“The most memorable people in life will be the friends who loved you when you weren’t very loveable.”
For those suffering from mental illness, this quote holds especially true. At one point or another everyone has had a falling out or lost touch with someone they cared about – that’s life. For people with mental illness, though, this is often a painfully common occurrence that can’t necessarily be chalked up to typical issues surrounding “growing up.”
Over the years I have seriously damaged numerous relationships and have managed to successfully chase away both friends and lovers in large part due to the manifestations of my own mental illness. While I take full responsibility for the part I played in the downfall of these relationships, I also believe many of these fall-outs could have been prevented with a little extra compassion, understanding, and communication. So for those who are currently navigating the euphoric highs and tumultuous lows of loving someone with mental illness (bless you), here are some Do’s and Don’ts to live by:
1. Offer simple solutions.
Meditation? Tried it. Yoga? Still do it. Eat a healthy diet? You bet. Medicine? Been on it half my life. Sleep 8 hours a night? Psh, at least. Guess what…I’m still bipolar.
I once even heard someone say that sex can cure depression. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for a romp in the sack to make you feel better after a bad day, but when we’re talking about clinical depression – a diagnosable mental illness – sex ain’t gonna cut it. No matter how good it is.
2. Tell them they aren’t sick.
Mental illness carries with it a heavy stigma, and because of that a lot of people think that calling someone mentally ill is an insult. I can still remember a conversation I had with my college boyfriend in which I referred to myself as mentally ill and he responded “No, you’re not.” While I could see that he was trying to be kind and comforting, what he said felt invalidating, and left me feeling even more alone and misunderstood than I already did.
You would never deny the reality of a person’s physical illness. If someone told you they had diabetes, you wouldn’t respond by telling them not to talk about themselves that way. Doing so to a person with mental illness takes away from the validity of what they are experiencing, and suggests that they have some kind of choice in the matter.
3. Try to relate (if you can’t).
If you have never suffered from a mental illness, please, dear God, do not try to tell someone who has that you understand what they are going through. Going through a nasty breakup is not the same as being clinically depressed. Getting nervous – even to the point of nausea – about an important job interview is not the same as having anxiety. Going on a crash diet is not the same as having an eating disorder. PMS-ing or having mood swings is not the same as being bipolar. Etcetera and so on. Just don’t.
4. Try to save them.
We aren’t charity cases, damsels in distress, helpless, weak, or in need of saving. If anything, mental illness has made me a stronger, more independent woman capable of rescuing my own damn self. We want you to love us, listen to us, support us, and during particularly difficult times we absolutely want you to help us – at least until we can help ourselves – but what we do not want is for you to put on a metaphorical superhero cape and swoop in and try to save us.
Now, I am NOT saying that if you see one of your loved ones struggling that you should sit idly by and watch them drown; which brings me to my “Do” list…
1. Support them.
I am lucky in that I have people (other than my therapist) who I can talk to when I am struggling – but I didn’t always know that. There have been times in my life when I was rapidly spiraling down into a pit of depression and no one stopped to ask me if I was okay, whether that was because they were hundreds of miles away and couldn’t see that I was self-medicating, sleeping all day and going days without showering, or they could see all those things but just didn’t know how to approach me about it or were afraid of hurting my feelings.
A significant aspect of being depressed is genuinely feeling like no one gives a shit about you; it’s the worst kind of loneliness you could possibly imagine and its part of what leads people to believe that suicide is a viable option. Therefore you can’t always expect your loved ones who are struggling with mental illness to reach out to you when the time comes that they need your help. If you see them drowning, throw them a life raft – ask how you can help. It may seem like an awkward conversation to bring up at the time, but it could save their life.
2. Know that they aren’t their diagnosis.
Mental illness can play a huge part in shaping the person you become. After all, it does affect the way you think, feel, and behave. That said, mental illness does not define a person, nor is it the most interesting or important part of a person. Believe it or not, we neurodivergent types have interests, hobbies, passions and habits that have absolutely nothing to do with our diagnosis. We are not our symptoms.
3. Love them.
My junior year of college I experienced a particularly shitty episode of major depression that lasted for most of the year. I honestly don’t even remember most of that period of my life – that’s how f*cked up I was. One of the distinct memories I do have, though, is of the boy I was dating at the time coming into my bedroom one day and finding me lying on my bed in a sobbing heap. For several minutes I wouldn’t speak a word to him as he continued to ask me what was wrong, until finally I snapped at him something about how I was depressed and “that’s what depressed people do” (melodramatic, much?). What he said next was absolute perfection: nothing. He just sat on my bed with me, holding me and letting me cry and snot all over his t-shirt until I was finally able to calm myself down.
That is love. And in that moment, that was all I needed.