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The Vine: March 19, 2014

Submitted by on March 19, 2014 – 10:03 AM6 Comments


I have an old friend who is having some pretty serious mental health problems. We were close in the K-12 years and have drifted apart over the last decade-plus, but we still keep in touch.

Several years ago, she started telling some pretty terrible stories about herself; that she'd had a miscarriage, which then became two miscarriages, then three. At the time I believed her (though I don't anymore, for reasons that will become clear). Then the stories began about her uncle molesting her as a child. Then the stories about her father raping her. Then it culminated with her entire family being ritual Satanic abusers who continually impregnated her and murdered her babies after they were born.

At some point along the way I realized, Oh, these stories are a manifestation of her mental illness. I know she is seeing many counselors and occasionally becomes a psychiatric in-patient at a particular facility.

My question is this: Do you think it is of any value for me to write to her occasional in-patient facility to let them know what I remember about her childhood? She was a not-well-loved child in a cold, strictly religious household; her family refused her medical care for most of her life; and she used to show up to school with mysterious bruises. I can also say for certain that she was never pregnant during those years.

Would it be a valuable window for her psychiatrists, or should I trust that these professionals know what they're doing without old acquaintances' recollections? If it would be better for me to write in, how should I address the envelope? Should I include contact information for myself, or are they not allowed to email you about these sorts of things?

Thank you kindly,
Good Girl Grown Up

Dear Good,

It's not completely without value, in the sense that you want to help your friend by furnishing her doctors with information, and help them separate fact from fiction in order to treat her more effectively. The instinct to support her is what is worthwhile here, I would say.

The intel itself: probably not all that helpful. Not harmful, either, but you have to assume her doctors understand that some or all of Friend's stories are delusions, and that abuse that may in fact have occurred could have shattered her personality to the degree that she's now taking refuge in reports of ritual Satanism.

The other thing is, too, that it's not necessarily about getting to an objective truth about her childhood. It's about finding a combination of medication and therapy that lets her function in the world. So, while her doctors may find it of interest that an outside observer can confirm some of what she says about her past, ratifying it doesn't necessarily help her deal with it. Behavioral therapy, practical exits from situations that might trigger her — this is what her doctors should be focused on, because again, it's not what did or didn't happen. It's how she's going to handle it and move on.

Helping your friend in this case means staying in touch with her, and believing her — not about the more outrageous particulars, maybe, but that something bad happened, is happening, to her. She feels betrayed and sad; you can believe that and comfort her about it without having to swear to the specifics.

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  • Sarah says:

    I'd just like to add that what you think you know might not be what really happened. My stepmom is a mental health professional and she has clients with some extremely harrowing childhoods. Families like that are good at putting something forward to the world that looks ok.

    It's clear that you're a friend who cares about this person, and Sars is right. All you need to do is care and tell her you care. Some terrible things may have happened to her. She doesn't need you to doubt the truth of those things, make them a non-issue. You don't care if they are true or not, you care that she is getting help and getting well.

  • LSol says:

    As a mental health professional, I would like to say I would find it odd if an old friend of a client decided to mail me information. I would find it of interest too, but would be unable to give it any credibility. Unless the client, or her conservator, gave me written permission, confidentiality laws would prevent me from investigating further.

    I agree with what is already said. The most important thing you can do is offer your support. With heavily delusional clients, often what they believe is more important that what is true, because it's about what the client is experiencing. Her treatment team is already working on helping her get a better experience out of life.

  • OneoftheJanes says:

    Echoing what Sarah said about this not being a project to get the objective truth of her childhood. Good, I think you're responding to the fact that you went on a journey here and laudably thinking that you can save key others some of the steps. But that's not the journey her carers are going on in the first place.

  • Anon says:

    I really dislike the tone that the letter writer takes here, that her stories are delusional BECAUSE they are sexual and icky, and the friend is mentally ill so the stories must be false. I grew up in a cold, religiously strict family, and my stories are not particularly different: I only got pregnant from the rapes (which were perpetuated in a group setting) twice: once I was forced through an incredibly unsafe at home abortion and the second time, I ran away and the baby is now ten years old and doing quite well, thank you.
    I'd like to know how the friend knows that her friend was never pregnant: did she run daily pregnancy tests throughout high school? Do regular checks that her friend wasn't wearing spanx? Triple check that the sanitary pads her friend carried in her purse weren't the same ones as last month?
    It's hard enough to handle a completely fucked up childhood: having 'friends' who are quick to agree with your abusers about your credibility is far too much. My advice would be to stay entirely out of the situation: she doesn't need what you have to offer.

  • Maria says:

    Agree totally with Sars. Totally. Let her doctor be her doctor, and you, her friend, should just be her friend. It's purer that way.

  • GGGU says:

    LW here. Anon, I'm very sorry for what you've suffered through, and I hope things are better now. I would rather not get into detail, but some, perhaps most, of her stories are obviously untrue. Part of the reason the questions I asked Sars have weighed so heavily on me is that I make a point of believing victims' stories and supporting them in that way (I know just saying "I believe you that that happened" can be powerful), so it's not as obvious to me what to do when I know a person is having troubles, but just saying "I believe that that happened to you" is not really in the cards.

    All that being said, thanks, Sars and others for the very helpful words. I will put them to use.

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