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Lying About Illness

Question:

I have a friend who claims to suffer from serious medical afflictions, primarily chronic kidney failure (culminating in the removal of her kidneys and bladder in 2002) and cancer (as a result of experimental medication she took related to the kidney disease). She has also had numerous illnesses (too numerous to mention) related to her condition or treatment thereof. Over the years I have known her, I (along with other acquaintances) have become increasingly suspicious of her claims – she has never allowed anyone to accompany her to the various hospitals, no one has ever met her doctors and she has been caught in several small lies. I am now 99% convinced that she is not as sick as she says she is, if at all. More recently, she began to suffer depression (she said that her adrenal glands had begun to bleed leading to a cortisol imbalance) and told me that she had been suicidal several times. I do believe that she may be depressed – she is very manipulative and her past behavior has engendered hostility from many of her colleagues/acquaintances. Her 2 closest friends (one of whom, I recently found, had similar doubts) have moved away and so I am her only friend at the moment. I am worried about what she may do, although it has entered my mind that she may be using this for manipulation. I have no idea how to handle the situation – I don’t even know whether she is aware of her behavior. I’m not sure I could directly confront her – not only do I worry about exacerbating her depression, but I find confrontation very difficult. Also, going by past arguments/discussions, she adamantly refuses to admit she is wrong in anything, and reacts by “shutting down” and refusing to respond. I would appreciate any advice you could give on how I should deal with her in order to get her help.

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Answer:

Your friend is probably ill, but perhaps not as she would have you believe (grin!). Simply put, some people are chronic, compulsive liars who make up and sustain fictions about themselves in order to gain sympathy and attention from others. A recent movie, “Shattered Glass”, details the havoc caused a few years ago at a national magazine when someone like this worked there as a reporter (making up fictions that the magazine published as truth). Such people get away with their lying for the most part because they are convincing enough, and because people around them don’t want to believe that they could be making it all up.

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p> It’s nice that you want to help your friend, but your realistic options for helping are limited. This woman is an adult and you could not compel her to get treatment even if you wanted to. It is also the case that this type of chronic lying problem is difficult to treat. As you point out, you could confront her, but it isn’t clear that doing so would have a good result, and you are not comfortable being confrontive. At issue here is whether you can remain friends with someone who you know to be deceptive. Only you can answer that question. In this woman’s defense, (assuming she is indeed a chronic liar), she is at some basic level soliciting your sympathy, perhaps in the best way she knows how. You were willing to give it to her when you thought she had physical maladies so why not consider extending her the same courtesy if she has psychological maladies? You have the option to remain friendly with this woman, enjoying her company for what it is worth, but to take what she says with a grain of salt. You could also stop talking to her (you must be feeling sort of angry at having been deceived and manipulated). Only you can pick the best course of action for you.

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