Bullish Life: What To Do About the Roommate From Hell

I once had a roommate who appeared to be drinking an entire case (24 cans) of Miller Lite every single night. One night, she threatened someone with a small knife. The next day, I asked her to leave.

When she was sober, she was totally reasonable. “Oh, I threatened someone with a knife! That is completely unacceptable! I’ll leave by Friday.”

I guess somewhere around the 23rd can of Miller Lite, it’s easy to forget society’s knife rules (cooking only!)

Here we have a letter from a writer whose roommate is a bit more troubled.

I have an ethical/practical dilemma with my housemate of three months. I’m 25, she is 23. We share a house that has fairly high rent (for students, anyway) and I adore the house. I have a job I work hard at and like, and generally work hard to do well at school. I used to be a poor, depressed no-starter, who fantasized about suicide and lived on vegemite toast (I’m in Australia). But when 2012 started I pulled myself out of my own self made hole and started university, worked very hard to be able to afford organic food, nice house, etc etc. I feel like I’ve worked bloody hard to maintain my current life and I am happy with it.

I brought this housemate in three months ago and she had just moved back to [city] after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship in [city], where she studied and lived with her spouse. I knew it would take her a few weeks to sort out job/school transfer/social life. But three months on she has only just started to apply for work. This is all fine. I recognized my former, lost self in her and wanted to give her a chance to get it together.

However she neglected to acknowledge that my housemate advert had said she needed to pay bond [a deposit] and seemed very confused. She was totally broke, so I poured half my savings (which is the first savings account I’ve had in my life) into paying her bond. I was annoyed but okay with it …. until she just..didn’t acknowledge I had done it. Never said thanks, or ‘I’ll pay you back once I have work’..just nothing. Then I offered to do a supermarket run for us both and she never paid me back, after saying she would. At this point I just resolved to not do her shopping again. She also took my food and never replaced it.

She also does zero house work unless her crush is coming over (so clearly, he is important enough to have a nice house for but I am not) and leaves mouldy dishes in the communal spaces.

I had been contemplating asking her to leave for some time now but just felt so guilty. The ethical dilemma comes in here: last week she attempted suicide by overdose. She also called the paramedics before passing out. I was woken up by the commotion. I haven’t seen her since. She has no family she is in contact with, basically no reliable support network that I know of. Rent is due in 3 days as well as $150 worth of bills. If I have to pay her share (given she is totally unreliable with paying me back) that will be ALL my money in the world.

The other thing is that I hate being surrounded by that sort of behaviour. I have done my time as a borderline alcoholic, had the police called on my parents, dated the abusive boys, cut myself, threatened suicide. I have truly moved past it and it feels very, very emotionally heavy to be witnessing it all now. It makes me feel like trash again.

So, I feel highly selfish worrying about things like my unpleasant memories, the drama, the money and the mess when she is feeling so bad. But every one around me has said ‘It’s not your problem, you can’t help, you’ve got to look after yourself, she is the only one that can help her.’ By the same token, it’s not fair of her to suck my resources (unwittingly, I assume/hope) and not do that much to help herself. I know from experience when you’re that deeply in a hole you can’t even see how to help yourself, though it may be obvious to others.

What is the appropriate course of action here?

I’m so sorry that this is happening to you! And I’m so glad you’ve gotten your life into such good shape. (Ironically, if you were still a mess, no one would even try to depend on you.)

I think the main thing you do in this situation is to act the same way you would act if you were in this situation but didn’t have any money at all to your name. Your personal savings is simply not on the table.


Here are a few ideas.

You say she’s estranged from her family, but once you try to commit suicide, you’ve crossed a line. Normally, it would be a violation of her boundaries to get in touch with her parents against her will, but when there’s an attempt on a human life (anyone’s), she’s already broken the social contract that protects those kinds of boundaries. Sure, maybe you try to talk to her about why she doesn’t talk to her parents. Maybe she has some other family members she likes more. But this is really the sort of thing that families are for (not roommates).

In terms of the shitty roommate stuff, you can always pull the classic move of putting her dirty dishes on her bed. (Maybe in a dishpan, to be nice.) You can put a lock on “your” kitchen cabinets, where you keep your clean dishes (and your food, for that matter). Or you could try to avoid conflict by spending $1.99 on some paper plates. You could mess with her a bit by keeping your crackers in the tampon box and your tampons in the crackers box, so at least she’ll have a harder time stealing your food. Mix a tremendous quantity of hot sauce into the Vegemite. (Hot sauce can’t actually hurt anyone. If she complains, she’ll be admitting stealing your food!) But of course small acts of mischief won’t solve the real problem.

But yes, you need to ask her to leave. I wrote a column once about helpful ways to phrase things in which I suggested, “It’s not possible.” This phrase avoids having to talk about feelings (“I feel like you don’t respect my contributions…” — it’s too arguable.) Saying, “It’s not possible for us to continue living together because I don’t have the money to cover for you” is just a fact.

