Reflections About Helping A Friend

Was told one day that the father of my best friend, MN, has cancer.

MN did not tell it to me yet, but I know he will, because we will talk sooner rather than later.

I thought a lot about how to handle that and how to support MN the best. He is a very independent, proud and self-reliant man. It is difficult for him to admit when he is overwhelmed.

Not so much wonder.

That day when your uncle shoots his girlfriend

MN has not had it easy, far from it.

His mother has been ill for many years and close to dying and … his uncle once shot said uncle’s girlfriend and then killed himself by jumping off a bridge.

Yes, it is true, unfortunately.

I remember that day (in high school) very clearly.

MN’s only response to me about the murder/suicide episode was a gritted “My uncle has done something very stupid and selfish”.

MN is one of the most beautiful persons I know, he is a musician, a storyteller, an artist and above all the real deal when it comes to being there for others.

Often, though, it feels as if he hasn’t too many persons being there for him. Much of that may have to do with him generally and almost habitually projecting an image of self-reliance and confidence, even if he can admit to being pressed, sad or angry.

But is that how he really is?

What I know – and don’t know – about my friend’s feelings

I’ve heard MN tell me many times how he felt, but rarely seen him show it. I think the last time I saw him truly angry was when we were teens and we had sabotaged a role-playing game he had created for us, by generally goofing around and not taking it seriously.

Usually his eyes and tone will get dark, when he is angry but he always talks civilized and is much in control of his emotions, or the display of emotions.

No great wonder, with a family history like his and lots of people dependent on him for a great many things.

My friend helps lots of people but who helps him?

For example, MN had 40-50 people – just ‘the guys’ – come over for his last birthday, people whom he knew from work, music, family, private, etc.

I’d be hard pressed to find 10 persons only to come over for my birthday, if couples were not allowed. In any case, my point is that with so many connections many people do turn to MN for help and advice, or just take his time and attention, but in private and business-contexts. And he lets many of them, including me, do it, of course.

But again: Who is taking time for him? Except in superficial ways? And who will he allow to take time for him? Those are the big questions.

I know I’m close to that category, but still he is guarded and in control much, which to some extent is a huge strength.

I wonder if this is the time when there is a breaking point, emotionally? I don’t think he will break, ever, in the clinical sense – of depression.

That will be a cold day in hell.

But he might be closer to feeling truly overwhelmed. Wonder if he will be closer to showing it, and maybe asking for help or just support?

I have asked him, when I was in the crisis of my life in 2005-6 and admitted to psychiatric hospital with rampant anxiety and whatnot. I have asked him since, of course, but never something quite so serious.

We have made an effort – that is mutual – to call each other regularly, esp. in times of family crisis, like when my father-in-law died of cancer in 2015. Just hear ‘how things are going’.

So there is that practical habit between us that allows for our real and deep connection and trust to be ‘activated’ and put to use; talk as equals about how we feel and where we feel weak.

But for all that, I have seldom heard him not only say – but also show – in his tone and manner – that now ‘enough was enough’.

I don’t think I will this time, either, but I think he will get closer to actually feeling it, while retaining his control outwardly and dogged persistence to show his best side.

Not to keep up appearances, but just to show his best side. Which is admirable. And yes, there is a difference, although it is hard to explain. Perhaps it is a matter of faith, since it is also a grey zone. But I guess if he just wanted to keep up appearances he would also be superficial in his talk, and he is never that.

So, no. It is an emotional matter, of him being able to both feel and admit when he is down for the count. I think he is able to do that to some extent in private, but the question is how much he is able to in public, even to close friends. Not just to say he is exhausted but to sound like it. To dare that.

When is it a good thing to allow yourself not to be strong?

You could argue it is a good thing MN is so rarely at that point, even with his closest friends. That he needs to admit – really admit – that he is near a breaking point.

But I’m not so sure.

I think MN needs a long break, from family illness and dependents, but he is not going to get it anytime soon, not fully in any case. He is not going to ask for it either, I think – or for support or advice in that regard. And he becomes guarded, I suspect – as on previous occasions – if I push to hard to get some kind of admission that ‘things have become too much’.

Perhaps that is the key variable, for what are my reasons for this push – aside from concern? Do I want to move our friendship even more, by creating the shared experience of being sad together. Or lay the ground for him to admit to being sad and for me to being empathetic?

He hates that situation, I suspect. Or the prospect of it.

Or a part of him hates it, probably because there was never much room for it in his earlier life, with his family.

Whatever the case, there is much delicacy in this matter – perhaps much more than usual in such matters. And more reason for me to tread carefully and be as unselfish as possible and as honest as possible about what is required, when I do my utmost to support him. As on other occasions. And as he has supported me on yet other occasions.

That part of a friendship can and should grow, too – the ability to show and give the right kind of support, even if the other is not necessarily acting in a way or seeing things from a perspective that you think is in that friend’s best long-term interest.

What is my role now?

The only way to destroy a friendship truly is when you begin to think that you have the right and the duty to define that interest solely and then enforce it like some kind of policeman.

One of the beautiful things about MN is that he has always realized this and acted accordingly, sometimes even infuriatingly.

He has done his utmost to tell people what he thought about their choices, thoughts and perspectives but at the same time tried to show that he did not judge them personally and that he would support their freedom to make those choices.

So however much or however little I try to support him again, and in whatever way, I have to always keep this ideal in mind.

And listen and be respectful and not averse to surprises. I will tell him what I think when it is the right time, if I think something I can tell him is the best.

That could even be, however awkwardly, to tell him to admit that he has lost his footing and pull the plug in some way and go to a summer house on a distant coast to find the energy again.

But I don’t think it will come to that. Because for all my doubts I know him well enough to be able to think of better advice and action, like suggesting that we go both to that holiday house to discuss the plot of a new role-playing game. Purely recreational, of course. Nothing to do with his actual need to go there.

That is a roundabout way of coming to a very simple conclusion, but perhaps it is just as well. His friendship deserves that I reflect deeply and well upon it.

Especially when dark shadows loom over his life, once more.


Edit last: 20 Oct 2018

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