I am a friend to some lovely brilliant people with mental illness. I also have my own experiences with persistent brainfail, and some really wonderful friends who show up and give me hugs, talk me through the worst nights, and know that when I say I’m not doing so well and need space…I really need space right then and there.
I also have acquaintances who cannot do this. For them, when I want to say “I am incapable of normal interaction right now, please come back later.”, what actually comes out of my mouth is “Oh man, I have a really bad headache.” I am sure that these people, who have always meant well–and include Don’t You Know That’s Bad For You Person and Sometimes I Forget To Eat Too Person–would be shocked, shocked to hear that they’ve said tactless things. After all, that’s how it works–you don’t realize.
Don’t want to be that person?
Have a friend with mental illness?
(Chances are, you probably do.)
Want to make your friend feel like a valued part of society that you care for? If the answer to this is no, artist Ologies has this for you.
With that idea in mind, I’ve put together some basic ideas for being the best human being you can for someone who’s just told you they have Disorder X.
A Most Important Caveat: It may be that your friend has no interest in discussing anything past the original disclosure. Please make sure to continually check that they are comfortable answering questions….and emphasize that they can tell you to stop at any time, or refuse to answer personal questions they are uncomfortable with. When I feel that I cannot leave or postpone conversations once they’ve begun, I will do anything to prevent them from starting in the first place. Safe spaces aren’t safe when they don’t have an exit.
1. Words Matter More Than Anything
So they found the words to tell you how they feel? Pay attention. Words are the best way we know to get others inside our heads, and the words they use to describe their experience are the most important tools they are giving you. She feels fragile? That’s not the same as depressed. So he is feeling depressed? That is not called feeling sad. I feel most understood and valued and listened-to when I hear someone work within the bounds of how I’ve described my feelings.
You said you were feeling like you had no momentum. Do you still feel like that? Will you feel better if I take you out to dinner and we catch a movie? Or would that make you feel like you have to pretend to be enjoying yourself?
2. Do. Not. Assume.
I know that one of the most basic human instincts is to relate to one another by shared experience. Do not try this.
So, you had that one friend with bipolar disorder that one time back at that one place? Cool story, bro. I can assure you that I am not that friend. In this particular example, there’s the problem that there’s two expressions of bipolar disorder. Didn’t know that? That’s cool. You don’t have to. All you have to know is that I am Me, and that Me is not the same as That Other Person With Disorder X.
3. You Don’t Have to Be Their Therapist
You know them so well, and if you could only get them to consider… No.
Stop right there.
I get it, and you do have a special frame of refernce, but Stop It. Now. Make like a pumpkin and squash that feeling.
4. No, Really, Please Don’t Try to Be A Therapist
If you’re my friend, we have a give-and-take. Sometimes I listen to you talk about that one time you tried to explain an Important Thing to your mom/boyfriend/girlfriend/professor and they Just Didn’t Get It, and sometimes you listen to me grouch about my stressful day at work. We trade off on this, and if we didn’t, I would be a bad friend, and it would be totally fine if you called me on it, or just decided to find the right kind of friends.
This is not how therapy works. Therapists and counselors and psychologists get paid the fancy money to do things like get mad when their clients don’t do their homework and ask really personal questions, and as a result, their clients can expect that they will be given attention, that their problems will be the focus, and that if they don’t seem to be getting the right kind of help, they can fire the therapist. The friendships are far more complex, and as a result, you don’t get to fire your friends, and you don’t have to pay them.
5. I Mean It. You Aren’t A Therapist.
Really, if there’s anything you take away from all these words, let this be it. It will be painful, uncomfortable, and probably downright annoying. You aren’t qualified, and I’d rather have my friend.
What you can do is offer to find local counseling centers. Take me to my appointments if I can’t get there, or give really big hugs when I leave them and I still feel bad. There are therapists out there, and lots of them. Possession of a dusty degree in psychology or that one textbook from freshman year Intro Psych does not somehow negate your Friend Identity. Even if you were a therapist, you should never ever try to treat your friends. So really. Don’t do that.
I started this post, and suddenly I was sitting around with two thousand words on my computer. Part II will be coming soon–in the meantime, leave me suggestions for things I have left out or could have said better!