#2. Declaring Their Problem Solved, Then Walking Away
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It's in our nature to want quick fixes. The best charities are the ones where you can just easily hand over a few dollars and then go about the rest of your day, knowing it's going to be used by honest, upstanding people. Don't ever think that's a bad thing. The fact that you're helping out a good cause at all is super fucking admirable, and I respect the hell out of people who do it.
But it's also easy to get tricked into that frame of mind when helping out a friend because we want their problems to be like a movie: Here's the part where they're struggling, then here's the part where they get rescued and everything is fine again. Roll credits! But in virtually every case where a person needs help, the problem cannot be boiled down to a simple one-shot cause like "addiction" or "a bad relationship." Most of those problems are caused by a deeper, darker undercurrent, something that bubbles up from time to time, manifesting itself in different ways. It's frustrating to see the same mistakes and bad habits bite them in the ass again and again. You start to feel like they're your patient instead of your friend.
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"Mmhmm. Now tell me about your bitchass sister."
But that's how real life is different. In a movie, once a person goes through rehab, her drug problem is over. When a person starts laughing and joking, his depression is cured. In reality, people can and do suffer from this shit their entire lives. Even if we're not talking about actual illnesses (in which case, your first advice should always be "see a fucking professional instead of my dumb ass"), the destructive habits all of us have are the result of decades of repetition and reinforcement. That shit doesn't change overnight, no matter what background music you play over your homemade montage.
"You're the BEST! Around! Nothin's gonna ever keep you d- OH MY GOD, HE'S DEAD!"
If you want to continue being their friend, then that means you still have to be there for them. That means checking in even when they're in one of those stretches where they're not fun to be around. It doesn't even have to be a big deal -- a call, an email, stopping by on your way home from work. Just knowing that someone out there gives a shit is more help than you'll ever realize (if you're lucky). I've lost count of how many messages I've gotten from readers saying that nobody cares about them or their problems. As a friend, 10 minutes of your time could easily change all of that. If you don't believe me, try it.
#1. Not Knowing When to Back Off
This is the single hardest part of being a friend, and by far the hardest to know when to implement. Let me give you an example:
One of my family members was, like me, an addict. But also a career criminal to boot. He spent a massive amount of his life in prison for ... um ... "borrowing" other people's things to support his ... um ... "huge drug problem." Our family reached out to him many times, offering places to stay, jobs, money, food, and anything we could reasonably sacrifice on our end. But his cycle of uncountable crises continued for most of his life. He'd clean up and do great for a year or two, then fall back into a self-destructive pattern that would land him in prison once again. Here's the crazy part: At no point (when he was clean) did he ever consciously look around at us and say to himself, "I think I'll fuck over this person for personal gain."
"I know Grandma has some weed hidden in the bathroom. I'm ransacking that shit."
But each time that cycle started back up, all of our help was flushed down the shitter. His problems were out of his control ... but more importantly for us, they were out of our control. There came a point where we had to finally grit our teeth and say, "We've helped as much as we can, and his disasters are now affecting our own families. Helping him at this point is just perpetuating a cycle that we cannot end." Then we all stripped naked and ran through a field, screaming, "FREEDOM!"
Did it make us bad people? To some, it would seem that way. Our kids certainly didn't think so when the danger of break-ins and the volatile atmosphere disappeared.
Regardless, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this point can be -- because if you decide to pull out at the wrong time, you could be fucking your friend out of what could potentially be life-changing input. That ... didn't sound clean, did it? If you wait too long, you're letting their problems spread to you and your family like a case of emotional crabs. I understand that the Internet seems to universally hate Dr. Phil, but one of the wisest pieces of relationship advice I've ever heard came from him:
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Don't look directly at it. It's not worth losing your sanity.
"Ask yourself, 'What is it costing me to be in this relationship?' If the answer is your dreams, identity, or dignity, the cost is too high."
In that quote, his ridiculous child-molester mustache was talking about bad romantic relationships, but it applies just as easily to friendships. You can only sacrifice so much of yourself on their behalf before you finally have to step back and say, "Enough. I've done all I can. It's time for them to deal with this on their own, regardless of the consequences." Good-hearted people will have such a hard time coming to that decision. They'll feel guilt, shame, anger -- basically all the stages of grief. But in extreme cases, you have to eventually put your own sanity and health at the top of the Good Deeds queue. Otherwise, your friend could be in a dramatically worse situation in which they never change their behavior for the better, and instead grow a dependency on you to dig them out of the quickshit pit. There is no help in that. It only sustains their problems, perpetually, until one of you gives up.
Or, worse, ends up on a massive ratings factory of a reality show. People seem to be making a pretty good living out of being a fuckup these days. Whatever, you see what I'm getting at: There's a point where you're not helping, but you still want to be the hero, and in the process of trying to be the hero, you're hurting everyone else. So print this out and hang it on your wall somewhere: Sometimes being a nice person is all about knowing when to be an asshole.