Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Some open honesty: Abusive Friendship

No good deed goes unpunished.

Mmm, yes, overly melodramatic, I'll admit, but I recently finished reading Wicked so that seemed like a good opening.

Last year I had a roommate, who throughout this novella I will call "A" to protect his anonymity. The long and short is he took advantage of me financially and emotionally. In retrospect, now I can recognize I was a victim of an emotionally abusive relationship. But the worst part is I didn't realize that until someone else pointed it out to me.

To anyone reading who has suffered extreme emotional, psychological, or physical trauma, my claim of victimhood may sound offensive, and for that I apologize. Let's be honest: I'm really doing okay, and I'm not permanently scarred. My intent here is *not* to garner a pity-party; I do not need nor desire pity. My situation is what it is, we cannot change the past, etc.

Instead, my purpose lies in the hope that my story will help someone else, a wandering Internet traveler, recognize if they are or were in a similarly abusive relationship, and give them the strength to fight that.

My essay is lengthy, firstly because I did not want to take the extra time to write anything shorter, and secondly because including fewer details would deprive us of critical plot points.

A year and a half ago I had a friend, "A," who needed a place to stay - his mom was on her death bed, his search for sustainable work was not going well, and in general he was down on his luck. Years prior, "A" had helped me out tremendously on some large projects (I apologize, because I hate hate hate when people are so vague, but in order to protect "A's" privacy, I need to use that awful generic language), and so I felt I owed him the help, if I could. At the time I had a spare bedroom I was using only for storage, so "A" and I agreed on a rental rate, and he moved in.

Immediately this became a disaster. Not only did "A" spontaneously arrive days earlier than planned (and before I even had the room cleaned out), but once he was in my home, he proceeded to regale me for hours on end about his life's problems. The first night I figured "okay, we haven't seen each other in a while, this is just catch-up, I guess that's fine. It'll just be this one time."

I was wrong.

Night after night, I would arrive home from work, and "A" would commence talking at me for literally one or two hours straight, standing in my office doorway while I was clearly trying to work. And... his problems were always the same: every story he brought up I'd already heard from him the night previous. Then he would ask for advice, and my advice was always the same, because he never heeded it. Over the 10 weeks he occupied my home, this routine rarely changed.

I started working longer and longer hours, just to avoid my house. I scheduled more events out with friends (though this isn't a bad thing), in order to escape.

Now lest you accuse me of being a bad friend, let me clarify a few details:
  1. "A" and I were never best friends. At best, we had been acquaintances.
  2. I am not a trained psychologist.
  3. "A" never (maybe once?) took my advice, even though he asked for it time and again.
  4. I work from home a lot, and "A" did not respect my time and space when I was "at work" in my home office.
  5. I do not have 1-2 hours every single night to devote to someone who isn't my significant other or a family member. I do often (and happily) spend an hour or two in a night talking on the phone with some of my closest friends, but then it's a different friend each day, not the same ONE person day in and day out.

There were other red flags (coming to mind: not closing the bathroom door or washing his hands until I called him out on it; gross!!!), and so at some point I began asking "A" when he would find his own apartment. This was mostly though not entirely selfish: I knew that getting his own place would be a huge step for "A" toward getting his life back on track (and he concurred). Because I knew he was low on cash, I offered him a loan in order that he could place the deposit on the apartment he'd been eyeing. After a few days' consideration, he accepted my loan offer and I wired him the money. At this time he also signed a repayment agreement specifying a timeline for the loan, as well as rent, depending how many weeks total he ended up staying at my house.

This same week, "A's" car broke down and needed repairs, for which he used my initial loan. Hearing this, I offered him another loan, this one specifically to secure the apartment, and he accepted. Naïvely, I assumed he would be a responsible adult, and go straight to his prospective landlord to lock down the apartment; imagine my surprise days later when I found out he deliberately had dilly-dallied, and as a result, lost the apartment to someone else. This meant "A" would be occupying my house even longer.

I. was. livid.

As I described my roommate situation to friends and family, everyone could hear in my voice (perhaps even see in my physical stature) the toll "A" was having on me, and I found myself falling deeper into an angsty, unrestful, unhealthy emotional state. The hour-long psych sessions continued almost every day, and the stories never changed: "A" kept talking about the same girl he'd had a crush on and stalked (yes, stalked) almost a year prior. This was *while his mom was dying*, and he was talking about a girl. Seriously?

