Soften Your Grip, But Don’t Let Go

My suicidal friend and I had to set boundaries

by Czarina Datiles

Yazgi Bayram
Sadness

Names and identifying details have been changed.

“I’m gonna do it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, locking the door to my room, because part of me knew the answer. My heart raced. “Hello? You still there?”

“Yeah.” Her voice wavered. I could hear people screaming and laughing.

“Where are you?” I asked. Alice was hundreds of miles away, at a summer program before we started our senior year of high school.

“An amusement park,” she replied. “My group went on a field trip.”

“Why’d you call?”

Alice remained silent. Her hesitation spilled out of my phone like a toxic gas.

Alice had first told me about cutting herself back in April, then about her dissatisfaction with school, and then her inability to see a future for herself. She said she only kept living out of “obligation.” She couldn’t tell her parents any of this.

As the eldest daughter of an Asian family, I grew up with the obligation to help others. Alice’s  family was also Asian, and mental health issues are often brushed aside in our community. Alice begged me to keep her revelations a secret. So, I listened and kept my promise to not tell. I knew what she was going through because I had felt suicidal in our junior year.

Additionally, another friend of mine had attempted suicide two years earlier. I found out later they had tried to tell me of their plan before they did it, but I’d brushed them off. I was still haunted by that guilt. It had become my duty to be my friends’ therapist. I needed to be of use.

After I asked, “Why’d you call?” she was silent. Finally, she whispered, “There’s a bridge about a four-hour bus ride from campus. I read somewhere that out of 65 suicide attempts made on that bridge, there have been 32 deaths since 2014.” Alice sounded animated, enthused by these grim statistics.

I held back tears. “Why did you research that?”

“I had a plan.”

Bus, Bridge, Jump

Alice told me her suicide plan in a flat tone. Bus, bridge, jump.

“It’d be so easy,” she said. “I could sign myself out for the weekend and go.” A long pause. “But I don’t think I can do it… They put nets beneath the bridge to catch people.”

Finally, Alice broke down crying.

“I can’t do it anymore. I really can’t,” she sobbed. “I’m so tired of everything. I hate it here. I hate school. I hate life. I can’t—I just wanna die, OK? Why does dying have to be so hard? Isn’t living hard enough already?” She cursed.

“Alice, you just told me a detailed plan. I can’t keep it a secret anymore. I have to tell your parents.”

“But I’m not gonna do it!” she exclaimed. “I just told you, I can’t!”

“Alice, please, I need to tell someone,” I pleaded. “I can’t… I really can’t lose you.” Tears rolled down my eyes, and I wiped them away and tried to sound strong.

“No, dude, if my parents knew, they’d be heartbroken. I can’t tell them. Please, please.” She was begging, and it was painful. “Please don’t tell them. I swear I’m not going to do it.”

I wanted to vomit; I wanted to sleep; I wanted to disassociate myself from the whole situation because it was too much.

I could potentially be the last person to ever hear Alice’s voice. I would be the person her devastated parents would come crying to, begging me to tell them what her last words were. They would demand to know why I didn’t try to get help for her, and my only reply would be, “She told me not to tell.”

My pent-up frustration boiled over, and I yelled at her. “Your parents would be devastated! All the things you were afraid of would happen: They would blame themselves, and they would see you differently—regardless of whether you were alive or not! If they knew, at least they could tell themselves that they were there for you! Alice, you need to get help, please. Let us help you.”

Silence. “How are you going to tell them?” she asked.

“I wrote down everything you told me,” I answered. “I need to go to a trusted adult, so I’m going to talk to my mom after our call.”

“No, please!” she wailed.

“Alice!” I yelled. “Please, just stop it. I’m doing my best, but an adult needs to get involved because, honestly, I can’t take it anymore. So, please, work with me.”

Alice sobbed.

“You need help,” I said softly. “Your parents love you. I’m always with you, you know that, right? We’re going to get through this together. You’re not alone. You’re loved and you’re needed. We’re gonna get through it, OK?”

I told her that I was going to tell my mom that Alice was suicidal and had a plan, that she’d been depressed for months, and about her ongoing self-harm.

Alice pleaded. “Not the cutting. You can’t tell about the cutting.”

We went back and forth for another two hours. Finally, she relented, apologized for putting me through this, and thanked me for staying with her.

I wanted to hold her hand. I gripped my phone instead. “We’re going to get through this together. I’m proud of you for taking the first step. I’m grateful that you called me instead of taking the bus. We’re gonna make it out of this, and we’ll be genuinely happy and slay so hard in senior year.”

Alice laughed. “Yeah. We’ll do that.”

We said our goodbyes and hung up. And then I sobbed. I allowed myself to feel weak and helpless and everything I told myself not to be in the call. I wasn’t strong. I was just a kid—still emotional and still learning. I hardly knew what I was saying. I felt inadequate and guilty. I felt miserable and hurt. I was exhausted.

