The title of this post is a bit provocative, what I want to defend is often seen as “fair weather friendship” but might more accurately be called “Friendship with maintained boundaries around emotional sharing, advice-giving and receiving and other emotional work”.
First, I’ll explain what the term “fair weather friend” is supposed to mean. It comes from the idea that it’s in a crisis or bad situation that you find out who your “real” friends are – they are the people who stick around and help – and who your “fake” or “fair weather” friends are – they’re the ones who are suddenly nowhere to be found and may suddenly re-appear once the crisis is over.
The problems start when, like me, you’re a mentally ill person with numerous mentally ill friends. There is *always* someone having a crisis and often several friends in crisis at the same time. Sometimes I too am in trouble and need help, sometimes I know that getting involved in trying to help a particular friend or a particular crisis will trigger me into a crisis of my own, will exhaust me or will just demand more of my time, energy and empathy than I have going spare. So I don’t attend to everybody, because I can’t. Am I a “fake” or “fair weather” friend? Well, not really. I love my friends and they love me.
One of the things I love about being part of the mentally ill community is that we look after our own – and one of the most important things I have learnt and taught as part of this community is that you need to learn to recognise when the best way to help someone is to stay out of their way. Sometimes it’s a case of securing your own metaphorical oxygen mask first and recognising that you are not fit to help other people right now. Other times it’s recognising that you can only help a tiny amount and what someone else actually needs is professional help. Sometimes you have to step back and recognise that you do not know how to help or that stepping in to help when the other person hasn’t asked for help is denying the other person their agency just when they most need to have it affirmed. The kindest thing to do sometimes is to offer specific help, accept the yes or no gracefully and affirm that the other person is in control of how to respond to a crisis. And sometimes the kindest thing to do is nothing at all.
When do I respond to someone I love in crisis by doing nothing? When I know that getting involved will harm me, when I know that what they are facing is too similar to stuff my own brain is prone to throwing at me and I’m at risk of making helping them more about me and my problems than them and theirs or when their problem is so different from mine that I struggle to see the problem from their point of view. If I’m feeling like just stating an “obvious” solution at them or annoyed that they aren’t doing x, y, z that’s my cue to stop engaging. When trying to help will hurt me or them or others, I leave the helping up to other people. I do nothing.
Well, not nothing. I continue, as far as it is safe to, to behave towards my friend as normal. Still sending links that I think they’ll like, still inviting them to whatever, still adding *offers hugs* to statuses from time to time. When it would hurt me to engage, I do set my facebook privacy settings so certain friends never see any new statuses from me or I never see their statuses in my newsfeed or they never see me on chat whilst remaining facebook friends. I used to be ashamed of doing this but not any more.
If I don’t reach out to help you when I know i can’t or shouldn’t, I won’t be offended or upset if this means you want to end the friendship because I was a “fairweather friend” and disappeared when you most needed friends. That’s okay. I do it because I know that trying to help you would sometimes hurt one or both of us more than losing the friendship this way could. I love you, my friends, and don’t want to hurt you. Sometimes this is the kindest, most compassionate thing I can do.
I’ve learnt much of this the hard way and am writing it the hope that others can learn it more quickly and more painlessly than I did.