The Friend Manual: Part I

Part II
Part III
Part IV 

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!

The Friend Manual: Part I

30 thoughts on “The Friend Manual: Part I

  1. 5

    Oh yes, I hate the “Oh yeah, I have days where I feel down too” thing. Do you have days where you feel like you’re watching your own life through a video game, and you are absolutely paralysed and helpless with sorrow? You don’t? Then stop pretending that sadness and depression are the same thing.

    1. 5.1

      Yeah. It’s like… no, your temporary sadness does not have any meaningful comparison to the suicidal ideation that has plagued me for 15 years. Have your down days ever led you to be sequestered in a locked ward against your will? Has your diet ever led you to burst into tears in a grocery store because the thought of dealing with food was too overwhelming? No? Then I think we have very little in common in this regard.

      The biggest thing I ask from friends is that they don’t make that comparison, unless they actually have depression/an eating disorder.

      1. Ugh, crying while grocery shopping. I’m glad it’s not just me. In my case it’s not so much not being able to deal with food as too many people, too much echo, packaging too confusing and bright, can’t decide how to go up and down the aisles… Shopping is one of my major triggers. Most days I’m like a shopping ninja, but on a bad day, just DNW.

        I don’t want to minimise the issues my friends face, but I think it’s important for them to know that depression is a medical condition with very specific emotions and behaviours. Being sad because your cat died, while a very valid and important type of sadness, is not depression*.

        *Although bereavement can lead to deprssion, obvs.

        1. I’m glad I’m not the only one too! (I mean… sort of, you know.)

          I try to explain to people. Even besides the whole “food is evil” thing, there are fifty kinds of peanut butter. And you have to go through a checkout line with the lights and confusing slidey cards and people waiting, etc. For some reason, this does not seem to speak for itself to most people.

          Internet hugs, if you accept such, and a respectful bow if you do not.

          1. Indeed I do, and hugs warmly returned!

            That’s exactly it. I like Sunpat crunchy. I only ever buy Sunpat crunchy. The vast majority of days this is not complex. I find the peanut butter I want and I am off to my next acqusition. On evil days, I am just overwhelmed by the concept that there are so many kinds of peanut butter and stand helplessly in front of the vast array of jars. And then face the same thing for the other 39 items on my list.

            Much too difficult.

        2. That sounds similar to experiences I often have when shopping, especially for multiple items (e.g., groceries). It’s almost like a sensory overload and I can’t pay attention to everything all at once. Usually pushing a cart helps, because it gives me some sense of control over the situation.

          Also internet hugs!

    2. 5.2

      The classic one for me is “oh, you just need to talk more”.

      Um, excuse me, but are you paralyzed for five minutes turning over what to say in the first place? Do you suddenly feel utterly petrified when you step into any new place and interact with any new person alone, even if it’s so much as going to the store? I fucking doubt it, or you wouldn’t be giving me that non-advice.

  2. 8

    A colleague’s wife is currently suffering with depression and there are two people who keep saying, ‘I had depression and I did X, if she just did X like I did she’d get over it’. It makes me want to scream.

    I think Steven Novella’s definition explains it well when he says that all mental illnesses are on a spectrum, ranging from typical to atypical. Symptoms aren’t univeral in manifestation or severity.

    1. 8.1

      A colleague’s wife is currently suffering with depression and there are two people who keep saying, ‘I had depression and I did X, if she just did X like I did she’d get over it’. It makes me want to scream.

      Indeed! It’s one thing if someone simply offers a “Hey, this worked for me. Maybe this will work for you, too?” and then lets it drop once you tell them you’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. But insisting that “Solution X worked for me, therefore it will work for you” is ignorant, arrogant, insensitive, and really quite unlikely to be true. I know a guy who does this, to me and others, all the f*cking time and it’s annoying to the point of me wanting to tell him to STFU. He has all the proper cred, so to speak – he’s been hospitalized more than once for his mental illness, he has a similar diagnosis to mine and the others I mentioned – but he’s relentless with his ‘this is the solution for everyone.’ He’s also ignorantly anti-medication. So he’s not only convinced of the solution, but also of the non-solution. Like I said, arrogant, ignorant, insensitive, and probably wrong.

  3. 9

    I was talking with a friend about why I quit a job, and I would always say “well, I wish I could go back to that job but it was really traumatic…” I ended up having to say “I don’t like when others define my experiences for me” because he wanted to come at me with “oh it wasn’t that bad.. stop making excuses.” We just moved on and talked about music or something. He started up again yesterday (stoners like him have bad memories) and I had to end the friendship.

