Friends Who Cross the Line: Suicidal vs. Drama Junkie

I had a coworker one time who initially seemed to be a ‘normal’ everyday person and LVN (licensed vocational nurse).  I got to know her family, and we worked well together.  She was supportive of me when I had been going through some of the eating disorder stuff.  For several years, the friendship was close and the boundaries weren’t dysfunctional.  We were friends- not mutual ‘therapists’.

Then she started going through some things that I was in no way equipped to deal with. It’s one thing to be supportive, but it’s quite another to be asked to participate in the chaos.  I’d visited her in the hospital when she decided she was going to have an eating disorder and was being tube fed (she had never had a history of eating disorders until her late 30s- possible, but not the usual age for first onset).  I encouraged her during ‘recovery’.  There was an awful lot of work she put into having an eating disorder that was unlike anybody else I’d ever seen in my years of eating disorder treatment; I probably saw a few dozen ED patients during those times…’P’ made it her life’s work.  Not something that was controlling her thoughts. It’s hard to explain- but it was different.  She recovered when she got tired of Slim Fast.  She sort of stablized out, and resumed her life as a nurse, mom, and wife.

Then one day, she called me and asked if she could come over to my apartment.  I told her it was fine, though I was rather preoccupied taking care of a nine day old baby- he’d been adopted by a coworker at my then current place of employment, and I was the designated babysitter while she was working. I wanted to be fully attentive to him, as well as knowing that his mom would be calling to see how he was doing. Because he was adopted she didn’t have the maternity leave of several weeks.  Anyway, ‘P’ came over. She walked in and asked me if I’d tell her kids that she loved them; she was going to kill herself.  I was instantly livid.

I’d dealt with suicidal coworkers and patients before.  Professionally, I knew the resources that were available, and who I needed to contact.  On a friendship level, I was outraged that she even thought that what she was asking was OK.  I had a newborn in my arms, and a crazy person in my living room.  There was no question whose best interest I was looking after. I told ‘P’ “sure, I’ll tell them”, and I escorted her to her car, got her license plate number, and called the police.  I then called her psychiatrist who told me I was the third or fourth person to let him know she was running around telling people she was suicidal.  That made me even more angry- but I’d notified the proper people. She was their problem.

I’m not insensitive to suicidality- not at all.  I’ve been there.  I’ve overdosed to the point of being comatose for three days, waking up in ICU and not knowing what was going on. I still don’t remember wanting to die.  I remember being overwhelmed, but not wanting death to be the outcome.  I know the internal struggle to find some way out of intense emotional pain. But this was different.  I don’t think that the vast majority of suicidal people are ‘crazy’…not by a long shot. This was behavior that is SO indicative of borderline personality disorder, which is an extremely difficult disorder to deal with.  The hot-cold, sick-well, black-white thinking and actions are exhausting.  The person is in legitimate psychological pain- and they spread it around whether they mean to or not.

There is no healthy relationship with someone who is a borderline…other than to back away and leave that part of their life to the professionals.  Folks with BPD create crises in their lives, and involve whoever they deem to be on their ‘good list’ (that week).  If there is some sort of perception of that person not seeing things their way, then they’re on the ‘bad list’.  And it flip-flops all the time.  Working with borderlines was tiring enough when I was getting paid for it; having one outside of work involved in my life wasn’t going to happen when it got to the point of her ‘playing’ with suicidal comments.

I got a message on my answering machine later that night saying that she was sorry to have upset me, and that the police were there when she got home from my apartment.  I never had voluntary contact with her again. She did surface at a nursing home I worked at, but quit after a couple of weeks: no call-no show. I was asked by my employer what I thought about ‘P’… she was a good nurse, but her personal life was a train wreck (she had a LOT of unresolved childhood trauma issues- which I did hope she got help for, but she didn’t need to be responsible for nursing home residents)…. I just said that I’d always thought her penmanship was really good.  I wasn’t going to tell them about the psychological issues   since she wasn’t still working there.  Had she continued to be in charge of elderly patients, I’m not sure I would have had a choice but to report her instability due to the rules of the Texas Board of Nurses. And yet, she had never let her patients suffer… she was a good nurse. It was iffy territory.   It wasn’t fair for her to put me in that position.  I’m a loyal friend until someone plays with crisis situations as if they were games.

I’ve thought about ‘P’ over the years, and hope she found some peace and was able to work through the things in her early life that were genuinely horrible.  She was in a lot of pain, and had some tragic things happen with one of her three kids.  I’ve wished the best for her and her family. The last I heard, she and her husband that I knew divorced (a borderline wife would have been really hard), and she’d remarried.  That was at least 20 years ago.  I hope she found some sort of calm in her life, and a realization that she didn’t need to create chaos for people to care about her. She had some wonderful qualities.  But she was in so much pain…it was more than a friend could handle with any sort of healthy boundaries.

The Designated Nut At Age Eighteen

As a result of anorexia and the depression I only experienced during periods of starvation, the university I was attending decided I wasn’t safe staying on campus. I was to be sent to a psychiatric hospital near Chicago.  It no longer exists, but my memories sure do.

