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My first year in college I made quick friends with a person I will call Matt. Matt was charming, funny, intelligent, and sweet, and I had never felt so understood or seen by a friend before. I thought I had met someone who would be in my life forever.
During our sophomore year, Matt developed a drinking problem. In our college environment, it was at first difficult to tell if he was truly an alcoholic or … simply in college. But quickly his behavior changed drastically. Matt would drink before class or smuggle gin into lectures in a water bottle. He spent most of his money on alcohol, amassing a liquor cabinet in his dorm that would have been impressive to Don Draper. Worst of all, my sweet friend became violent. He slapped a friend of ours in the face and roughly pushed me as well. Matt would cite the impact of his own father’s alcoholism on him when confronted.
The final straw came when Matt’s boyfriend told me that Matt abused him and that he was frightened to be around him. I held a one-on-one intervention with Matt. I told him that I would not be able to continue supporting his current behavior but that I wanted to help him find help. Matt appeared chastened and agreed he needed help. That was three years ago, and I haven’t heard from him since. I tried to follow up with him and let him know that I held no ill will toward him, only concern, but he avoided me during the remainder of our college years.
I heard various stories about him during that time. The one that frightened me the most was that he had been accused of sexual assault by a classmate. Though I am not sure what the outcome of this accusation was, I feel strongly that it is important to believe victims. And I could also easily see how my former friend would drunkenly ignore a lack of consent.
I think of Matt every day. I miss my friend and I still have so much love for the person I first knew him as. When I was filling in another friend about what happened between me and Matt, she told me, “You know, when I was depressed, it was really important that my friends stood by me in a difficult time.”
Her words have haunted me. While obviously physical abuse is not the same as depression, did I owe my friend more help? Is it worth reaching out to him now and attempting to rebuild our friendship? Should I even want to be friends with a person who I know is capable of physical assault and that I suspect is capable of sexual assault?
Sometimes when I get a letter like yours, I want to answer on behalf of the person with the big problem, and say, “Yes, please help him! Reach out and give him your love and help him to see how dangerous his behavior is, explain to him that when he inflicts violence on others, he spreads his own darkness and misery to his victims. They’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives.”
But honestly, I feel like I also have a responsibility to give you the advice that I would give my own daughters. And I would tell my daughters to stay the fuck away from this person, because life is too short to align yourself with a human dirty bomb.
Maybe that sounds merciless. But here’s what we know about this former friend of yours: He physically hurt you and used his father’s drunken violence to justify it. He abused his boyfriend, who says he’s afraid of him now. Someone else accused him of sexual assault. You know that he’s capable of violence and abuse, so this accusation doesn’t seem that wild to you.
You told him very clearly that you couldn’t support his current behavior and that you wanted to support him in finding help. He responded by playing along with your words and then disappearing. He knows where you stand. You expressed your desire to help him. But you also made it clear that you weren’t going to stand by and watch him hurt himself and other people unless he found help. You made the right choice, you said the right things, and it’s 100 percent right that he’s not in your life now, because by all reports he hasn’t changed a thing.
Your other friend, who told you she was helped so much by friends who stood by her when she was depressed, was wrong to equate her situation with his. Jesus, the things people tell you in your 20s about who you are and where your loyalties should lie! A terrible montage of outspoken enablers telling me I needed to stand by this or that asshole or I was a bad person just flashed through my head. It’s so easy, as someone who takes their loyalties and responsibilities very seriously, to be convinced that the “right” thing to do is to step in line with the reigning groupthink, because the enablers always use “loyalty” as an excuse to allow a reckless mess to keep destroying himself and others.
You don’t strike me as the kind of person who wouldn’t support close friends when they were depressed. Standing up for a depressed person is not remotely the same thing as standing up for a violent drunk who is, by all reports, sexually assaulting others. If anything, you had the exact opposite responsibility back when you were in college: to talk to someone in student services about the fact that your classmate had a big problem, appeared to be hurting other people, and didn’t seem able to stop. That’s how you support a violent drunk, actually: You abandon him completely. You let him know that you love him but you love yourself too much to put up with his abuse, and as long as he’s abusing other people, his only friends will be people who hate themselves as much as he does.
