What Do I Owe A Former Friend?

I need advice on an awkward situation. I’m female, recovering alcoholic for 20+ years, married with two kids, grew up in a small, conservative middle America town, and currently live in a mid-sized liberal middle-America city.

A few years ago, in my hometown at a class reunion event, a friend and former drinking buddy from high school proclaimed loudly and drunkenly that he was divorced and moving to my state, and that he was very excited for us to be friends again. In the years since high school, we’d attended each others’ weddings and traded holiday and birth announcement cards, but had otherwise fallen out of touch. I told him to email me after he moved and we could have lunch.

At that lunch, two things became clear. He was not a well person, and we had little in common. I spend a lot of my time reading, writing, biking and cooking. He couldn’t remember the last book he’d read, didn’t own a bike, and was picking at the food on his plate as it was too exotic. He lived in a sterile suburb; I lived in the city. He told me his divorce had been difficult, his children lived far away and he rarely saw them, he didn’t enjoy his demanding job, he had PTSD, anxiety, and depression after being caught in an earthquake years ago and was on meds for these, and had met no one since moving to the state.

My immediate response was to empathize as well as I could—I’ve been through treatment, was seeing a therapist, and am on meds myself for anxiety and depression. I suggested he get a therapist and a bike, and invited him to join my book group. I told him about a friend who’d had good results with a newer treatment for PTSD and did he want me to look into it?

Over the years he lived here, he did none of these things. Every couple months, usually at the prompting of my guilty conscience about someone I knew who lived here but was lonely and alone, I’d arrange to meet for lunch or coffee, or invite him to dinner with my family. It was always perfectly nice, but rather awkward. We’d talk about our kids. Over time he seemed more upbeat, but usually commented that he had no life and no friends outside of work. He’d say it was great to see me and give me an enthusiastic hug, and I’d feel guilty and relieved when it was over.

He recently got laid off, and is moving in with his sister’s family till he gets a new job. I said that all sounded like a difficult transition, and how was he doing with anxiety, and had he seen a therapist. He said he was doing fine with it all. He claims there are no jobs in the city his kids live in.

I can’t get a handle on this guy. He seems to want help, but when I offer advice, he insists he’s fine or ignores it. What I’d like to do is tell him to get a spine, take a job near his kids, and quit moping around. But I feel like being that honest with a depressed person with PTSD might make the problem worse.

My question is: what responsibility did or do I have to this former friend, the one who seemed to want to hang out with me, but then when we did it was stilted and weird, at least for me? Is it no longer my business, and should I just be grateful he’s moving and this weird interlude is over? Should I have been more honest with him about how I don’t feel we have much in common for a friendship, or how he seems to be avoiding life in general? 

Family and friends have told me I’ve done more than most would with this guy.But I have lingering guilt over it, feeling like I could have done more, been a better friend to a guy who didn’t know anyone in this area. Is that my problem? Is there anything to say to this guy other than goodbye and good luck?

Guilty Over Former Friend

Dear Guilty:

Wave goodbye with a small sigh of relief. No, you can’t make things worse by being honest with someone with depression and PTSD, but why waste your breath? Screw him; he’s a shitty dad and a boring guy completely uninterested in any introspection and just wants to alternate being a workaholic with being a sponge or whatever.

The end. You’re welcome.

Now. Let’s talk about guilt.

You seem to have helped yourself to an extra-large slice from that pie. Or, more likely, someone piled it on your plate without asking you if you had room for dessert.

I don’t know if it’s religion, small-town loyalty, the grinding insistent conditioning women receive that we are supposed to Fix All The Peoples Especially the Helpless Menfolk, or what — but you have an overactive guilty bone.

Let me re-state what you’ve said here:

  1. You are a recovering alcoholic, and a former drinking buddy (who is still drinking) wants some of your time and energy. Despite the fact that most recovering alcoholics I know avoid former drinking buddies, you feel his desire to know you = your obligation to spend time with him.
  2. He indicated enthusiasm in being your friend again more than a year ago, which was somehow a summons for you to be the one to reach out consistently to invite him over for dinner and/or coffee. Sounds to me like you were the one to arrange this, every time.
  3. You have absolutely nothing in common with him. He is boring, negative, and self-pitying. But you feel that you owe him friendship.
  4. He is making bad choices and is pretending he wants to get help but clearly doesn’t, but you feel like you owe him honesty when he can’t even be honest with himself.

Do you see how ridiculous all of this is? This is ridiculous.

Guilt is usually a reaction to having done something wrong, or failing to do something right.

You went through the motions. Too many motions, if you ask me. He refused to take you up on a single thing except a few dinners. You did nothing wrong, nor did you fail to do something right.

So my question for you is: what am I missing? Did you kill his cat? Did you sleep with his girlfriend?

I am not from a small town and I’m not going to pretend that I can fully understand it, but it sounds like you have moved into an entirely different world from the one that shaped you, and that you are far, far happier for it.But you, like so many survivors before you, feel somehow unworthy, guilty, or bad for having achieved a happy life when others you knew weren’t so lucky. (Or hardworking, or smart, or bold, or whatever other attributes you have to have gotten to where you are.)

I think you said you have a working relationship with a therapist? I think you should talk with this person about survivor’s guilt: you’ve got it, and you’ve got a WHOLE HEAPING PILE OF IT, and I think determining where it comes from not only in relationship to him but also in relationship to yourself and the pattern of your life might make you feel a better understanding of what happened here, beyond this guy just low-level using you and emotionally draining you. I think there’s something there. Considering how you appear to have tackled other issues in your life, I have high hopes you’re going to figure it out, and feel less weird about this whole episode — and be less ripe for the next user who comes along.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on September 3, 2015.

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