Mental health struggles have formed the backdrop of my life, whether I was coping with my own mental unwellness or was watching my loved ones go through their own struggles.
I put my mental well-being on the back burner because I sincerely believed the well-being of the people I care about mattered more. In ways, I conflated my self-worth with my ability to provide emotional labor the people I love.
This pattern spilled into my friendships, but not always in the most healthy ways. One of the most intimate friendships in my life so far, although rewarding, ended up being the wake-up call I didn’t realize I needed.
The beginning of this friendship happened rapidly.
She felt like a soul sister. The next thing I knew, we were spending tons of time together, texting every day, and a couple months down the road, we were sharing all the emotional baggage we’d been carrying with no inhibitions. I felt a profound connection to her. I would do literally anything for this person. She is one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met, but she carried deep trauma. Our profound friendship made me want to help her carry it.
I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone.
I did my best to be her go-to confidant, and she did the same for me. I was there for the good times, the bad times, the break-ups, and the existential crises. But months later, when she had been experiencing an abnormal amount of emotional distress, I received an unsettling message.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she texted.
I called her immediately, and she told me that she felt worthless and invaluable for so many reasons. She then alluded to taking her life. I was trembling. I tried to stay strong because I felt responsible for being her voice of reason, but after hours of pleading with her to change her mind and go home, I broke down in ways I never had with her.
She was stunned, but she promised me she would hear me out.
She disappeared the next day but when I eventually found her, she told me again that she wanted to take her life. I told myself that I had to get it together and assure that she was safe. I made sure she got home that night, but the following day my mental health was in shambles — more than I admitted at the time and more than I ever revealed to her.
I couldn’t eat, I had to skip classes and work, and a friend eventually took me in to take care of me because I was such a mess. I kept repeating to myself “get it together” because I thought that if I were an unwavering pillar for her, I could take away her anguish.
I wasn’t ready to accept that I nearly lost someone I loved not just once, but twice.
I carried on like everything was fine, but I didn’t know how to articulate that I needed space to heal. I was supposed to be her confidant after all — how could I possibly abandon her?
As time went on, I subconsciously found myself putting space between us. The last time I saw her, it felt like we were strangers. The air between us was cold and distant, and in many ways I accepted it. Just like that, this friendship we cultivated ended as fast as it began.
I convinced myself that I was an awful friend because of the fate of our friendship. I felt like I failed her and didn’t deserve her friendship because I couldn’t give her unlimited emotional labor. I was scared to reach out to her again, but at the same time she also never reached out to me.
It was heartbreaking.
But after years of soul-searching, I learned that I couldn’t possibly be there for her in the ways she needed because I needed so desperately to heal. I couldn’t be strong for her because I couldn’t even be strong for myself. I appreciate the adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup” because it best captures the act of giving emotional labor to others.
If you have nothing left in your metaphorical “cup,” then what can you give to others?
My value as a human being and friend is not intrinsically linked to my ability or inability to take care of others. Unlimited, one-sided emotional labor isn’t healthy. It’s okay to take a step back and give yourself space to heal. It’s okay to practice self-care and acknowledge your mental health. Self-care and boundaries matter when supporting loved ones.
Some days I wish we established these boundaries at the beginning of our friendship because I like to think we would still be friends today if we had. But I know now that I’m not a bad friend if I don’t have the capacity to support someone.
Needing to heal is completely human, and I’m learning not to feel shame from it.