Everyone encouraged me "you just gotta kick him out, he's taking advantage of you." I knew I couldn't deal with it much longer, but instead of kicking "A" out, I kept making excuses for him: his mom had just passed away (while he was living with me), he had an emotionally unhealthy job at his church that was draining him, he just needs a little more help... excuse after excuse after excuse. I assumed I knew him and his situation better than all these other friends of mine, and again, I just wanted to help him get his life back in order.

In late July or early August I again asked "A" when he would be finding a place of his own, using the loans I'd given him. Oddly, even though I felt like a bad guy for eventually saying "we need to set a move-out date," he never saw me as being mean.

We agreed upon August 15 as the day he'd be gone; I even got a little passive-aggressive and asked my parents to send "A" an email, something like, "I understand you're moving out this week..." Well, August 15 came and went, and he was still here, no sign of packing or anything. Exasperated, I explained to "A" that I didn't know what to do - while I didn't want to kick him out on the street and make him homeless, at the same time I had a new roommate moving in in a few weeks, so he needed to be gone soon.

Eventually, finally, "A" moved out, mere days before new roommate Ellen moved in. And btw, new roommate Ellen was freaking awesome.

Ordeal over!

... I wish.

That was late August 2011. "A"'s and my mutually agreed-upon (and signed!) document stated he was to pay the back-rent by December 31, 2011, and repay my loans by March 31, 2012. Now in fairness, he did pay back *most* of the loan, but not all. And none of the rent. It is now (when I started writing this) December 2012. This is when everything comes to a head.

On a Friday in December 2012, at 4:20 a.m. - yes, a.m. - "A" texted me the following:

"Wanted to ask if you could forgive the remainder of what I owe you? In the spirit of the holiday and also appealing to you from the Word from Christ when he spoke of the man who had his debts forgiven. My wish is to go into the new year clean and truly moving forward. I've stepped out of my daily work at the church, from doing it for 10 years and that is why it's been difficult [to] find substantial work. I appreciate your help and friendship and please know you can always call me for anything. Merry Christmas!"

I... truly had no idea how to reply. I discussed at length with my parents, and also with my friend, mentor, and self-volunteered anger-management counselor John. I prayed. And I was distraught. The next day, I replied with the following email:


I have to say, I'm a bit at a loss. You've put me in a lose-lose situation: I can say "your debt is forgiven" and lose $<remaining loan money> (far exceeding any spirit-of-the-holiday gift I'm buying for my friends or family), or I can say "no, you must pay me," and thus be the bad guy. On top of that, you took this a step further and are guilt-tripping me with an appeal to my faith, which you know I [try to] take very seriously. It would be hard for me to turn my back on Luke 7, but even more convicting, Matthew 18.

"A," you took advantage of me while living here: by disrespecting my time and privacy for hours on end, almost every day; by not paying timely rent; by accepting a loan specifically meant to be used as a deposit on an apartment, and then not making the deposit; by accepting an additional loan for the deposit you finally did put down; and you have continued to take advantage of my good will since then by deferring repayments an entire extra year. Against my better judgement, I let all of that slide, because I wanted you to get your life back in order, and I thought if I let you pay back only what you could (which most of the time meant no repayments for months on end), I'd be doing you a favor - I figured after everything you did for me on <previous projects he'd helped with>, that I owed you that. But it's been a year and a half. While I'm glad you're no longer working at the church - remember I wholeheartedly supported you moving on - I am left feeling that you have abused my generosity. And now with your text message, you are taking advantage of my faith, by laying a guilt-trip that I cannot ignore. So, yes, "A": your debt is forgiven, but this "friendship" is over.

I truly hope you will be able to get your life back together soon. Be well, and go in peace.

- Jeremy

Before sending, I ran my email past my parents and John (and revised based on their recommendations), and everyone agreed: it was worth losing the loan money in order finally to be done with the whole debacle and get "A" out of my life.

My plan backfired (sort of - I guess it depends how you look at it): "A" replied saying that my friendship was worth more than the money; he apologized, acknowledged it had been wrong of him to ask what he asked in the text, and promised to pay me back after all. Then a day or two later, I suppose to prove to me how poor he was, "A" texted me a screenshot of his bank account balance: $2 and change. I felt awful for him, I truly, truly did. At the same time, I recognized his further attempt at emotional manipulation.