Unofficial Therapist

I went to my mom and told her everything. My mom was a nurse and a mandated reporter. We decided to call Alice’s mom instead of calling the authorities in her area.

About three weeks later, Alice went to therapy. I would ask her to tell me everything, including what she talked about with her therapist.

I crossed the boundary from friend to full-time, on-call therapist. Alice’s every call had to be answered, and her every text had to be replied to. I saw it as being a good friend, someone Alice could lean on and confide in.

Later, I realized that as much as she depended on my responses, I also relied on her reaching out to me. Every time she did, I felt validated as a person. That summer, my life revolved around her and solving her problems.

We agreed to ask each other first if we were mentally and emotionally ready before entering a heavy conversation.

A month or so after the phone call, we planned a picnic. We hadn’t seen each other in person at all. Right before we were to meet, she texted to cancel. An hour after that, she asked if we could stop being in contact and take a break from our friendship.

She said that her mom, knowing how I struggled with my own mental health early on in the year, believed that I was the one who had “inspired” Alice’s suicidal thoughts. It was best, she said, that I avoid contact with Alice during her recovery.

I was heartbroken, frustrated and angry.

It wasn’t fair! After being there for her daughter, carrying such a heavy secret, and making sure she was OK every second of every minute of every day for five months, Alice’s mom decides I was to blame for Alice’s suicidal thoughts?! I had done all that a 17-year-old could do to keep Alice alive. 

Alice also told me that my physical presence was a reminder of the incident, and that hurt terribly. I didn’t want to be the image of someone’s trauma.

We didn’t speak to each other until a week before starting our senior year of high school. During that month of no communication, I reflected a lot on my friendship with Alice. I realized that we’d become too enmeshed, too dependent on each other. For Alice, it was for advice and emotional and mental stability. For me, it was for validation of my title as the “therapist friend.” Although friends should be involved in each other’s lives, it shouldn’t come to a point where they can’t be their own people.

Friends With Boundaries

I decided I wouldn’t take my friends’ problems and make them my own anymore. Nor would I allow myself to feel obligated to solve them. Instead, I would be their friend, someone they could reach out to and who would listen to them. Someone who gave advice only if asked.

At the beginning of senior year, Alice and I reconciled. I had forgiven her mom already, and we both missed each other. We agreed to move forward, together, and try to avoid repeating the painful past.

We set boundaries. We agreed to ask each other first if we were mentally and emotionally ready before entering a heavy conversation. Before she’d confide how hard recovery was for her, she would ask me if I was in a state where I could listen without feeling overwhelmed. If the things she shared with me were too much or if it was something that should be shared with a therapist rather than a friend (such as self-harm), I would be honest and tell her, and she would respect that.

Alice agreed to no longer ask me to keep heavy secrets, like her cutting and her suicidal thoughts, that place a burden of responsibility on me.  We agreed that neither of us had to be available for calls or texts every second of every day. (It wasn’t just Alice; I also called and texted her a lot when I was really struggling with my mental health.) So, instead of expecting an immediate response, we asked if the other was up for a heavy conversation, and then went from there.

I found it tough to stop being accommodating and to stop hovering over Alice. Small steps helped. I’d ask myself what my intentions were when Alice asked to confide in me: Was it to truly be a listening ear to my friend and support her or was it to feed my need to feel useful? If it was the latter, I would tell Alice that I couldn’t talk now.

If she told me suicidal thoughts, I’d remind her that her therapist could better support her with such things. I also made sure that when Alice confided in me, I wouldn’t try to solve her problem. Instead, I would ask what she wanted and how she thought she could best get that. That way, I prevented myself from falling into the temptation to solve her problems for her.

All I did was listen and comfort her. It stopped feeling like Alice was dependent and that I was her savior. We were just two friends supporting each other.

I started to do this within other close friendships. The more I practiced setting boundaries, the better I became at it. I stopped calling myself the “therapist friend.” I told my friends I was stepping back from being too involved in their lives and asked them to respect my new boundaries.

And if a friend were to tell me their suicide plan (which, thankfully, has not happened since that summer), I know now what to do: Tell them they need to seek professional help, notify the right people to ensure my friend’s safety and that they have access to mental health resources, and encourage my friend in their journey to recovery.

Soften your grip, but don’t let go. Being there for my friends while respecting each other’s boundaries has made for more healthy and happier friendships.

Czarina Datiles is an 18-year-old Filipino writer and poet from California. Although writing is her passion, she is looking to pursue a career in global health with a focus on mental health and women’s health. She loves rainy days, fantasy novels and boba drinks.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is struggling with mental health, help is available. Call or text 988.

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