Part III of the Friend Manual is (finally) here!
Have friends with mental illness? Read this.
A fourth post will be coming with the best from the comments sections, and you can find Part I and Part II at the links.
10. Quirks vs. Symptoms
Some people have quirks. They only like open-faced sandwiches, they whistle while they ride a bike, they hate certain words or tastes or sounds. Idiosyncrasies are just a part of being a person.
The thing about quirks is that you can joke about them. You can tell other people because it’s just a thing that makes them…them like red hair or nailbiting. That’s one of the ties that bind–the little jabs and the light banter.
Do not ever treat symptoms or triggers of someone’s illness as quirks. They’re no less painful when you joke about them–and even harder to speak up about. Faking a laugh is easier than justifying your own tears, after all.
If you’re unsure what’s a quirk and what’s off limits for disclosure or funnytimes, you can just…ask. If you can’t ask your friend if your words are going to hurt them, you aren’t doing friendship right.
11. Yesterday is Not Today
Yesterday they were chipper and giddy and sparkling? That’s lovely. That was also yesterday. Having one good day, week, or year does not equal some kind of ‘cure’.
One of the most vicious things about mental illness is that you can’t always feel it coming. I’ve had some of my worst days show up in my morning coffee after my best nights. There was a point where being too happy meant depriving myself more, which in turn made me feel better about my body. It quickly became a horrible cycle, ending only after I had a very bad day.
“But you were doing so well yesterday!” is meaningless at best, a shaming reminder that you could be doing better at worst.
12. You Can’t Fix Everything
…and trying to can make it worse.
Not everything is help-able. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the best you can offer is your arms and silence and tissues. Sometimes what’s even better is going away. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it is. Maybe your voice is too loud; maybe you’re too sympathetic. Maybe you ask the wrong questions; maybe you ask the right ones and the answers hurt.
Ask. Check in. Find out.
What can I do? Do you want me to stay here, or do you want to be by yourself?
Do you want to be distracted, or would you rather sit?
Can I give you a hug?
13. Sometimes, Nobody Knows What To Do
“How can I help?” is a good question.
It’s just not always the right one.
Sometimes you don’t know what to do–and neither do I. Sometimes I’m so busy trying to keep it together and look as though I’m in control that thinking about just one more thing is too much. Sometimes I have no idea why I can’t stop crying–and stopping the big teary mess takes precedence over making you feel better about it. You can step back and just wait. Channel your inner stuffed animal–huggable and cozy and comforting without being demanding.
If you don’t want to be alone, I can just sit here until you’re feeling okay. I don’t have to do anything until [this afternoon/tomorrow/dinnertime], so I’m here until you don’t want company.
14. You Don’t ‘Deserve’ to Know Things
You’re a best friend, a cousin, someone who’s known them since they were born? You don’t have some special First In Line Pass for knowledge. This is an idea that infuriates me (and will probably merit a longer post at some point). Pressing people for more, more, more information, and claiming that your relationship justifies it is the worst kind of caring.
You won’t know everything, because you aren’t them. Sometimes sharing is painful, sometimes it’s just easier to pass the popcorn and try to forget that horrible episode you had last night. Sometimes that other friend was there at the right time, and it feels silly to tell everyone. I usually find it easier to tell people with similar experiences first, work it out in my own words, and then decide to share (or not). Demanding, explicitly or implicitly that information about my brain’s functioning should be available to you is the worst kind of patronizing.
The Friend Manual, Part I
The Friend Manual, Part II
I’m going to put together a final section with the best from the comments–feel free to add more below.
7 thoughts on “The Friend Manual: Part III”
The fixing one is amazingly spot on for me. When I lose it, I have loved ones that go into a flurry of trying to fix things, and I don’t need anything fixed, I just have to ride the waves, so to speak, until it recedes. I’m still working out my meds, so that makes things tricky, too. There is always a weird period with meds and adjusting where things go haywire a bit, or at least risk going haywire.
This really goes for anyone with any condition, but please don’t tell me what kind of medicine is good/bad, what kind of therapy is good/bad, and how I should cope with things UNLESS I ask you for that advice. If I complain of depression, a headache, an allergic reaction, a panic attack, or PTSD, the correct response is not “Why aren’t you taking [MEDICINE]?” or “Why haven’t you dealt with that yet?” or any other attempts at help that read like you think you know more about my life and conditions than I do.
I’m waiting for the series on how to be a mental health professional. The very worst interactions I’ve ever experienced were either from urgent care doctors, who really should have had a modicum of experience dealing with…like, urgent mental health problems (?) and actual mental health professionals. Not so much therapists, but the psychiatrists…Whew! The stories I could tell.
Thanks, this is excellent advice in general. I don’t currently know that I’m friends with anyone with a serious mental illness but who knows–perhaps they just haven’t told me. Either way, I’ll take this to heart.
If you’re going to be a friend to a PWMI, please remember that their main problem is medical and not a problem with work/school/handling finances/whatever. The dollar figures and report cards and other benchmarks are important too, but without a healthy, stable, functional person behind them, those successes can be pretty hollow. Please try to take care of the person first.
[…] one is all from you–from the brilliant comments on Part I, Part II, and Part III of the Friend Manual series. You made me think of new things, put into words things that had been […]
I have some trouble with 14, but I suspect that’s because I’m not so much a friend to a person with mental illness, but a partner of one. I think I deserve to know when things are starting to go badly and to have a some updates once in a while if things are going bad. (Mind you, I don’t press for details, not beyond asking about suicide and self-harm.)
And mental illness is not an excuse to hide relationship-things. Boyfriend tends to do that, sometimes with terrible consequences for both of us. (Aside from damage to the relationship, he gets more anxious the longer he hides things, which makes him feel worse and want to hide things even more.)
I think in such an intimate relationship, there are some things one deserves to know, one needs to know. You need to know how your partner is doing (at least in broad strokes) because their condition affects the relationship (and it may come to the point where you need to get them help yourself) and you need as much openness about the relationship as you’ve always had–no hiding things.
FWIW, boyfriend agrees with me when he’s doing ok. We’re trying really hard to be open. (The last bad time got really bad.) Occasionally, I say something about how important this kind of talking is and I do tend to gush when he brings up something he’d rather not talk about but thinks I should know. He’s even ok with me checking in on him if something’s starting to go badly, even to the extent that, if we discuss it at the beginning, he says he’s ok with me telling him to call the doctor and such, understanding that he may not realize when things get bad. (“He says”; things haven’t gotten bad enough since we’ve been doing like that, so I can’t really be sure.)
Maybe that’s a difference between friends and more-than-friends: what you deserve to know.