Not too long ago, I met a friend of a friend at a party. He asked me for my phone number and I said sure. I think he is gay (I am not) and I felt like he was asking me out, which is no big deal, so I gave it to him and figured I’d be able to give him a tactful and private decline later, or maybe he was just being friendly? Who knows.
Fast forward a month and this person has been texting me a lot, usually a few times a week, making conversation or asking to hang out. For a while I gave him polite declines or short answers, and then I stopped replying at all. After a while of not replying, he texted me saying that he was getting ready to commit suicide! I was totally unprepared. I had never given him any indication that I would be an appropriate contact person during an intense crisis. We shared no strong connection, or even a friendship. We were acquaintances at our friendliest. I did my best to talk him out of it and he has since sought professional help.
After this incident, I had a lot of feelings. First, I felt totally alienated. Then I felt very violated and angry. I felt like this person had attempted to drag me into his emotional and personal life by taking himself hostage. Like, if I hadn’t tried to talk him out of it, he would be dead and it would be my fault because I was too squeamish to help. He still texts me sometimes and I don’t reply. I don’t have the emotional energy to invest in this person, and I feel like he blackmailed me to make me involved in his life. I want nothing to do with him.
I also feel like a selfish asshole. It’s totally contradictory to my values to have this kind of emotional response to a mental health crisis. I want to be the kind of person who is emotionally supportive! I feel like by ignoring him, I am making him feel alienated and possibly making his mental health worse. And I feel like I am making his crisis all about me by having this response. He still follows me on social media and we have some mutual friends who I have been scared to connect with following his experience, because as bad as I feel about it, he makes me totally uncomfortable.
What can I do? Am I a giant, selfish, unsympathetic baby?
Well, first, I have to say – I am not trained in any way as a mental health expert, nor do I have any training on how to best help someone in a crisis or someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you think this guy is still at risk of suicide, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional. You can call 2-1-1 to see what resources are available to you, or use the internet to do some research. There are resources out there that can help you help this person. A reader suggested the crisis text line, http://www.crisistextline.org/how-it-works/, which “is free, available 24/7, and allows anyone in any time of crisis to get immediate support from a live crisis counselor, via text message.” (Thanks, reader!) If you do know of a way to help him, some kind of support you can connect him to, I encourage you to give him that info. I also encourage you to reach out to check on him if you’re comfortable. For whatever reason, you may be the only person he told about this crisis. Making sure he is out of harm’s way might be good for both of you, but it doesn’t mean you have to engage with him any further than that or that you have made any kind of commitment to be in this person’s life. You can tell him that you wanted to see how he’s doing, encourage him to seek help from people more qualified if he needs it, and then say, explicitly but kindly, that you don’t wish to talk to him anymore. You’re allowed to do that.
As for the guilt you are feeling, I think you should let yourself off the hook, friend. I don’t think that you are being selfish, nor are you making his crisis all about you. I actually think you’re being very thoughtful and sensitive. You do not owe this man your friendship, your emotional energy, or your presence in his life. The only thing you owe him is the care and sensitivity which we must show to all human and non-human beings, and maybe a little extra care because he seems to really be suffering. From what you’ve written here, I think you have given him that. You’ve been polite, and when he went to you with his intention to commit suicide, you helped him to the best of your ability.
I also think your feelings of anger and alienation are justified. I think you’re right – he forced you, someone he doesn’t even know, someone who has continually, politely turned down his attempts to hang out or even converse, to become a part of his life in a big way when you made it clear you were uninterested in being a part of his life in any way. I’d be angry, too! So, you have my permission to drop the guilt you’re feeling for being angry, or feeling any kind of way, and no longer engaging. That sounds like the safest course of action for your emotional health. We can’t control the emotions we feel, so feeling guilt about feeling any emotion is completely unproductive and makes everything harder and more confusing for you. So, to the extent that you are able, be gentle with yourself about whatever emotional reaction you’re having. And recognize that you don’t have to engage with anyone that makes you feel alienated, uncomfortable, and manipulated – even if they’re in crisis.
The cool and terrible thing about “feelings and all that” is that so many are allowed to exist in our hearts at the same time. I think in this instance, it’s cool, because you totally have the ability and agency to feel your own feelings of anger and resentment toward this person while, at the same time, recognizing that he is suffering, feeling compassion, and hoping he gets the help he needs. The dude was in crisis! You don’t really know him, I don’t know him at all. Neither of us knows his story, we don’t know his motivation, we don’t what the hell he needs. But we do know that life is shitty a lot of the time, we know that people go through very hard stuff, we know that people react to trauma in all kinds of ways, ways that may not seem socially acceptable to us or other people. Should this guy have involved you, someone he doesn’t even know, in his crisis? Well, no. Does it seem a bit manipulative? Well, yeah. But can we still have empathy and recognize that humans sometime do some weird stuff when they’re in pain? Hell yeah! Recognizing that can help you remove judgement from your feelings. There’s no need to judge someone having a mental health crisis. How boring! Empathy is where it’s at these days. So, we can put on our anger and resentment hats, and eat our empathetic cake too, and it doesn’t mean we are at odds with our own values. It means that we are multifaceted. Good luck, friend.