That said, young people like yourself often do not realize just how much older people are ready and willing to help. Not just faraway advice columnists! It sounds like your own parents aren’t that helpful. But you’re both students, right? You have a dean (or whatever it’s called in Australia) and so does she. Universities are EXTREMELY interested in getting involved in students’ problems before those students commit suicide. Maybe you or she could be moved into university housing. Maybe there’s some kind of emergency assistance available. You need to put out a call for help ASAP to your dean, her dean, the campus health service, and anyone else at the university who may be helpful. I promise you that there is someone at your university who would be horrified to hear that you are dealing with this all by yourself. Universities are used to acting in loco parentis.

When I was in college, there was this guy who was really into me. I only liked him as a friend. I hadn’t had a computer in my house growing up, so I didn’t have any clue how to operate the new Mac sitting on my dorm room desk. This guy showed me how to do everything. I didn’t know you could install more software that you could download off the internet. I didn’t know that you could choose your own desktop image and that it could be about Star Trek! (Um, you can see why I might have been attracting nerdy guys.)

Some months into our friendship, I was learning more about computers and started poking around my hard drive. I found a text file that contained the text of all the emails (and school papers, and everything) I’d been typing over the last several days. I had made some new, even nerdier friends, so I asked some people about the file. It turned out that my “friend” had installed a keystroke recorder on my computer, and had changed some settings on my machine so he could access all my files remotely. So basically, this guy was reading everything I typed.

I confronted him about this (I was young, and it did not occur to me to go to a dean, or even the police). The order of the story gets fuzzy here. My “friend” admitted having installed a keystroke recorder. He also insisted that he loved me and that if I didn’t love him back, he would die. Then we all went home for winter break.

When we returned from winter break, my “friend” had lost a lot of weight, more than anyone should lose in 3 weeks. He was shivering, his hair was falling out. He was actually starving himself “for love.” Because I was about 19 years old, it did not occur to me to do anything that makes sense (like tell a trained professional) until very late in the game. All kinds of unnecessary hijinks occurred. I actually went to his dorm room to try to convince him that he had a reason to live! And that his body type was not important!

Around this point, I also found myself in a situation in which I was concerned that, if I didn’t do the exact right thing, someone would kill themself.


Finally, I did go talk to a dean. The university went on high alert. Action was taken. I don’t know what that action was, which seems appropriate. Presumably the guy got some kind of help. He also ended up transferring to another university.

My point? You haven’t done anything wrong, and adults want to help you.

Also, you live in a liberal democracy with more of a social safety net than we have. It is very likely that your roommate needs a social worker, and can possibly get some kind of disability allowance for mental illness. Maybe a call to a domestic violence shelter would result in a referral to appropriate resources. Surely there is some kind of local government mental health council.

Next, find out the rules for evicting roommates in your location. Generally, you have to go to court for these things, and it can take quite some time. (While I’m sure you can lock up your half of the dishes and let her use her own, dirty half of the dishes, the law in NYC, at least, strongly frowns upon changing the locks to the apartment, putting a lock on the bathroom, and other such dirty tricks.) Find out the legal procedure, which probably begins with asking your roommate, in writing, to leave within 30 days. This gives you some documentation for when/if you begin legal proceedings.

Finally: What’s the worst that would happen if you just walked away? You lose your deposit, you damage your credit, you have a hard time renting another apartment (unless you become someone else’s roommate), the landlord could keep coming after you for rent? I’m not saying these aren’t pretty terrible consequences. They are. But it’s helpful to put your finger on these consequences — and the actual probability of each one happening — so you are not afraid of some giant, nebulous bogeyman of badness that seems as though it would last forever and take over your whole life. Even very bad consequences are generally contained, both in terms of time and in terms of which segments of your life they affect. Even if ALL of the above happened, it wouldn’t affect your health, your schoolwork, or your love life, for instance. It would be terribly unfair if your credit were damaged due to no fault of your own, but that doesn’t last forever, either.

The other thing that this reminds me is, well … helping is really hard. Much harder than you would ever think. I mean, maybe you can go donate some supplies to a school and the kids will send you a thank-you note in crayon and you’re in and out and you feel great. Maybe. But most kinds of helping are much, much harder, and you just end up feeling ambivalent: good that you tried, but skeptical that you tried in the best way, and doubtful that the problem will get much better, ever. My friend Janice Erlbaum wrote a memoir about how even the most heartfelt attempts at helping can go very, very wrong.

I once went on a first date with a guidance counselor at an at-risk high school, and I commented on the low success rate for helping in general. I said, “It’s like if you actually help 25% of cases, you’re amazing.” He said, “Oh god, I wish it were 25%. Maybe 5%?” He then told me a story about advocating to get one of his students out of jail on parole. Thanks to his help, the student was back in school, where he then stabbed someone.

In contrast, helping wealthy people who are already really together is not only fantastically more lucrative, but much, much easier. Rewards in life are not doled out in response to mere effort. It greatly depends on where you allocate those efforts in the first place.

Personally, I have found that helping the saddest cases is not for me. I would rather work with moderately to highly functional people and then maybe donate money to causes that help the sorriest cases. Or, ideally, I would like the government to send out social workers. I do not want to personally be in the business of helping people who damage themselves, say they’re going to do things and then never (never!) do them, and can’t wash a damn dish. You don’t have to either. At least not for a mere acquaintance. Probably not for anyone but your own children. Your own mental health demands that this end.

Good luck!


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