    These are also warning signs:
    “You think I don’t have the exact same problem?”
    “I see myself in you” or “I was like you once.”
    “You need to….” or “You should…”

    Things that have been helpful for me:
    – “you seem ___” (different, sadder, more tired, nervous)
    – even “you have issues” (it seems insulting on the face of it but it’s actually really respectful to be upfront about that opinion)
    – “you look ___”
    – “I really liked when we did ___”

    I think there’s a noticeable difference, one is about what is (helpful), and another is about what should be (controlling). Friends can be helpful for feedback. Sometimes all the above can help but they have to be done with consideration.

  4. 10

    I have a fair amount of experience with friends under going depression, eating disorders, and similar. But I’m currently struggling to maintain a friendship with someone who is, apparently, a pathological liar.

    Would you consider this a similar mental illness? Rather than considering her a person with a mental illness, most seem to think of her as a liar and a ‘bad person’. She makes friends very easily, but loses them again as soon as they realize she’s been lying to them about everything. Seems every time I meet someone who knows her they have something bad to say.

    Are they wrong to be so offended? Is it possible to be real friends with someone like that? The realization nearly destroyed our friendship, and continues to put a big strain on it. I deal with it mostly by talking to her about inconsequential things like TV shows such, but that’s hardly a solution.

    1. 10.1

      I’ve known two people in my life who might be considered “pathological” liars. IMO what has happened to these people is that early in their lives they learned to lie as a defense against something, like family or school abuse. Later in life, they are so versed in lying that it becomes second nature, almost as if they prefer to lie instead of telling the truth. Sometimes it’s blatant lies, as if they want to let you in on it. The first person I knew said he palled around with Donald Trump and had a Phd in Nuclear Physics, both patent lies. The second person I knew had been abused by her father and was a far more subtle liar.

      Not sure exactly what to “do about” them. I think they would first need to come to understand just how much damage they’re causing themselves. The fist step is for them to admit they have a problem, as in addiction.

  5. 11

    Great list. I’d add one more point (although it’s in a sub-class of trying to be a therapist), and that is: Don’t suggest new therapies that you read about in a magazine/on the news/in a pamphlet at your local health food shop. Most people think they’re helping when they do this, but they don’t understand that people with chronic illnesses (and not just in mental health) get bombarded with crappy information from well-wishers who know nothing about the illness or the evidence (or lack thereof) for the treatment they are enthused about. Essentially what they’re saying is “I know nothing about your condition or this suggested treatment, but if I pressure you to put in the effort of researching and/or trying it, then I get to feel good about myself.”

  6. 12

    This was helpful. Thanks. In recent years I have become friends with a few people, whom I love dearly, who have shared with me that they are bipolar. My first instinct was that the last thing I wanted to do was be all therapy sounding and condescending, so I really do try to avoid the “oh me too!” talk. What I discovered is that I do that anyway, with everyone. It is hard for me to curb, but I do my best. My latest issue with myself is that I don’t have a very good sensor button. Let me give an example. I was talking about an old acquaintance who had ultimately, faded from my life, but who had done some pretty hurtful things to people I loved at the time. In the conversation I mentioned she had been a cutter. I spit out the information with what I’m sure must have sounded like a pretty derisive dismissal. When my friend said, “Was she a real cutter, or just an attention cutter?” At which point she showed me her scars. I felt like such a wanker. At first I thought about qualifying it with comments about what kind of person she had been. But decided that I was best off just apologizing and explaining that I had a hard time wrapping my head around that particular behavior. That my difficulty in understanding it probably translates poorly to someone who knows the feeling. Or that maybe I start from a place that assumes I’ll get a certain reaction and I alter my delivery to a sort of default position. At any rate I felt like a doofus and was wondering what a better tact may be. (Of course now that I’ve written this I think the better tact would be to never make assumptions about how anyone will react to anything and to take my own prejudices out before I begin to speak.) That is hard for me. I tend to speak before I think a good bit. It is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that even if I am not offended by something it doesn’t mean that others are equally un-offended. I love these people in my life and really just want to be a good friend for them, ultimately. I look forward to the rest of your suggestions.

  7. 13

    As a long time sufferer of such things as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem among other things, I can tell you that this list hits the nail right on the head.

    For me, what helps me most is to have someone just simply listen. You don’t have to solve my problems for me, you don’t even have to understand them, but if I work up the courage to actually speak about what’s gotten me into my latest spiral, all I need from you is that you care enough to really listen to me. That alone helps me more than all the therapy in the world and all the meds there are.

    I am lucky enough to have found a partner who does exactly that. She doesn’t understand my depression, nor does she offer her opinion unless I ask her to, but she does understand that I can’t be happy all the time. She also knows enough to make me spill the beans when I am exhibiting symptoms.

    And when I talk to her, she listens.

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