I recounted this story to a few close friends, one of whom is facing a similar situation with her former roommate. One of my friends wrote me an incredibly encouraging, build-me-up kind of email. Being the emotional wreck I was at the time (knowing in my mind that I was doing the right thing, not being a jerk, etc, yet not truly feeling that in my heart), I greatly appreciated the support. However in replying to her email, I realized I wasn't 100% sure if the debt I'd tried to forgive was for the remaining loans, or for the loans+rent. It's a niggling fear I had had since that dinner conversation with my parents, but until writing this particular reply email, I had not investigated. The distinction is important because it's one thing to forgive a few hundred dollars (again, worth it, just to be done with the whole situation), but if the rent money was also involved, now we were talking about a much higher number.

Unable to shake the fear I'd made a mistake (and yes, "fear" is absolutely the right word here), I spent well over an hour digging through all my emails to and from "A", and then every. single. deposit in every. single. bank account, to figure out exactly what had been repaid and when.

And that's when I realized I dun goofed: for the past year, every time I emailed "A" asking for repayment updates, I had told him the wrong number, and completely forgotten about rent money owed.

Major. Oops. As in, multiply "A"'s outstanding debt by more than three.

I felt awful. Not only had I made a terrible mistake, and repeated that mistake in no fewer than four emails sent to "A," but also this was yet one more case of him taking advantage of me. That rent should have been paid in full over a year ago, and it should never have been my responsibility to hound him about it.

With my parents' help, I crafted an email to "A", documenting what I'd found, and also asking, almost begging, if he had records of paying the rent that could prove me wrong (I so desperately wanted to be wrong). If not, then I formally retracted my previous offer of debt forgiveness: "I was willing to forgive the $<small money> in order to put this ordeal behind us and move on. However, with the new amounts, forgiving $<small money> will no longer accomplish that goal." I asked him to repay the full amount he owes me by August 1, 2013.

Within minutes, "A" replied that he didn't remember ever talking about rent.

... Excuse me?

And thus once again I found myself speechless. As my Mom put it, "He’s going to make this tough on you."

I replied to "A" that what he'd claimed "is completely untrue" and reminded him that I have a signed agreement with his signature with the rent amount clearly spelled out.

That evening, while I was at band rehearsal, "A" left me a voicemail asking if we could talk on the phone, as he had some questions about the numbers. Though I dreaded the phone call, I knew it might be easier to explain the math verbally than through writing. However, for my own protection, I put my phone on speaker, and used my voice recorder to record the call - if "A" insisted on deviating from written communication, I darn well was going to have a record of what was said. As I understand it, Minnesota law did not obligate me to disclose to "A" that the call was being recorded (MN Statutes 626A.02 Subd. 2.d), but I did tell him anyway.

Our phone call lasted roughly three minutes, during which I repeatedly asked "A" if he understood the numbers. He repeatedly confirmed that he did (so, why are we talking, then?). And then, this happened:

A: Where's our friendship stand?

J: Um. I- I don't really know how to even answer that, "A".'ve made it pretty clear where you stand with the friendship, and that is that you don't respect me, and that you are going to continue to take advantage of me, so, I think that you've made it pretty clear where the friendship is, and I guess I don't have anything to add to that. So. Sorry. ....

I was proud of myself, for standing up for myself. I called my parents right away to discuss the phone call, and during our conversation "A" texted me and asked "Can you please call me back once more. I forgot something."

Now began the real sob story. "A" tried to get another psych session out of me. This phone call lasted almost 10 minutes, during which, I really stood up for myself. When "A" asked me to help him understand, help him think clear so he can fix himself, I replied:

Well, "A" my honest opinion ... is the same as a year and a half ago: you need professional help; ... I did my best to listen to your issues when you were here as my roommate, but you continually did not take my advice, and continued to pour out the same problems day after day without changing, and from the sounds of it you haven't gotten better ... there's not really anything I can do for you, because everything I can do I've already tried. I thought that I was doing you a favor by giving you the loans and by helping you get your own place, ... but it's been a year and a half to pay back, frankly, not that much money... I'm sorry if that sounds cold and harsh, I really am; I feel for you and my heart does break for you, because you're not in a good place. But you need professional help and I cannot be that person.


My recommendation for you, which I know you won't take because you never do .... go work at Starbucks, go work at McDonald's. Starbucks is nice because after a few months they have benefits, they have health insurance, and they pay more than minimum wage. So, go find a job like that, get out of the church, do whatever you need to do to make yourself healthy again.