What sucks is that even the slightest sign of disapproval or rejection will send a drunk running in the other direction. Many drunks drink because it’s the only way they can achieve a kind of intimacy with other people and stop feeling rejected. It’s the only time they can turn off the running stream of anxiety and self-hatred in their heads. They already feel like there’s something deeply wrong with them. They were often told as much from a very young age. But when other people try to say, “I know you’re a good person, but you’re fucking up your life,” because they’re afraid of intimacy and they don’t trust that earnest sentiments aren’t just manipulations, they recoil. They don’t believe the “You’re a good person” part, and the “You’re fucking up your life” part is already the soundtrack to their whole lives that plays in their heads whenever they’re sober. Your statement of support actually sounds like flat condemnation to them. Committed drunks and addicts are already committed to shutting out sober intimacy and shutting out those sounds. Eventually “You’re messing up” and “You physically hurt me” and “I’m taking out a restraining order against you” all sound like the same thing: unnecessary noise that needs to be drowned out by booze.
That’s why the whole idea of “hitting rock bottom” is such a powerful one in recovery rhetoric. Some addicts simply will not stop until everything is taken away from them. This is one reason why, from my casual observations, very rich children often develop incredibly long-lasting addictions: Mommy and Daddy swoop in to save them over and over again, so there is no rock bottom, and the addiction just embeds itself in their veins. There is no moment of reckoning where the addict is sucking cock in a gas-station bathroom for some coke. Instead, there are gorgeously designed spaces by the sea in Malibu where people tell you you have to change, but everything around you says THINGS WILL ALWAYS LOOK THIS GOOD NO MATTER WHAT THE FUCK YOU DO.
But let’s shift gears and talk about the high stakes of choosing friends and lovers before you know how various sorts of people tend to turn out. When I was in college, I liked anyone who was loud, aggressive, and funny. These were the interesting people, as far as I was concerned, and I was one of them. I loved yelling, mutual mocking, eye-rolling, toughness. People who talked like they knew every fucking thing under the sun were MY PEOPLE, even when I was rolling my eyes at their diatribes at three in the morning.
After I graduated, I started to prefer sensitive, clever, brainy types. I wanted friends who recognized how complicated and confusing and sometimes poisonous the world could be. I wanted to be surrounded by people who really did seem to know more than I did, about books and art and music. I wanted cynical weirdos for friends. But honestly, those kinds of people sometimes hide their feelings even more than the loud drunks do. Sometimes the most sensitive people are also the most unfair and judgmental, because their low self-esteem makes them feel unsafe unless they’re walking around defining anything that’s not exactly like them as “bad.” (I could be describing myself back then with these words, mind you.) Friendship between two massively insecure soul mates sometimes yields to two people who hate each other more than anyone else alive.
It’s never clear how people from any of these different groups will age. Will they stand by your side through thick and thin? Will they abandon you the second you’re in a tough spot? Will they lie to your face as they back out the door and disappear forever? Will they commit to you completely then drop you like a rock after 15 years of friendship?
And will they ever thrive? Will their entertaining complaints curdle into laments that repeat themselves, over and over again, for decades?
Right now I wish I could show you a fast-motion animated reenactment of the unexpected fates of all of those friends and acquaintances, from both groups. Just trust me when I tell you that, if you’re seeking out the most interesting, most intense people in any social situation, you’re going to witness a pretty dramatic range of fates over the next few decades. Some of them will grow up and became serious artists and writers and musicians. Some of them will stay stoned and avoided forward motion at any cost. Some of them might drive their cars off the road after a night of drinking and die. Some of them might grow up and run their daddy’s business and continue to do coke. Some of them might become very successful entrepreneurs. Some of them might spend years in therapy and emerge as happier people, then grow anxious and remote, then return to you when they’ve found themselves again. Some of them might make a killing in advertising and disappear. Some of them might make a killing as entrepreneurs, then OD on heroin before the age of 40.
