Sunday, July 1, 2012

That's What Friends Are For.....

 This is a television show, not real life.  Understand the difference between the two.

In America, many folks, particularly women, view friendship as a nearly holy thing - something to be preserved at all costs, no matter how abusive a friendship can be. We are all too willing to divorce our spouses at the drop of a hat ("He left the toilet seat up") but we hang on to toxic relationships, it seems, for life, no matter how destructive they are.

To some folks, my attitude might sound crass. "Friends are for life!" they say, simultaneously buying into and feeding on the myth that is perpetrated. But in many instances, you need to walk away from relationships that are toxic or damaging, otherwise your own life will be scarred or destroyed - literally.

A related problem with friends is what I call the "Friends" problem - people who think they need to maintain superficial relationships with several (sometimes dozens) of friends - like on the Television show of the same name - at the expense of maintaining an intimate relationship with one person. But I'll get to that later.

And note that when I say "friends," I am talking about close relationships with people, not passing acquaintances, co-workers, or folks you hardly know. I am talking about people you invite to your house on a regular basis (and vice-versa) as well as dine with and entertain with. I am not talking about the guy in the next cubicle that you occasionally go to lunch with and that's it. Although the ideas here can also be applied to work situations and acquaintanceships as well.

Are you in a toxic relationship with your friend or friends? Consider these factors:

1. Is your friend a drug addict?

2. Is your friend an alcoholic?

3. Is your friend mentally ill? (this includes disorders such as OCD, hoarding, and the like)

4. Is your friend perpetually putting themselves in peril and expecting you to bail them out?

5. Do you find yourself "helping" your friend with aspects of their personal or work life with no reciprocation?

6. Does being with your friend make you anxious, nervous, depressed, or angry? Does the idea of visiting them do the same? Do you end up complaining about them to other friends?

If you can answer consistently "YES" to one or more of these questions, you may be in a toxic relationship. Note that I say "consistently" as we all can be a burden to our friends on occasion. But then it becomes a chronic thing, a consistent thing, then it is no fun to be your friend. Let's explore these questions in more detail.

1. Is your friend a drug addict?

If your friend is a drug addict, chances are you'll become one, too. It is a nice fantasy to think you can be friends with someone who does drugs while you remain sober and straight. But it doesn't work.

You can't hang out with someone who smokes pot and not smoke pot with them. You can't have a friend who is a crack addict and not be one yourself.  Drug users like to hang out with fellow drug users. Relationships with people who use drugs are strained, when you do not use the drugs as well, as you end up being mystified by their behavior and confused by their actions.

And oftentimes, drug friends end up getting into heavier and heavier drugs, as well as into more and more trouble (See, The Marijuana Trap) often dragging you along for the ride.

Drug use is a dead end, and if you can't see that, we really have nothing to discuss here. Search elsewhere on the web for a blog to read, as nothing I say will make sense to you.

And I know this issue firsthand. I had "drug friends" when I was younger. When I finally realized that drugs were not making me happy and gave them up, my drug friends were not happy, and kept trying to draw me back into the lifestyle.

While I was working all night to pay my way through college, they would hang out at my house and drink beer and smoke pot on the front lawn, wondering where I had been. I would come home to dozens of empties neatly stacked on the hood of my car, long with roaches (marijuana cigarette stubs).

In a way, it was touching that they wanted me to be their friend that badly. But in another way, it was scary that my being sober and working was a threat to them.  They had to pull me back to their level, lest I shatter their world-view of how things are supposed to go.  I realized that in order to find my own happiness, I would have to move on and move away.   And moreover, once we stopped doing drugs together, we had very little in common.

2. Is your friend an alcoholic?

If your friend is an alcoholic, chances are, you'll become one, too, eventually.  Drugs and alcohol are the same thing.  Alcohol is a drug, of course, and abuse of alcohol is drug abuse.

I saw this happen with my Mother, who was a full-blown alcoholic.   She chased friends away, as they got tired of her drunken 3 AM phone calls and visits.  You can't be close friends with a boozer, as they will make your life difficult.

But if you like to drink, being friends with drunks can be hard as well.  They will always want to have that "one more drink" and encourage you to drink more than you'd like.   I have several friends like this, and while they are nice people and all, my body cannot physically stand the amount of booze they want to consume.

The option of "not drinking" or "drinking less" doesn't work, either.   It is no fun to be hanging out with a group of loud drunks unless you are one of them.  It is less than "no fun" - it is actually painful.

There is also the ancillary problem of watching boozer friends slide down that road to oblivion, which can be painful to watch.   Like the Marijuana Trap, the booze trap prevents people from making rational decisions about their lives, and as a result, they tend to end up in bad places and bad situations.  If you care around such people, it can be painful to watch this process.

