Tell Me About It: He was always easy-going and incredibly outgoing, but as he nears his 50th birthday he is nothing like the person I used to know
PROBLEM: My best friend of over 25 years has recently become extremely insular and agitated, to the point where even having a conversation with him is difficult.
He was always easy-going and incredibly outgoing, but now that he nears his 50th birthday he is nothing like the person I used to know. He is very quick to get angry, has no interest in looking after himself and has almost become a recluse — so much so that even asking him to go out warrants an angry response, as if he wondering why you’d even consider asking him that.
Most of our friends are married and have children, me included, and he is still single and lives quite a distance from most of us. I can understand that this would cause problems in and of itself, but these days I genuinely fear asking him to visit or visiting him as his mood is so sour, I just feel like I’m imposing on him.
Not too long ago we were out as a group of friends, and he suddenly became angry and shouted at a few of us before insulting me on a very personal level. I obviously didn’t respond, but others were surprised at the vitriol in his manner. I honestly don’t know what to do. I’ve asked his cousin, his closest male relative, if he thought there was a possibility of depression, his response was not to even mention it to my friend. It’s as if his family didn’t want the burden of dealing with it. I am more than willing to help, but I cannot get through to him on any level that would even suggest that he needs help. Plus, who am I to suggest as much in the first place?
We were on holidays as a group a few years ago and he started crying out of the blue. I regret not making more of that situation, because I think it was him asking for help. But if I tried to bring it up now, I genuinely fear what kind of response I’d get.
His moods are so unpredictable that I think I’d lose him as a friend for offering any help. What can I do?
ADVICE: The fact that you have been friends for so long means that you have good knowledge of your friend’s character and so your judgment is likely to be on the right path. You have witnessed a number of experiences that would suggest a long-standing and increasingly problematic situation for your friend and intervention would seem called for.
The first step is to try to broach your concerns with your friend and this needs to be done in person. Can you organise to visit him and tell him that you want to talk about something important? He could then not back out of the conversation after you arrive. It is also good to lay out your concerns about how the conversation will go before you speak about your worries. These could include your fear that he will get angry and ask you to leave and that if you speak honestly he will end the friendship.
If you both can get beyond these concerns, then you might be able to ask him how he is doing and perhaps ask him what he thinks you are seeing in him over the last while. The reason you are there is that the friendship is important to you and somehow you might try to get this across to him. If your friend is receptive to the discussion don’t expect everything to be resolved in one conversation, so it would be good to establish a routine where you meet regularly and are both honest with each other.
There is, however, a distinct possibility that your friend will push you away — anger is often an expression of other more troubling emotions of loneliness, despair and hurt — and if this happens you have to use your judgment to see if his life is at risk. Of course, you are not a professional and are not expected to make that call by yourself but given your long knowledge and experience of your friend, you are likely to have a good sense of where he is at. This is a time that you may have to alert his family or even his GP if his family is estranged or distant from him. It seems that there have been a number of crisis situations in the past (crying on holidays, abusive in public) and none of these has given rise to an intervention and the danger is that the crisis will deepen if nothing happens.
You can check your concerns with your group of friends as it seems that they have witnessed most of the worrying situations and therefore can validate or calm your fears. You might also need support for yourself as you try to engage with someone who is likely to respond with anger to you. One source of support you can use is a 24/7 crisis text line (an HSE-funded organisation) that is available in Ireland and is staffed by professionals — start the conversation by texting “hello” to 50808, and you can review what you are planning/doing as well as having a safe place to express what you are going through yourself.
Friendship is crucial to our wellbeing and it is worth getting beyond your fears of awkwardness or discomfort to stand up for it and to care for your friend who is in need.