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I’ve always lived with other people (aka roommates) in order to save money. For me, it was a must rather than a choice.
I’d love to live alone in a studio or a one-bedroom apartment, but my bank account didn’t like that idea.
For the past 12 years, I’ve had close to 20 female roommates. While I got along well with most of them, some turned out to have mental illnesses (i.e. bipolar, depression).
They were all very intelligent and well educated. But sometimes (or most of them time) they just couldn’t function like a normal human being both emotionally and physically.
If a roommate with no mental illness lies or does something wrong, I know they’re fully aware of their actions. I know they do it on purpose, and that they are the one to blame.
However, if a roommate is mentally unstable, sometimes they have no control over their emotions or actions.
Although I don’t like certain things that they do, I feel conflicted as to how to treat them.
On the one hand, I feel bad for the roommate and want to help them.
On the other hand, I have problems I need to deal with in my life and don’t want to face trouble whenever I go home.
What are the symptoms?
1. Mood swing
Oftentimes they would be really happy talking to me about the little things in their lives, laughing to themselves or smiling nonstop for no reason. Next thing you know it, they would scream on the phone every night in their rooms or start yelling at you for no reason.
Sometimes I even wondered if they were imaging the whole thing. They thought they were screaming at someone on the phone, but in fact they were just screaming at themselves.
That thought really scared me at night. What if they imaged that someone was telling them to do something bad to me? There were times when I lay in my bed hearing them screaming and wondered if they’d run to my room banging on the door with a knife in their hand. Fortunately, that never happened.
2. Suicidal thoughts
One roommate once told me she wanted to kill herself. I freaked out and told her to get professional help. Luckily, she did. But she would tell me she had that thought from time to time.
Sometimes I pictured what I would do if they committed suicide in our apartment. I just tried my best to force that thought out of my head.
3. Frantic talking
Once they started talking about something, they wouldn’t stop. And they would repeat same topic day in and day out until I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I know you might think they were just talkative. But trust me, when you see someone talking without taking a breath about the same story 5-6 times within an hour, you’ll know it’s not normal.
One roommate kept saying there were people following her everywhere and trying to steal stuff from her room and her car. None of us saw anything suspicious or had our stuff stolen although we lived in the same house.
At first, we believed that roommate. But as time went by and through a series of her angry, erratic, and paranoid emails, we gradually realized it was all in her head.
What to do?
At first, the other roommates and I did sit down and discuss what we could do to help the roommate who had a mental illness.
Should we take her our to dinner and gently help her realize her unusual behavior (i.e. frantic talking)? Should we just avoid her altogether? Should we just move out? Should we ask her to move out instead?
Of course, we all want to help a friend in need. But when it’s beyond our control and ability, there’s not much we can do to assist them. After all, they need professional help and medications.
The best way to get out of the situation is just to move out or have the roommate move out. However, it’s not always feasible. In the end, these are the ways I have tried to cope with a mentally unstable roommate.
1. Be polite and only make small talk
Although deep down I didn’t want to talk to the roommate to avoid trouble (i.e. them yelling for no reason), I found out that the safest way to avoid an outburst was to be polite.
I’d say ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ and make small talk. But I tried to limit the conversation to a minimum.
It’s not that I didn’t want to communicate with the roommate. However, many times a casual talk would turn into them screaming at me about things that went wrong in their lives.
I saw enough and had enough of that. For my own sanity, I chose to be polite but not to engage in a long conversation with them (no more than 5 minutes).
2. Keep a physical distance
The second way is to stay in my own room and not go out to the common space when they were at home.
If we were cooking in the kitchen at the same time, I’d apologize for not being to talk much because I was busy. As soon as I was done cooking, I’d take the meal to my room and eat it there.
3. Use earplugs
A couple of foam ear plugs retailed for less than $5 helped me a great deal in keeping out the roommate’s late night screaming.
In the beginning, I’d knock on her door and gently remind her. She would stop that day. But it happened so frequently that one time I had an argument with her about courtesy.
Then I realized she may not have even realized what she was doing, so I just dealt with the situation with a pair of ear plugs.
Sometimes I feel like having a roommate is like winning a lottery. Before you enter into the deal, you just have little or no idea what you’re getting yourself into.
I’ve won that lottery many times. But I’ve also been dealt a bad hand. At the end of the day, I felt bad for those roommates since they were going through something they themselves might have hated but couldn’t control.
Having unpleasant roommate experience is part of life, and I just had to deal with it and tried to prevent it from happening again.