Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
I think my good friend (we can call her “Molly”) is in trouble and I’m not sure what to do or how to help her. Recently she has been drunk (I think, maybe on some other drugs but acting in a way that makes me think “wasted”) a lot, missing class, and being really flaky about meeting up when we have plans or texting back. I’ve tried to talk to her about things but she keeps saying everything’s fine and I’m overreacting like I always do.
It’s true that of our friend group I am kind of the Nervous Nellie. I’m not dumb though. Something has definitely changed in a very fast way and I’m pretty worried about it. What do I do? Do I get our other friends together and have an intervention? I just don’t know, but I don’t want her to fail out which I am afraid is what may be about to happen. And, the more she says everything’s fine in that awful tone the more I know something is definitely up
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I agree with you: something is definitely up, and I am glad for Molly that she has a friend like you to notice and take it seriously. I am also often the Nervous Nellie of my friend group. I’m usually the one saying “But is it safe to swim there?” and “The last train is in fifteen minutes you guys!” and “Wait a sec while I take a picture of his license plate before you go.” In my experience, people think I’m a little but of a party pooper right up until the moment that my worrywart nature saves their ass. So I would like to salute your inner Nervous Nellie and tell her that I think she’s right to be nervous in this case.
There’s no nice way to say this, so I am just going to give it to you unsalted: sudden changes in behavior, like the one you describe, tend to be pointers to trauma. There is a likelihood that your friend has had something really, really bad happen to her recently (or, possibly, has been freshly triggered about something really, really bad from her past). Withdrawing from friends and using drugs or alcohol are classic signs of this. It’s different than “bad breakup sadness” or “end of semester stress,” in some specific ways – the former usually causes people to seek out their friends to complain/be comforted, and the latter might cause someone to be withdrawn and flakey about plans but not drunk or high. Taken together, plus that vibe you’re getting that something isn’t right, and I would say that yes, it’s time to worry.
Here’s what: people who have experienced some kind of trauma, like rape or assault, go into a mode where their brain are trying to process what has happened. The best way to do this is to talk about it, repeatedly, because talking about things is one of the most important ways we “move” memories from our immediate, short-term memories into our more-removed, long term memories. There’s a theory that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is caused by traumatic memories that a person has never been able to process in a way that lets them feel “old.” The memory is always fresh. That’s what being triggered means – when something causes the trauma to flare up and make us feel like we’re right back in that moment.
If we don’t or can’t talk about the bad thing right after, it kind of… gets stuck in our brains like a pill can get stuck in our throats. We don’t die of it, we can still breathe, but it’s uncomfortable and makes us feel panicky at intervals until we can clear the space. Now imagine that lasting a lifetime. It’s awful. What’s more, the longer a person waits to talk through and process whatever happened, the more intractable that stuck place becomes. And there are some kinds of traumatic events that are very hard to talk about. If you get mugged at gunpoint and they take your wallet and your watch, that’s a very different experience of “talking about it” than if you’re the victim of date rape by someone in your social circles. So my guess is that not only has something bad happened but that it’s something your friend feels guilt or shame about.
I don’t think you want to stage an intervention, necessarily. But I do think you may want to get your friend group on board for a campaign of strategizing for your friend’s success and that can go a variety of ways. Giving her company is going to be a key piece. There are various ideas about best practices here, but my experience is that the animal comfort of having another person near – not even necessarily engaged, but near – can be incredibly helpful. This doesn’t mean pestering them about “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?!” It doesn’t mean trying to guess, psychoanalyze or “fix” them, and it doesn’t mean trying to jolly them relentlessly with an assortment of activities and jokes. It just means breathing near them. Maybe you bring some juice or a burrito or a scone, maybe you invite them to do something very low-key like watch something on Netflix and ignore your 300 pages of reading on the history and development of the single-payer healthcare system.
In addition to reaching in for some resources you will also want to reach out for some. Ask around and find out who among the people at counseling services or rape crisis or social justice seems to have a clue, and have a talk with them about coaxing your friend into coming in. I wish I could recommend a book but most of the ones I have seen are fairly treacly exercise books about welcoming the light and so on, and I am not sure I can recommend them. An exception is The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (Chen, Dulani, Piepzna-Samarasinha eds.) which has some really great information and resources about what to do when you can’t access useful trauma supports due to identity or other factors – very worth reading. The sooner your friend can talk about whatever’s happening, the sooner you can help her halt the downward spiral. That’s very real.
Don’t try to make her talk. You can’t, and the last thing you want now is to challenge her sense of agency and control (another shitty hallmark of trauma: it robs us of our empowerment). If you try to tug on her to talk she will tug toward silence twice as hard. Just make lots of time and space for conversation to happen. Like a piece of paper that has been wadded into a ball - let her uncrumple a little, and eventually let the creases relax until the story can come out. That’s the most important thing.
Brave Correspondent, and the best thing you can do for your friend right now. When she’s ready, be there. Until she’s ready, be there.
Love and Courage,