I recently stayed at a friend’s parent’s beach cottage and was placed in a difficult situation when I found a d*ldo in the nightstand. I knew it wasn’t mine but I didn’t want to leave it there in case it was found and my friend and her parents thought that it was. In the end I asked my young friend how many people had stayed in the cottage and, when she mentioned a long list of people, I showed her. Together we decided to throw it away.
The problem is that my friend, who is a staunch Christian, has got it into her head that it belonged to her mom and she is not coping with this idea. She suffers from an eating disorder and believes that sex is disgusting. This has made it even worse for her. She sees a therapist but the therapist does not do Christian-based therapy and thus is not helping too much. I feel awful for having shown her in the first place.
A Panicked Pal
Firstly: I think you handled the situation at the cottage as best as could be handled. You were honest with your friend and wanted to honor everyone’s reputation. Perhaps, if you had a do-over, you might decide to have just ignored it and let the matter go after hearing there was a long line of guests that had been at the cottage – but what’s done is done. I’m guessing I would probably have done the same thing.
However, you are now faced with seeing your friend have a very unhealthy, shame-based reaction to all this, which is very sad indeed. Even if her therapist is not Christian, as a professional she should be equipped to address some of the body-shame issues which underlie eating disorders. It’s a pity to hear that’s not happening.
This is the hard part: I don’t think there’s much you can do to help or fix this situation. It happened to both of you, and it can’t be undone. While you did show it to her, you are not responsible for her reaction to it. This is part of the difficulty in negotiating healthy relationship boundaries: learning the difference between saying “you made me feel this way,” and “when you did that, I felt this way.” Our instinct is to go for the first option, but that wrongly apportions emotional responsibility to people. The second way is better: you said something (and you are responsible for that), and then your friend felt a whole heap of shame and confusion (which are her emotions, for which she is responsible.)
It is not your fault that this incident has tipped her into a downward spiral. Where there are such deep hurts and shame wounds, there are any number of things which could trigger disproportionate responses: it could have been song lyrics, or a joke over dinner where someone wondered whether their elderly parents still had sex, or one of the latest romantic comedies watched with friends.
So: you can’t take it back, and you can’t take responsibility for her feelings. So what can you do? I think your only options as a friend are to apologize if you feel that you showed her something in error (responsibility for your own actions), and to lovingly point out to her that this incident seems to be causing her a disproportionate and unhealthy amount of anxiety (which is her responsibility) – particularly on the topics of sex and her mom. You could tell her that you care about her and from what you see, you think there’s more going on here than just her being horrified at the thought that it might have been her mom’s, and encourage her to talk this through with her therapist. And, you could say that if she didn’t feel like her therapist was helping her develop healthier perspectives on her body and sex, that you would support her if she needed help finding a better one.
And then? You pray.
I can just imagine how torn you must feel after all this. I wish I had a magic formula to make it better for you and your friend, but I don’t. This is part of the hard road your friend needs to walk in learning responsibility for her own emotions and moving towards health. I hope that in some way, your loving friendship and gentle encouragement as a friend who has walked through a triggering experience with her, will move her towards healing and wholeness.