Some people get more and more self-centered as they get older, because their powerful positions protect them from the hard truths about themselves. Some people seem sweet and wonderful but a little passive, so you never know what they’re really thinking, and then out of the blue they have an affair with their husband’s best friend. Some people are thrillingly smart and great and they let you down over and over and something in the mix just feels familiar so you never stop putting up with it. Some people tell you very humbly that they’re working on themselves and then you find out they’re still lying to everyone they know. Here’s the heartbreaking truth: Some of the most charismatic people you’ll ever meet are amazing, trustworthy people, and others are people you really don’t want to know forever.
I’m big on loyalty, believe me. But you don’t have to support every friend. I’m 46 years old and the closest friends I have now are people who, for all of their flaws, rarely struck me as nefarious or manipulative or opportunistic. They may have slipped up occasionally when we were young, but they never turned to me when it was convenient and then pushed me away when it wasn’t. They could hold opinions that I didn’t share, they could value things that I didn’t value, but they were strong enough to appreciate our differences instead of casting aspersions on my choices. They were always on my side, and they were never afraid to put that fact into words. When I was feeling low, they were there for me. When I was doing well, they celebrated with me.
I didn’t always meet these standards. I was lucky to keep these loyal friends around, honestly. I’m sure I’ve struck plenty of people as nefarious, manipulative, and opportunistic. I’ve probably also made people feel small for wanting what they want. And honestly, these days, I’m trying to be open to people who are just as obnoxious and vainglorious and weird as I can be, because I used to be afraid of those people and now I see that my fears were often a reflection of my own insecurity.
The bottom line is, you have to judge people by what they do. Not by how charming they are over drinks, but by how they actually behave in the wild. When someone is nasty to her roommate simply because her roommate is deeply uncool, pay attention to that. When someone sets aside her very busy schedule to help someone else, notice that. When a friend actively makes another human being feel small, or cuts someone out because he’s depressed and “a drag,” or slaps someone on the back when he’s slowly killing himself, take note. When you say to someone, “I care about you, but I don’t know if you care about me” and instead of answering, that person withdraws, remember that.
I would say that I wish I could assign every self-destructive, abusive drunk someone like you as a guardian and close friend, to lead that person away from peril. But you know what? You don’t have that much power. No one does. Addicts are going to do what they do. Join Al-Anon and listen. Sometimes “supporting” an addict is just another way of making it okay for him to follow the same shitty path forever.
And on top of that, I don’t want that life for you. If you were my daughter, I would tell you this: Exploding stars are exciting to watch, but they will burn your life to the ground if you’re not careful. You are a kindhearted, loyal person who deserves to surround herself with other kindhearted, loyal people. All friends have flaws. Pick some flawed friends who are good to you, who would never dream of hurting you or anyone else physically, who would never dream of consciously trying to make someone who’s afraid or insecure feel small, just so they can feel more powerful. Don’t sign on to heartless people who break other people’s lives and shrug it off as something that “just happened.” When your friends behave heartlessly, tell them that you’re going to need for them to show up for you or you’re moving on. Dare to ask for what you need without anger. Commit to that. Commit to hearing the truth about yourself from others without immediately getting defensive. Allow some space for what you can’t see clearly by yourself, but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong when you know, in your heart, that you’re honoring your principles.
Find solid, loyal, flawed friends and love them like crazy, flaws and all. People like that aren’t always exciting or charming. That doesn’t mean that they’re boring. Sometimes we want wild, loud, destructive people around us just to distract us from our own fragile hearts. When you make some room for your own heart, though, you’ll find that those so-called boring friends become the most precious, brilliant people in the room out of nowhere. Be good to them. Write their names down and pin them to your wall, so you remember to give them your energy and your kindness. Be grateful for them. Stand up for them. Let them know that you love them. Have faith in the power of rock-solid friendships with kindhearted people.
And if your friends aren’t quite there yet, but you love them and know that they have good hearts and would never actively try to hurt anyone, ask them for what you want, and ask them to tell you what they want from you. Help each other to grow. Believe in that.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email email@example.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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