At the Intersection of a Messiah-Complex Friendship and Depression
The problems start with good intentions, I think. Friend B is going through a rough patch with clinical depression, and Friend A wants to help. Friend A offers to take on the project, opening her emotional and physical resources to the crisis.
The first few days, Friend A knocks it out of the park. She listens to long and complicated stories. She empathizes, and she verbalizes support. She comforts. She becomes a doctor and a mother. If things keep going this well, Friend B should be up and running in no time.
But by the end of the second week, Friend A is tired. She’s heard all the stories twice or three times. The weight of this depression is starting to feel...well... annoying. It would be different if she could reach down into that darkness, say a few positive truths, and fix the problem. But this... this feels like a bottomless pit, and it seems like there’s nothing she can pour into Friend B that will be enough.
Friend A is ready for Friend B to hurry up and figure this out so life can get back to normal.
So, Friend A googles “tough love” and takes on a coaching posture. She starts to make direct, honest statements that she hopes will jolt Friend B out of her funk. Instead of opening her whole, soft self up to Friend B’s wounds, she tries to implement boundaries, pacts, and procedures to regulate the danger.
"This is when we will talk."
"This is when we will sleep."
"You have to promise me that you won’t hurt yourself."
"You have to promise me that you won’t drink."
After all, she’s invested now. She’s earned the right to wield some leverage.
The shift unnerves Friend B. She feels pressure to perform, but she doesn’t know how. This isn’t like trying to resist a second piece of chocolate cake--this is like trying to stand against the force of a tsunami.
Friend B hates herself for being too needy. She hates herself for pushing everybody to exhaustion. She feels guilty, hopeless, tired. It’s always going to be like this; she will always be too much for everybody. So she experiments with giving up... writes a letter... takes a few steps toward trying to check out. Maybe she just needs to get out of everybody’s way.
The threat of suicide, then. The threat of suicide is the weight Friend B holds over Friend A. “If you aren’t a good enough friend to me, if you don’t have the right answers, if you can’t figure out how to heal my disease, I’ll kill myself,” and the terror of that thought is so overwhelming to Friend A that she starts to feel anger as well. What kind of card is that to play? How dare you? Suicide is a power move. It’s immature and selfish. It’s narcissistic. It’s cheating.
Friend A tries to live her life knowing that at any minute, she could get a phone call saying they’ve found a body. How is she supposed to carry that? How is she supposed to maintain any sort of normalcy with this in the wings?
Friend A realizes she can’t do this anymore. She wants out.
She’s full of shame because she feels like a failure. She wanted to be a messiah, and she ended up being a fool. She made promises she couldn’t keep. She tried to be a physician and couldn’t heal. She needs space. She’s ready for somebody else to take this—somebody who knows what she’s actually doing.
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I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a similar dynamic play out in friendships over the past twenty years. I’ve seen this happen between friends, and I’ve also been involved in messiah-friendships gone awry. Until you’ve dealt deeply with depression, you don’t realize how complicated it really is. Even if you’re smart and sensitive, even if you have a knack for identifying truth and saying the right things, you might not be able to “fix” someone who is depressed with your presence or your words.
You and I would never offer to do an living room appendectomy on girlfriend who was suffering with gut pain, but we might try to stand the role of an emotional physician, jimmy-rigging psychological surgery on a friend with severe depression. But so often when we get into the bowels of the problem, we find that the infection is too deep, that it’s spread too far for us to heal. And when that happens, we sit with a royal mess on our hands, not knowing who to call to sew things back together.
So I just want to write down a few thoughts about friends tending friends with depression. These thoughts don’t come from clinical experience, so if you have training in the field and want to add a few thoughts or corrections below, go for it. But maybe this post will at least put a few words on a common problem and get a healthy conversation started.
FOR THE MESSIAH FRIEND
1. At the outset of the situation, don’t promise more than a human can give. You can offer to listen. You can offer to walk with your friend. You can pray and provide an occasional landing place. But be careful not to put yourself in the position of solitary savior for a deep, old problem. That’s a promise you won’t be able to deliver. If your friend knows Jesus, she has a messiah. If you try to take that weight from the Lord, even your best intentions will land in a bad place.
2. Consider your motives early. Why are you wanting to help? What needs exist in your own heart that you are carrying into the crisis? Do you need to feel smart? Do you need to feel helpful? Is anyone watching that you want to impress? This stuff matters because the intensity of caring for a depressed friend will force these motives to the surface. If possible, it’s better to examine your own heart at the outset and get honest with what you are trying to gain as you try to give yourself away.