And prevent it? Ha! You can't stop the boozer from drinking just as you can't stop the pothead from smoking. "Interventions" and the like are largely useless gestures that only make the intervener feel better about themselves (and they often backfire, by providing attention to the addict for the wrong type of behavior).

The only way I have found to deal with the boozer friend is to have maybe one or two drinks with them and then say "Gee, look at the time, gotta run!"  But even that is difficult.

If you are hanging out with drunks as friends, ask yourself why.

3. Is your friend mentally ill? (this includes disorders such as OCD, hoarding, and the like)

This is a tough one. Mental illness is no laughing matter, and most of us are simply not equipped to deal with it. Like drug and alcohol addition, mental illness causes people to do weird and unexplainable things, which can strain a friendship if not outright break it. Some mentally ill people can also be dangerous, if off their medication. The impulse is, of course, to try to be friendly and helpful to a mentally ill person. But if you are not equipped to handle such issues, your help may indeed backfire, and their issues may cause you great distress.

I have written before about hoarding disorder, which is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Being friends with a hoarder is a nightmare. Again, you think you are "helping" them by cleaning up their messes, but when you return days later, it is all back the way it was, only worse.   Don't waste your time trying to clean up after a hoarder. The only thing I think you can do is back away slowly, or at most, meet them on neutral territory.

Now, I know that sounds crass and selfish. But you have to preserve your own emotional well-being.  If being with a person who is mentally ill makes you anxious, depressed, angry, or nervous, then in effect, it is making you mentally ill as well.  How is that helping either of you?  It is just spreading the misery around.

I had a friend who was a hoarder (well, is a hoarder) and after visiting his house of horrors, I would be depressed for days at a time. He was a nice fellow, young, college educated, but he had garbage everywhere in and around his house. Not only that, the house was dirty. It was sad to see such a nice person fall off the edge of the world like that. I tried to help him organize this things, but that turned out to be a big mistake. Not only did I spend hours at a time doing this, I would be chagrined to find everything I did was "undone" at the next visit.

You can't "help" a hoarder, period. So don't try. Leave it to the mental health professionals. Eventually, such folks will have to be institutionalized, or the Fire Marshall will come clean out their house. But it is not your job to "fix" them - not at the expense of your own emotional well being.

Remember what I said about the Unwritten Social Contract? You have a duty to take care of yourself first, not because it is selfish, but because you don't want to be a burden yourself to others. So preserving your own mental sanity is very important. Hanging around people who make you depressed is not a very good idea.

And you know what?  Maybe when people discover their behavior is driving all their friends away, they may have some incentive to change it.   Maybe.

4. Is your friend perpetually putting themselves in peril and expecting you to bail them out?

This is what I call the "Perils of Pauline" scenario. Your friend creates a situation entirely of their own making, and then calls you to bail them out.

For example, a friend of mine was moving from her apartment. She had over a month to prepare, get boxes, get packed, find a truck, and mover her stuff. Instead, on the day she is scheduled to move, she calls in a panic and wants help.

I end up finding a rental truck after hours of searching. It was small and worn out. I get back to her apartment and find that nothing is packed. We end up throwing things in boxes and trash bags, and since the truck is small, we have to make several trips. It is nearly midnight by the time I get home, exhausted, from "helping my friend move."

I don't mind helping a friend move, but that was abusive. She had a responsibility to take care of herself and plan her move and have her things ready to go. Instead, she squandered her time on self-loathing and television (redundant, I know) and then waited until the last minute, hoping friends would bail her out. She felt bad about it of course, which in turn fed more of her self-loathing.

This sort of scenario happens again and again with some folks, and if you find yourself once again "saving" a friend from a situation they themselves created, maybe it is time to find new friends. If a friend creates a deadline situation for themselves and then completely blows it off and expects you to "help out" at the last minute, is that really being a friend?

5. Do you find yourself "helping" your friend with aspects of their personal or work life with no reciprocation?

This is an interesting one and not that as uncommon as it may seem. A friend runs a business and gets behind on their work. They call their other friends asking them to "help out" with a "rush order."   So you run over there to help and end up spending 8 hours of your Saturday doing something that your friends are getting paid for.

How much of a doormat do you want to be?

Business is business. If you want to run your own business, fine. Run it. Take control and get to work. But you can't run a business and then blow off the entire "running the business" end of it, and then expect your friends to work, at a moment's notice, for free or reduced wage, to "help out". You don't ask them to come to your office and file papers, do you? Of course not.

Confusing employment and friendship is always a recipe for disaster. If your friend's business is failing because they don't do the work, you can't "save" them by doing it for them - not without driving yourself crazy in the meantime.

