The Friend Manual: Part II

Part II of the Friend Manual is all about what you can do to be a better supporter for your friend(s) who have mental illness. It’s not the Don’ts–it’s the Do’s!

You can find Part I of the Friend Manual in yesterday’s post.

6. Set Boundaries

You don’t have to be available for me at all times. As I might have mentioned, you aren’t my therapist. I might be really distressed and unable to take the hints you’re trying to lay out about the homework you need to do. So, instead of feeling like a doormat, take care of yourself.

Oh no, it seems like you need someone to listen. I’m not available right now, how about Friend X/therapist/counseling center? Will you be okay for the night if I call you at [name specific time] tomorrow morning? I’m not in the right place to be helpful to you right now, but I want to make you feel better.  When can I do that?

7. Be Really Specific

So you can’t hang out tonight? Awesome, because you know, you don’t have to be available at all times (See #6). Be extra-super specific about why.

I’m sorry I can’t talk right now–I promised Josie I’d have this apple pie baked by five, and since she’s helping me with writing my resume, I think it’s important that I don’t flake on her.

I know we said that we’d meet for coffee, but I’ve just realized I have a deadline for Project Gadget at noon tomorrow, that means I have to send a lot of email and wait for responses. I’d rather not be distracted and leave early–can we pick a better time when I can listen to you fully?

Cancelling or disappearing with little to no clear warning can be really really stressful, particularly if you are someone I traditionally look to when I need support. I know that clear communication isn’t exactly the status quo in our society, but taking the time to adjust your Something Came Up to a Real Explanation can prevent me from spending my evening working myself into knots over the idea that you hate being near me.

8. Do Some Reading

(Look, relevant Cumberbatch .gif!)

Doing your research doesn’t make you an expert, and it doesn’t excuse you from items 2 and 3. But this will prevent you from blaming penis envy, or saying something jaw-droppingly ignorant, like “well, doesn’t everyone have depression?”. (Hint: No.) I also find myself significantly more comfortable with friends who ask personal questions in the form of “I’ve heard most people experience X when they have your disorder. Do you ever have that?” What that says is “I’ve done some sort of poking around because I want to understand what you’re feeling, but I’m not you, so I’m asking about your subjective experience.” That, dear readers, is true friendship.

9. You Do Not Have to ‘Get It’

Quite honestly, this policy covers more than mental illness, but it applies very very well. The link is a long form explanation (and well worth reading), but here’s the short deal.

Say I have something you find completely irrational. Paralyzing fear of purple-painted toenails, for instance. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s the most ridiculously silly terror on the face of this planet. I feel it. Treat it seriously, and I will feel better–mock me, make it a joke, treat it as a quirk (more on that later) and I won’t.

Understanding is overrated, and deciding that you just have to “get it” makes for lots of prying conversations and explaining over and over and over again. Accept that unless you have the same disorder with all the same features and triggers, you aren’t going to understand. The best you can do is accept. Accepting isn’t some second-class action to understanding. It’s coffee and hugs on good days, and the voice on the other end of the phone on the bad ones. When I know you accept what I tell you, I tell you more. When you to try to understand, I feel like a bug under a microscope.

I still have some left–feel free to keep adding to the list! Part III will be up tomorrow.

The Friend Manual: Part II

18 thoughts on “The Friend Manual: Part II

  1. 2

    If I had any friends left, this would be required reading.

    I’ve suffered from depression thats been resistant to treatment (drugs/therapy) and terrible anxiety for over a decade. I can’t be around groups of people. Its uncomfortable (bordering on torture) for me, but after the ordeal is over is when it gets really bad. I say stupid things and lack knowledge of how to really interact with people socially — this results in me going over the awkward things I did/said for weeks after. Sometimes I’ll be in the shower or something and remember something from years ago that causes me to be paralyzed with anxiety and feelings of being absolutely worthless.

    People never quite understood this. For the longest time I would just lie. Say I was ill or some other stupid reason because the truth (Im too afraid to go) seemed embarassing. I also didn’t think people would take me seriously (which was correct). The first person I tried to explain this to called it a crutch. Luckily, now I don’t have to worry because I don’t have anyone left to drag me to anything.

  2. 3

    i spend a lot of time on the internet, and one i have had problems with is this: a friend of a friend says something dehumanizing about me (i find its just as often a queer issue as a brain-weirdness issue) and the friend stays quiet while they do it, then when i talk to them about it to tell them i have to leave they try to defend it. you dont have to abandon all your other friends, but dont defend people calling me dumb/inhuman/disgusting/inhuman/sub-human.

    i dont know what the solution is, but defending them is one of the worse (if not the worst; i suppose you could join in) things you can do. maybe ‘thats not how ___ works’? or ‘i have friends with ___ and what youre saying isnt true. stop it.’?

    i love 6/7. a lot.

    maybe add that ‘just get over it’ is not an okay thing to say. ever. under any circumstances, unless of course you have a specific plan and a giant bag of commas. it trivializes someones struggles, isolates them, makes them feel misunderstood, makes them feel weak and/or stupid that they cant/havent already done so(if anyone ever figures out how to ‘just get over it’ call a university immediately; youve just solved all practical psychology/psychiatry forever), and makes you look like a complete recursive* otter dick in just 16 characters.

    *im not sure either.

  3. 4

    I would add to the don’t list, or maybe as an extension to the “read up on it” section that sometimes, the sufferer can’t teach you what xe needs right now. It is very counter effective to get mad at me because I can’t vocalize whether I want a hug while I’m crying or if I want your advice or if I want you to smile and nod until I’m done purging (emotionally, not gastronomically).