3. Are you trusting Jesus to work through you, or are you trusting yourself to work for Jesus? This feels like a subtle difference, but it’s crucial. The epistles constantly place religious works in opposition to works of the indwelling Lord. Especially in a situation like this, you need to keep your union with Christ at the forefront of everything you do in the friendship. Maintaining awareness of your ultimate dependence can prevent you from attempting what you cannot, and it can protect you speaking with false authority. Because depressed people can sometimes be emotionally-manipulative (out of desperation), holding firm to union with Jesus can also help those friends feel healthy boundaries that they may not always want... but need. Even though those boundaries may feel insensitive at first...in the long run, they will help you run a marathon instead of checking out after a quick sprint.
4. Have the humility to encourage your friend to get professional help. This just makes sense when you think about how depression works. The problem could be chemical. It could involve factors you aren’t trained to recognize or heal. There’s no failure in admitting that you don’t have the skill set to identify and untangle every wound. Your role as a friend is vital, and you just need to do that role well. Think about how important it is for friends and family to show up for encouragement at a hospital. That’s your work here. You don’t have to be everything.
FOR THE DEPRESSED FRIEND
1. This monster inside you is huge. You know it is, and that’s why you’re so scared. I know it feels like you are drowning and that you just want to find someone to grab on to, but let me use a word picture to explain what might happen if you do this. Sometimes drowning people will try to climb the bodies of lifeguards because they are desperate to reach the surface of the water. In doing this, they can drown both the rescuer and the person in distress. When this happens, a lifeguard is trained to dive down into the water, not because he is going to let the desperate person drown, but because he needs the victim to let go so he can better grip on her to save her. Please don’t feel ashamed of your impulses to climb your rescuer—those impulses are just normal for hurting people. But do know that your friend might have to make space now and again so that he can come back and help you more effectively.
2. Don’t beat yourself up for being messy. Depressed people make embarrassing mistakes that we would never make in easier times. We might write ugly letters and texts. We might lie. We might manipulate. We might explode in anger or fear. We might try to escape. We might indulge in wrong behaviors that give us at least some little endorphin rush to break hour after hour of suffering. I’m not saying these mistakes are morally right--sin is still sin. But reactive responses are super normal in seasons of intense pain. We wouldn’t expect a trauma patient in the ER to behave with perfect civility—we would understand if a man who had just been shot in the abdomen were screaming in panic. So if you’ve been stupid or awkward in depression, instead of adding the weight of condemnation to the emotional baggage you already carry, take God seriously when he tells you to confess your sins and trust him with forgiveness. He knows your weakness. He’s not freaked out by what you’ve done, and he doesn’t want it to define you for the rest of your life.
3. Admit what your friends can’t do to help. They are great people, I know they are. But as much as they love you, your friends don’t have the training to fix what’s broken. There’s probably not a lot you feel like you can give your friends right now, but there is one thing you can do for them. Give your closest friends a role where they can win. Let them be your cheerleaders, your prayer support, your peers. Let them give everything they have in a way that fits their skill set. Even if they offer, don’t let them try to be your messiah. That rarely works long term. Let these people be your companions because that’s what you need most from them. Love them enough, and love yourself enough to find professional help that understands how to get into the deep places. Let doctors be doctors so that friends can be friends.
FOR THE FRIENDS WHO HAVE GOOFED THIS ALL UP
A lot of us have goofed this up, right? Either we’ve been too needy or too explosive in seasons of depression, or we’ve tried to be a savior to someone we ended up not being able to carry. Maybe we got scared or angry and abandoned ship, and now we are ashamed of bailing. Maybe we’ve used blame to try to recreate the whole narrative so that we don’t have to admit our failures. If any of that’s been you, don’t shame yourself. It’s not like we all had lessons in how to handle depression in friendships. This stuff hits out of the blue, in real time, and we do the best we can based on our instincts and the little bit of knowledge we’ve collected in life. If/when we fail, then we struggle to understand everything that’s just happened--often making more mistakes while trying to patch together an explanation of the past.
Can I just relieve some pressure here and say, there’s grace for all that? Your depressed friend was hurting. The friend who tried to help was confused and totally overwhelmed. Give each other permission to be human in all of this. Confess weird motives (everybody has them), say sorry, be quick to release blame, and move on. And in situations where the other friend (the messiah or the wounded) isn’t ready to admit all this stuff, the work of simply getting honest with yourself will help a lot. What you don’t want to carry is a narrative of shame and chaos. It’s okay to define what happened clearly, tell the truth, confess what you did wrong, and move on in freedom from the past. Who you were in one terrible situation of trauma doesn’t define who you are forever.
Again, if you or someone you know is a professional counselor who wants to correct or add to any of this, feel free to message or comment. I’m speaking from experience, not from training, so I’m open to new insights. But maybe just getting the conversation started will be helpful to those who are trying to recover from a bad experience.