It was February 1982, and I was falling apart.  The eating disorder and coinciding mood swings were making university life and class attendance nearly impossible.  I was horrified that I couldn’t just make it work.  I had some suicidal thoughts, and the means to carry them out , as I’d discussed with the therapist I’d been seeing as a condition of staying at the University of Illinois (they found out about the anorexia very early in the first semester in the fall of 1981). She didn’t want to take any chances.  I’m sure that the fact that I was talking more had to be somewhat alarming, since I’d said little besides “I don’t know” to anything she’d asked since first meeting me in September of 1981.  I didn’t have much choice- either voluntarily admit myself to a psychiatric hospital, or be committed.  I was horrified and ashamed, which wasn’t helping anything.   I agreed to go to the hospital near Chicago, but only if my parents were NOT the ones who drove me there.  Arrangements were to be made, but in the meantime, I was taken to the university health center and kept for observation.  Nifty way of saying they didn’t trust me, and weren’t sure I wasn’t going to kill myself.  The therapist had the university fire department drive me over there.  Subtle.

I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop and I hadn’t found any way to make that happen.  I was 18 years old, and didn’t have the life skills to know that the bad times don’t last forever, and the eating disorder that made most anything ‘logical’ impossible was driving a lot of my thinking.  So I was to stay at the inpatient clinic until the plans were arranged.  I’d asked for a specific family friend to drive the 200 miles to come and get me, and then take  me the 170 miles or so to the hospital.  That’s a lot to ask, but she agreed.  Then it got complicated.

In February 1982, central Illinois got hit with a blizzard, and the arrangements to pick me up had to be postponed until the roads were cleared, and it was safe to travel.  If I remember right, it took about 3-4 days.  During that time, my dorm friends came to say goodbye.  It was sort of surreal.  My brain was so starved that not much really sank in.  I knew what was happening, but at the same time,  I had no idea about what  type of place I was going to be admitted .   The only type of psych hospitals I’d seen were those on TV, and the accuracy of those was questionable.  Finally, the weather cleared enough for me to be picked up by my friend and her daughter (who I also know and like- I still know them), and I was taken to the hospital.

I was mortified to see my parents in the lobby. I was so ashamed that I’d failed to just pull it together. They had to be there to sign the insurance forms and admissions papers for billing, but I also had to sign myself in since I was ‘of age’.  I was the youngest person on the adult unit.  And in for a real education.

My psychiatrist (assigned at random) ‘banned’ my parents from contacting me for at least a month. He let them know if I was doing OK.  He wanted to get to know me, and find out why I didn’t want them to pick me up in Urbana (shame). He also wanted me to learn to let loose a little bit; I was too restrained and worried about what other people thought.  He asked my folks to send $100 (worth a lot more in 1982 than it is now- though still a nice chunk of change) so I could go to K-Mart and get some overalls (something my mom refused to let me wear) and have some fun shopping with one of the psych techs who monitored us nuts on the unit.  My mom never let me go to K-Mart (it hadn’t spiffed itself up at that point; afterwards, she didn’t mind it).  I was to be dressed in name brand clothing (preferably stuff that made The Preppy Handbook… I’m not kidding). Marshall Field’s & Co. was HER preferred place to get my clothes. I hated that store when I was growing up.  Too much foo foo.

I was the designated ‘nut’ in the family, but no member of any family gets to the point of needing psychiatric hospitalization for eating disorders (or anything else) in a vacuum. In the early 80s, eating disorder treatment was in its infancy.  Nearly all ED patients were put on general psych wards, and the stigma went with that.  I didn’t find out how bad that stigma was until much later when I found out that my folks never told anybody where I was.  I just ‘wasn’t’ at the U of I.  Enter a void in time and place regarding my existence. My mom’s ‘baby’ brother came to see me, so he’d found out.  I’m still not sure how.  It doesn’t mean that my immediate family was some raging psycho farm, but something wasn’t OK.  Sometimes it’s perceived, and sometimes it’s actual dysfunction- but the end result is actual dysfunction for somebody. When I got older and worked as an RN in a psych hospital with adolescents, I saw it all the time.  The family needed someone to direct their troubles at.  The kids are easy targets- and often are acting out in some way because of the dysfunction.

My mom was not a warm type of mom.  Even the social worker caught on to that during the one  interview with my folks.  My mom wasn’t ‘evil’ or ‘bad’-she just had her own stuff.  She and my dad had both lost newborn sons about two years apart from the same disease, before they were 25 and 29 years old (roughly).  That’s pretty young to deal with such loss. Dad turned to work, and mom just shut down.  Now, they’d be offered counseling without that being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘defective’ (as therapy often was up until, and through, my treatment for anorexia).  It just wasn’t done by ‘normal’ families.  So a lot of hurting people were stuck in their pain, alone.  My mom wasn’t in a place to be nurturing a baby when she was terrified something would happen to me, and she stayed at a distance to protect herself. It wasn’t about me.  She was in pain.

Anyway, I was at the hospital for about 3 1/2 months that first admission.  I did better, but eating disorder treatment didn’t address the core issues of self-worthlessness and overall loathing of taking up space on the planet.  That wasn’t about dying either.  It was about feeling like  I just shouldn’t ‘be’.  It took many years to get to the core reasons I was so self-destructive via the eating disorders.  It made me the designated family crackpot.  That seemed handy, and it was a big secret to anybody outside of our home and very close family; I’m still not sure most of them ‘know’.  I’m not proud of it, but keeping things secret just perpetuates disorder.   NO family gets through this life without something dysfunctional going on.   Everybody has stuff.  It hurts less when it doesn’t seem to be so shameful.