(he protests, and starts tangenting)

"A" I'm not going to let this conversation get drawn out into another 2-hour sob fest. Sorry. Calling it like it is. I put up with that enough when you were living here, and I cannot allow myself to get back into that position again. [I reiterate my previous points] I can't help you anymore. I'm sorry. I wish you well. I hope that things work out. I will be praying for you, for whatever small bit that is worth. But there's nothing else that I can do for you.

At this point he asks if he agrees never to contact me again, if we could go back to having the debt forgiven; I explain that's no longer an option, because the amount actually owed is more than three times what I thought I was forgiving in the first exchange. I say "I'm sorry. It sucks," but I also explain I'm not asking him to pay me back immediately, noting that he could even wait until July 31 (the day before my August 1 cutoff), and that'd be great! He doesn't need to go out of his way right now to pay back money he doesn't have. I continued:

I'm not trying to be a monster. I am asking you to be an adult.... I think that 7 months [between now and August 1]... is a reasonable amount of time to be able to get a full time job, and get a little bit back in savings, and to be able to repay that amount of money.... At that point it will have been 24 months, and I think that is far more reasonable than what most people would do in this situation.


I'm sorry for the tough love. I really am. I want to see you get better. But you're not going to get better if I continue to let you take advantage of me. And you're also not going to get better unless you seek out professional help. That's my opinion.

This phone call was emotionally draining. "A" truly had put me in a lose-lose situation. Even though I realize his problems are not my fault, it's just plain hard when you have to say these kinds of things to another human being. But it needed to be said, because he hasn't changed, he hasn't grown up. Even so, I feel that I became a bad guy.

After 18 months, I finally stood up for myself. And it sucked. But it was what needed to be done.

I went to bed feeling a complex mixture of emotions, mostly negative toward myself, and was drained. I kept praying, "God, I'm sorry I'm not You. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." As someone who professes to want to follow Christ's example, I experienced, and continue to experience, major feelings of failure. The situation's not even my fault, but God, I am so sorry.

I also went to bed that night with a fuller understanding of why people stay in abusive relationships, not wanting to get out. If it was this hard for me, even when I know I'm physically safe from repercussions... The worst part about emotional abuse, is that you can't see the scars left behind.

In the first Jurassic Park, John Hammond has two lines that really sum it all up:

I'm sorry about your financial problems, Dennis, I really am, but they are your problems.... I don't blame people for their mistakes. But I do ask that they pay for them.

The facts are: I'm a genuinely kind human being who tried to help someone I thought was a friend. He took advantage of me, emotionally and financially. And I didn't understand the distinction between helping, and letting someone take advantage of me, until it was too late.

To anyone else out there who finds yourself in a relationship like this, call me and we can commiserate. As much as it sucks doing it, I encourage you to stand up for yourself. Accept the fact that you are not being the "bad guy" by walking out on that relationship. When the other person puts you in a lose-lose situation that is not your fault.

It is not my fault.

Maybe some day I'll believe that for myself.


Mom said...

"It is not my fault. Maybe some day I'll believe that for myself."

Believe it.

Jeremy Gustafson said...

After reading this post, my friend Bernadett shared her thoughts on FB, which I'd like to immortalize here as well:

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you". This topic has been coming up a lot in my personal life, and in the lives around me. Some people follow this golden rule, some do not. Some people are givers, some takers, most are balanced by being a little of both. When you give freely your love, time, money, advice, etc... you are extending your grace and distributing the gifts you have been given that overflow from within you unto another. This my friends, can make the world go round, and it is wonderful! However, once in a while there are people that come into our lives that manipulate our good nature and take advantage of our generosity- making us feel like fools. But what happens next is the most unfortunate thing of all. As a fool, we begin to harden our hearts, retract our trust, and fold in our hands that we used to hold out so innocently and so purely. Have the "takers" ruined us? Have they made us lose our innocence, our charity, our compassion, our consideration, and have they blocked our blessings against those in the future who might truly need and/or deserve our love, time, money, advice, friendship, etc? Do not allow yourself to be ruined. Do not live your life in regret because you did what your heart called you to do. Be proud that you were capable of giving away such a beautiful gift to someone in need. And be sorry and pray for them that they were not thankful beings. We want to become the best version of ourselves, not the worst. Let's not worry about who will stab us in the back next, let's celebrate and focus on those who have our backs now! "To thine own self be true." That is our legacy. That is how we move forward.

Warmth and Peace~ Bernadett Belinda York