I’m Drained Trying to Emotionally Support My Depressed Roommate

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Reader’s Question

A friend and I are both studying law, so we are often quite stressed. We both live in the same house, and see each other often at school. Last year I discovered that she was engaging in self harm. She attributed this to the stress that she was under and attended counseling, but stopped going at the end of the last academic year, stating that she was better.

Currently she works all day at her desk and does not take any breaks, often doing so from 5:00 am until into the early morning hours. I have been supportive of her for the past 2 years, but as she has become even more needy and depressive, I find it draining. I no longer enjoy spending time with her and I feel guilty as I know that she needs people to support her and she doesn’t have any other friends. I feel awful as I am losing patience with her, and I feel responsible as I am the only person she confides in.

In the last conversation I told her that I feel very stressed out in general as I have a lot of work to do and I’m getting distracted by her (she was constantly knocking on my door and asking for hugs). I told her that I was concerned about the future, such as how she would react when I decide to move in with my boyfriend. At that point she broke down again, and I urged her to go back to counseling. Since that conversation she has been very cold towards me, but strangely very warm towards my boyfriend, in an almost inappropriate way.

The other girls in the house have been colder towards me too. I feel like I have been ostracized unfairly as I have only been honest with her. I feel like she can’t have valued our friendship if she can’t understand the strain I have been under too as I have to do so much for her. (I often feel like her parent.) She requires constant support and reassurance and I cannot do this anymore. Since the final conversation she has stopped knocking on my door or asking for hugs all the time, which I feel better about, but the atmosphere in the house and when I’m around her is very unpleasant.

Psychologist’s Reply

Based on your description, it’s certainly possible that your friend is clinically depressed. Intense stress and sleep deprivation can be a recipe for depression for individuals vulnerable to mood disturbance. The loved ones of depressed people are frequently frustrated and drained as they try to encourage and support while also walking on eggshells. Ultimately, when dealing with an adult who apparently is not a danger to herself or others, loved ones can only do so much. At some point, the depressed adult must take responsibility for seeking some form of treatment.

There are other elements to your description that indicate a more complicated possibility: borderline personality disorder (BPD). Individuals with BPD frequently experience substantial shifts in mood, engaging in self-harm as a means to cope with intensely negative feelings. People with BPD seem to lack a strong core identity, so stressors and reactions from others tend to influence their moods more than is the case for most people. To compensate for unstable identity, people with BPD often exhibit dependency on others to the point that loved ones eventually feel drained and worn out. It can be exasperating trying to be a mood-stabilizing force for a very emotionally unstable person while also trying to live one’s own life.

Other characteristics of BPD that seem to fit your description include a hypersensitivity to rejection as well as a tendency towards “black-and-white” thinking. That is, people with BPD often have long histories of rejection, perhaps due to their tendencies to be emotionally dependent, which ultimately drives away other people. So, the first indications of not being able to rely on a loved one for unconditional emotional support may be met with pre-emptive rejection. The “black-and-white” thinking comes in as people with BPD tend to view others in rigid or absolute terms: “good” people are those who meet emotional needs, whereas “bad” people are those who no longer provide 100% support. In your case, it sounds as though your friend may now see you as “bad” and your boyfriend as “good” (perhaps also as a means to punish you for your “betrayal”).

It’s unfortunate that your other housemates may see you as less caring due to recent events. Still, at some point we each have to protect our own emotional and mental health, and sometimes that means letting go of feeling responsible for another adult, no matter how it looks to others. You may benefit from doing a bit of research on BPD, if only to realize that your experiences with your friend are shared by other loved ones of people with BPD. Similarly, learning more about other people’s experiences may help you feel less guilty, and help you draw a finer distinction between being adequately supportive and overly responsible. I wouldn’t count on being able to convince your friend to view you differently, or to see the issues that she has. The point of learning more about BPD is to help you respond more effectively to both her behavior and to your own reactions. Take care of yourself.

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