Q. I’m a (very) single gal in her late 20s and I need some help dealing with an old flame who suddenly resurfaced in my life in an “interesting” way.
Years ago, when I was in college, I studied abroad. I had a blast, made friends that I’ll have for a lifetime, and learned a lot about myself in between a lot of sightseeing, partying, and flirting (I’m a sucker for accents). Early into my trip, I met “Hugh,” and I fell hard. Coming from a US college scene rife with hooking up and casual encounters, he took me on my first “real date,” and I’ll admit that I got attached way too quickly. He didn’t treat me very well, always flirting but never taking steps forward, which I realized after a few weeks. I dated others while I was studying there, but not anyone that I had liked as much as him. After my study ended, we kept in touch very sporadically, and I did wind up seeing him in passing once or twice when I flew back to visit on a few occasions. However, I haven’t seen him in at least six years.
A few days ago, he made comment on one my Facebook statuses, which admittedly intrigued me, but I dismissed it quickly enough . . . until I got quite the e-mail. I guess you could call it a “cry for help.” He said he’d called in sick from work the last three weeks and had just had “a serious mental breakdown.” He claimed to need changes and a break from his current situation, without an explanation of the details. He then said he was looking into a trip stateside and perhaps even a job here . . . in my city!
It took me a while to process it (I’m admittedly bad with surprises). I think he’s expecting a response soon on my thoughts, but I’m not sure how to respond. I’m obviously worried for him and plan to ask him if he’s sought help from friends or a professional. I also don’t know what he wants from me. Sure, the idea of an old flame who I was infatuated with returning into my life is intriguing, especially to that naive, romantic part of my nature that fell for him in the first place, but not in this context. Plus, it’s been six years. I’ve grown up a lot. I know now how much better I deserve.
So I need some help with how to respond. I’m worried about him, so I don’t want to ignore him. I wouldn’t mind meeting up with him if he visited, but very casually and without any pretense. However, I don’t want to give either of us a false impression of some great transatlantic romance growing out of this either. Help.
A. You have the right instincts about Hugh, at least when it comes to your response, CFR. You can tell him that you hope that he reaches out to a professional. You can advise him to stay close to friends and family. You can assure him that you wish him the best.
As for the rest of it, keep silent. There’s no need to chat him up about a possible move to your area. Don’t offer to host him. If he shows up and wants to see you, you can be busy. Or you can bring a friend. Or you can meet in a very public place for 25 minutes. You should maintain the tone of a kind, unavailable acquaintance, which is exactly what you are.
My assumption is that when he doesn’t get the kind of attention he wants from you, he’ll look elsewhere. But if he does continue to engage, please keep him in perspective and maintain boundaries. You mention in your first paragraph that you’re “(very) single” and that Hugh has confused you in the past. You went out of your way to see him during visits abroad, despite the fact that he never treated you very well. Perhaps we should stop calling him Hugh, which makes me picture a floppy-haired charmer. Instead, let’s call him Mr. Didn’t Treat Me Very Well. That’s who he is. Please don’t forget it.
What he needs is therapy and meds. He can’t run from his problems and he shouldn’t expect to burden you with them. Tell him nicely and politely that you’re concerned for his well-being and that you suggest he finds a therapist to talk to and that you wish him well.
Why you are so torn up over an e-mail from someone who treated you poorly over six years ago is beyond me. The scary part — you sound like you are happy he is considering moving to your town! You need to politely tell him you hope he gets the help he needs and then be busy. VERY busy. It sounds like you have the mindset to get sucked into a complete disaster. Stop it now.
No one calls in sick for three weeks. I bet he got fired. He sounds like a hot mess. I’d keep my distance. You can’t rescue him.
I have fallen for the dashing foreign guy who treated me like crap. And he was depressed. And he came to my town . . . and do you know what he did? As soon as he snapped out of feeling depressed he . . . broke my heart. Just don’t.
I get the sense this is the most exciting thing that’s happened to you in a while. If he were “just a friend” you would write back and say “would be great to see you for a cup of coffee when you’re stateside. Give me a call when you get here.” And that would be the end of it.
I somehow imagine that you would be willing to be tied up and fed to a writhing pile of poisonous snakes if I asked you nicely in a British accent.
He sounds like he is under tremendous stress and his mind has wondered off into fantasyland to relieve it. You are very wise to stay grounded. Be supportive, be helpful, but do not be enticed to be more than a friend. This is like saving a drowning person – approach with caution and make sure in his panic he does not pull you under as well.
HEYITHINKColumn and reader comments are edited and reprinted from www.boston.com/loveletters. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe
.com. She chats online on Wednesdays at 1 p.m.