As someone who struggles with a number of chronic mental illnesses, I often struggle to maintain friendships. If I’m honest, I’m not always the best friend in the world.
Having recently spent a great deal of time contemplating why that might be, I’ve come to realise that the people I’ve been friends with the longest have what seems to be an unusual level of patience and kindness towards me. Particularly when I find myself engaged in an internalised battle.
My longest-standing friends tend to be people with their own personal experiences of mental illness. I believe because they’ve fought similar battles to me, they understand better than most what I need.
We have zero expectations of each other. We recognise we may not be in contact daily because living with mental health problems can be draining. We also know that the other person may need extra support on any given day.
I’ve managed to narrow it down to four reasons why I get along so well with the few friends that I have. It also highlighted to me why other friendships have not stood the test of time.
Despite having had a decade to come to terms with my mental health conditions, I still battle an awful lot of internalised stigma. I’ll regularly tell myself that I shouldn’t be affected in a certain way by a particular occurrence. Unfortunately, people without experience of mental illness will echo those thoughts without me ever voicing them. I’ve often been told that I’m reacting disproportionately to something that to them seems like only a minor setback.
Meanwhile, the friends who understand my thought process will listen to me venting about a situation and say, “yeah, that sounds really tough”. It’s a relief. That validation of my feelings starts me on the track to feeling calmer, because it means I’m not going “crazy”. Somebody gets it and they’re telling me that my feelings are okay, and that they’re not “wrong” or “disproportionate” at all.
After an (apparently) “disproportionate” reaction to a “minor setback”, some people will trot out the enormously overused and unhelpful line of:
“Pull yourself together!”
This is always a fun one, because it inevitably sends me spiralling further into a panic. It’s virtually guaranteed that after hearing this, I’ll spend the night lying awake in bed, beating myself up and crying, because why couldn’t I just pull myself together? Why can’t I just get on with my life?
In complete contrast, other friends will offer words of encouragement such as:
“I believe that you can figure out what you need to do in this situation.”
They don’t tell me what they believe I should be doing, and that’s the key here. Instead, they leave the ball in my court. Sometimes they’ll offer helpful advice on how to figure out what to do, like making a list of the pros and cons of each possible solution to the dilemma I’m facing. If they have the time, they might even sit and help me tease apart the pros and cons, enabling me to elaborate on each point and helping me to find my words when I come up against a brain block.
I often feel silenced by some people. “If you’re not going to help yourself, why should I help you?” they might say. A statement like this will leave me floundering. I don’t know where to turn. I can’t sleep for stressing. I end up hiding from the issue altogether. There’s a good chance I’ll end up in a crisis.
My true friends – the people who have offered validation and encouragement – are often the ones who prevent me from spiralling into a crisis. They offer me compassion and support, telling me that they’ll be by my side and will support me no matter what happens. They let me know that I’m not going through this alone. Not as long as we’re friends.
If I need a distraction, they’ll call and we’ll talk about silly, arbitrary things. I’ll laugh, where before I picked up the phone, I probably couldn’t breathe for crying and panicking. If I need to scream and shout and vent, they’ll let me do so, be it over a phone call or by text. I no longer feel like I have to bottle up my frustrations.
Eventually, they’ll ask what can be realistically done about the issue at (usually in my case) such an early hour of the morning. “Nothing”, I’ll say.
It can probably wait until we’ve finished talking and I’ve calmed down enough to sleep. We would talk until we can’t keep our eyes open any longer, and then sleep. I would start the next day relatively well-rested, and with a more rational outlook on life.
4) Mutual understanding
If you can’t find the strength to help a friend in a particular moment, try not to ignore them. It’s important to let them know how you’re feeling too. For me, just knowing that I’m not alone in feeling rubbish can sometimes make me feel better. I think it’s because it helps to dispel the illusion of isolation that often comes with regularly being on the brink of a mental health crisis.
I also tend to be understanding when a friend doesn’t have the capacity to listen to my problems, because I know that I don’t always have the capacity to listen to theirs. Nobody can pour from an empty vessel, so looking after ourselves in times of crisis often has to take priority. It is important that we don’t neglect our own health in favour of somebody else’s, because in the long run, that doesn’t help anybody.
It’s not impossible to be a good friend to someone who is living with a mental illness. It may take some perceptual alterations, but it can be done. Take the time to listen to their fears. Try to understand why they’re panicking, but accept that they won’t always be able to give a reason as to why. Guide them rather than instructing them and give them a safe space in which to express their feelings, without the worry of judgement.
UK/MED/20/0069 March 2020