    Sometimes, you have to just sit and wait if you don’t know what to do, instead of expecting the depressive (in my case) to be able to pull it together enough to be your guide in the middle of an “episode.”

  4. 5

    I have depression, and have for years. I don’t expect to be cured from it, but it doesn’t effect my life nearly as bad as it use to. I still have bad days, but I count myself lucky they are infrequent.

    I am better now because of the hard work of an awesome therapist, and because I decided to deal with my own shit. However I dig that not everyone is on the same path or at the same place.

    I see a lot of mentally ill people on public transportation. Sometimes I’m in a position to help them, but the vast majority of times I cannot. As far as I can tell no one can help them, save perhaps themselves, and even this is uncertain. But I do learn from them. I learn that the human mind is a beautiful complex thing, and that the more I observe, the less I think I know about it. I’ve learned to be less afraid of someone with obvious mental illnesses, and more willing to talk to them like a normal person. I’ve learned that a lot more people have mental illness than most would suspect. Many of them hide it as best they can, but after hours of careful observation (hey, its my commute, what else have I got to do?) I think I see more of it than ever. Its the girl who will not sit down on a seat no matter how empty the bus is, keeps to herself, and who will always stand 10 feet back from any crowd. Its the man who when he gets on the bus will touch another person, and then try to pick a fight with that person as if they were accosting him. Its the lady who always keeps her head covered, and looks up to the sky fearfully. Its the young woman who cannot allow any silence, and if she is not engaged in a normal conversation, she will make one up.

    Somehow I can’t help but feel that the best way to face one’s mental illness is to help others who are afflicted. As to how or why, I don’t really know, although this post (and the previous one) seem a good place to start.

  5. 6

    I would like to add to set boundries to also respect boundries. For an example my mom would not try to act as a therapist but she would try to be supportive in her way without listening to me when I told her my way to be supportive.

    When I had an anxiety attack her wanting to give me a supportive hug was a VERY BAD idea. My personal space was about a mile wide. Going away until im ok as I asked would have been a much better plan. Also, interfering in mild instances of self harm would cause me to escalate into more serious forms of self harm. I know its hard to stand by and let someone do something that looks bad but yeah, dont interfer without a darn good reason.

    Someone with a chronic mental illness (like me) tends to know an awful lot about the illness so your common sense might not be as sensible as you think it is. When it comes to mental illness the obvious is not necessarily correct. Ask…and then most importantly…actually listen to the answer. If you can’t handle what I ask you to do it is your privledge to go away. Choose not to see me ever again if you wish but dont disrespect my wishes as it can be very very dangerous to me.

    I would also add do not overreact.I might talk about suicide or self harm (not the same thing for those who dont know…confusing them is also VERY BAD) Take it seriously if I do but make sure its a real threat before intervening. If you don’t know how to tell the differance call a suicide hotline or look online for support. I know I think about those things alot and I do not need an intervention every time I do.

    Hopefully im not too off topic with these. I hate having to deal with my mental health issues with people around me. It is hard enough having them without navigating people who just don’t get it. Thank you for your post Kate. I wish this subject was discussed mroe openly more often 🙂

  6. 7

    Accept that unless you have the same disorder with all the same features and triggers, you aren’t going to understand.

    Even if there are some common themes, we’re not all the same just because we have the same diagnosis. So don’t assume you know what we need – ask! Some depressed people crave hugs and some can barely tolerate human company at all. I haven’t been depressed for many years now (thank you, Lamictal!) but when I was, practically the only thing a friend could have done to help (except make me stop wasting time on therapy and AD’s, which had no effect) would have been to feed me and possibly do the dishes. Not that I cared one way or another, but I would have appreciated the thought. Other than that, I just needed people to be a bit patient with me, let me be alone when I needed it but not give up on me – and not be mad at me for being asocial for a while.

  7. 8

    This is a fantastic series of posts so far. Re: “You don’t have to ‘get’ it” in particular –

    I really, really wish more people understood this, that it applies to so many subjective experiences. My most recent ex treated my depression as normal because he thought he “got” it, having had personal experience with it (even though, of course, he didn’t, really), and then tried to pathologize the parts of my personality that *are* my normal functioning because he couldn’t understand them (therefore they were obviously disordered).

    It was… upsetting, to say the least. Understanding is great, but it’s really hard to come by, and a non-judgmental hug is almost as good, most of the time.

  8. 10

    I like what I have read on this; it’s focused supportive interaction that people can use daily and in a confusing and oft times emotionally charged situation.

    One thing that I would like to add: be prepared to get them help in cases of emergency. One of my best friends and roommate suffered from paranoid delusions when she missed taking her medication. A particularly bad episode over the course of a couple days had me calling the cops; she was, unfortunately, trying to leave and act on this particular delusion. I tried my best to talk her down and get her to take medication, but to no avail. I won’t go into specifics about what it was about, but it ended with her being submitted into a Mental Health ward. I didn’t think that she would hurt me, but her state at the time may have lead to accidental injury of herself or others in her panicked state.

    It hurt, sending someone I cared so much about into a ward. This was the third I had done it, but each time was a stab to the heart that hurt as much as the last. Each time, I thought I was going lose her as friend for doing what needed to be done; luckily, I was wrong each time and our friendship continues as strong as ever. I visited her as often as I could so that she knew she wasn’t forgotten or forsaken. I was there to pick her up and get her home the day she got out.

    Was it the right thing to do in all those cases? Absolutely, and I would do so again if necessary; because, doing what’s right for her and others will always come before my concerns about what will happen to our relationship afterwards.

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