I moved into a supportive apartment with two roommates. One is wonderful. The other one drinks and sleeps a lot and doesn't do his share of the chores. This person also gets very drunk and sometimes verbally abusive. What can we do?
(Column: Ask the Therapist)
Living with an Abusive Person
Rita Seiden, C.S.W., Ph.D., Executive Director, Park Slope Center for Mental Health
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You should not have to put up with a roommate who is abusive in any manner. Since the three of you have histories of mental illness (just to qualify for supportive housing) you may have been socialized in various mental health settings to the idea that you have to tolerate the "bad" behavior of another ill person. But there should be a limit to what you are expected to tolerate. Don't feel guilty if you want to "turn him in" to the caseworkers supervising your housing. You are not doing him a favor by putting up with him; he is not getting well by drinking and avoiding his obligations -- whether for chores or in social relationships.

Many psychiatrically ill people use other people's drugs or alcohol to medicate themselves, or because they are addicts (compulsive users), or both. Anyone taking prescribed psychiatric medicine and drinking is on a self-destruct mission. Many psychiatric medicines "potentiate" the effect of alcohol -- meaning, you get drunker (and everything associated with drunkenness) quicker. He also runs the risk of killing himself. You may not be able to rescue your roommate from self-destruct, but you don't have to live with it and its encroachment on your own well-being. If you tolerate his behavior, you run the risk of being somewhat responsible for permitting his self-destruction.

Some of the burden of living more independently is taking responsibility for the quality of your own life and for those less fortunate and less able to care for themselves. You need to let your caseworker know. If you know who is providing mental health treatment for your roommate, you need to let that person know also. "Telling" on your roommate is a favor to everyone who cares about him and who is assuming some responsibility for him. Your caseworker may not see him when he is drinking. Like most of us, he would be on his best behavior in front of the caseworker. His mental health clinician may never witness his drunkenness or abuse, and will find it impossible to act in a protective way.

I think the mental health system has patronized those who are ill by tolerating behavior which can be controlled. Don't patronize your fellow sufferers by doing the same thing. You probably had to "shape up" to get into supportive housing and to have a future. Why shouldn't you show your love for this roommate by requiring the same of him?
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