from me, I feel rather neglected. I don’t want to be selfish, but it’s been years, and it seems like she is always going to have extenuating circumstances that will make it difficult for her to make me priority.

A year or so ago I tried to talk to her about how I felt disappointed by her treatment of me, but she got very defensive and cited the struggles in her life, and I ended up feeling invalidated and guilty for even bringing it up. I am worried if I assert myself again, I will push her away.

Obviously, in any relationship, there will be times when one person leans on the other more; after how long should someone be worried about the lack of reciprocation? I don’t want to be a bad friend, and I don’t want to abandon someone who could use extra support, but I also don’t want to be unfair to myself.

Many thanks,

The On-Call Friend

Dear On-Call Friend,

You’re worried that if you again mention the one-sided nature of your friendship, you’ll push her away. But the other option you’re considering is to distance yourself from her and end this friendship altogether (to “abandon” her)—so what do you have to lose?

It’s possible that there’s more that can be done to help her manage her pain and depression, and the threat of losing you will give her the incentive to explore other avenues of treatment. It’s possible that she prioritizes you below other relationships, giving them her limited emotional energy and rarely having anything left for you—thinking, incorrectly, that you’re fine with that. It’s possible that your suspicion that she blames unrelated thoughtlessness on her health has some merit.

But it’s much more likely that her limitations are legitimate and being her friend means accommodating them. Depressive episodes and flare-ups of pain make it difficult for her to commit to plans or return calls, and sometimes she won’t be available when you need her, no matter how available you are to her. Most likely, you will say, “I need more from you,” and she will say, “This is all I have to give.”

Does it make you a bad person to then walk away?

Here’s a different, related question: why don’t we become caregivers to strangers?

Yes, some people volunteer in that capacity, and our taxes (should, ideally) fund a social system that keeps everyone from hitting bottom. But by and large, we only become unpaid caregivers to loved ones. People we love enough to do the work. Because we, too, have limited emotional and physical energy and time. We support and care for those whose well-being is the most valuable to us, who give or gave us something, bring something to our lives. The people we love, selfishly.

Being her friend is work. Is it also joy? When she’s able, is she a fun, considerate, self-aware person with whom you connect? Is it worth it? I understand why the question fills you with guilt; her conditions are not her fault. But you are not required to be a boundless font of compassion, there to support everyone on earth. There are people out there who need you more than she does. Are you a bad person because, so far, you’ve ignored them to be there for her instead? No, because we don’t choose friendships based on need. Friendship isn’t martyrdom.

No relationship achieves perfect reciprocity, but it’s reasonable to expect some degree of mutual investment and return. Whatever form that takes. Maybe you field her late-night calls for support and she doesn’t take yours, but she makes you laugh, and that’s enough. Being her friend should, in the grand scheme of things, make you happier than not being her friend. It sounds like it’s been long enough now for you to know which way the scale tips.