Some folks were not meant to run businesses. Or, they need to learn some painful lessons in order to obtain self-discipline. If you "bail them out" again and again, they will never learn those lessons.

Similarly, helping a neighbor clean out their garage, house, car, kitchen, basement, etc. because they have let it deteriorate to the level of shithole is not "helping" your neighbor, particularly when your own chores are going undone at the same time.  I had one friend repeatedly ask me to help clean their house, with their logic being "Well, your house is already so clean" that I didn't need to clean it further - instead my efforts should be directed toward their stack of dirty dishes.

(In a way, this is like the friend or family member who asks to borrow money, on the grounds that "well, you have so much of it!"   Same twisted logic at work!)

But of course, my house doesn't magically clean itself.  And by "helping" my friend in their personal life, I was merely neglecting my own in the process.  Such abuse is not friendship.  Walk away from someone who wants you to work for them as a slave.

6. Does being with your friend make you anxious, nervous, depressed, or angry? Does the idea of visiting them do the same? Do you end up complaining about them to other friends?

This is pretty self-explanatory, and it is your brain's way of telling you it is unhappy.  If you plan a visit with a friend and then get anxious, explore in your mind why you are anxious.   If their visits leave you feeling depressed and washed out, ask yourself, why?

True friendship shouldn't be that way. It should be organic, and relaxing, and free and easy. Yes, visiting can be somewhat stressful in any situation. But if you find yourself "freaking out" about visiting a particular friend, then something is not right.

Again, you have a duty to yourself to protect your own emotional well-being. (See, Emotional Vampires) and if someone is making you unhappy, then don't hang out with them, or at the very least, limit your contacts to a confined and controlled setting, both in terms of place and time.

* * *

Friendship should be a natural and organic thing. It should "feel right" and not be based on guilt or other negative emotions. Walk away from the urge to "help" friends who don't need your helping. It is a fine thing to help a friend in need, but it is a dangerous thing to have only needy friends.

At the beginning of this blog, I also touched on a secondary issue, the "Friends" effect. I think that television show and similar shows tend to promote this idea that a person should have lots of fairly close friends, often at the expense of a more intimate relationship. This could also be called the "sitcom" effect, as a similar phenomenon is present in Seinfeld as well. The main characters seem to avoid intimate relationships - or such relationships are short and break easily, in favor of a more superficial friendship with a small social group.

(Think about it - on Seinfeld, Jerry's girlfriends were guest stars who barely lasted one episode each.   he ultimate in intimate relationships was posited as the most superficial, while the friendship between the four main characters was characterized as central). 

Please note, that Friends and Seinfeld are television shows not real life. Taking your social cues from television is never a good idea (See, Kill Your Television). It is no surprise that marriages and long-term relationships are dying out in this country, as television actively promotes the idea of breaking up or living single. Think about it - how many television shows, from the 1960's onward, featured broken homes, divorced couples, people living single, or the like? It is an interesting phenomenon.

And I think people do get their normative cues from television. How else can you explain the SUV craze?

I have a number of friends who have a "social circle" very much like on a sitcom television show. They Twitter and Facebook and e-mail and Instant Message and cell-phone their friends constantly, maintaining a large number of very superficial relationships (typical message, "Waassup?" and typical response, "Hey, wass happening?") while at the same time avoiding intimacy.

With such a "social circle", true intimacy is nearly impossible. You cannot maintain a circle of half-dozen to a dozen to 20 or more of these superficial friendships and also have an intimate relationship or marriage with one person. Simply stated, a marriage takes up all of your time.

Many bachelor men realize this phenomenon. A friend gets married and they never see him again. He has no time to "hang out" with his buddies and drink beer and watch television sports. He has to spend time with his wife and children, or working to support them. Or, at least he should.

And in many respects, this explains the divorce rate. We are told, by the television, that a man can "hang out" at his favorite bar ("Where everyone knows your name") and neglect the primary relationship in your life. Not surprisingly, most people walk away from such marriages or relationships, as there is no "there" there. It is not that they hate or despise each other, merely that there is no relationship to begin with - no Love. And that is sad, because Love is the meaning and essence of life itself.

The superficial circle of friends is fine for High School or College. But eventually, you have to grow up and live your life by yourself. And having a mate or partner in life is more important than being "popular" or having a large number of friendships. As I have stated before, you really only need one good friend. Put all your eggs in that one basket and then take really good care of that basket.

You will get old. Things will get harder. Having someone to plan and spend the rest of your life with is more important that having a drinking buddy. Letting friendships dominate your life at the expense of an intimate relationship is, I think, a big mistake.

But then again, what are friends for?

Originally published September 11, 2009.  Edited and Revised July 1, 2012

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