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.
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.