What I Want My Empathetic Friend to Know About My Struggle With Mental Illness
Dear Empathetic Friend,
Before anything, I want to say thank you. I know being friends with someone who struggles with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression can sometimes be a challenge. It takes patience, compassion and understanding to care for someone with these conditions. Though I may have a hard time expressing it, I’m extremely grateful for everything you’ve done for me. But sometimes, I’m afraid you don’t know how you can help me.
When my anxiety or depression becomes so unbearable and overwhelming that I can hardly get off the couch, please don’t ask me if I’m OK. The answer will always be “No,” so there’s no need to ask. Instead, maybe ask if I would like to talk about anything specific that has me feeling the way I do. If I also respond with, “No” to this, then I think it would help me if you just respond with “OK” and we can move on from there. Most likely, I’ll just want to sit quietly with you because there’s so much noise in my head that I can’t think straight. But I might feel better after 20 minutes, and then we can try to do something together or go somewhere. Then again, I may feel down or out of reach for far longer than 20 minutes. They’re unpredictable—these mental bullies of mine.
It’s best to just accept that I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, and know that you don’t have to “fix me.” Sometimes, when I’m having one of my bad days, I feel like you change. Your voice becomes softer and weaker, like you’re trying not to provoke the beast by tiptoeing around it. You ask me more little questions, like you’re trying to pass the time with small talk, maybe in the hopes that I’ll become distracted enough to forget about why I was feeling depressed in the first place. I know you mean well and you’re just doing what you think is helpful.
But when you try to perk me up or adapt an overly optimistic attitude, I actually start to feel worse. Not only because your positive brightness is somewhat draining, but it also makes me feel like I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling. Like my fatigue, gloominess or anxiousness is wrong and a malfunction of sorts — like I need to be “fixed.”
I don’t think I need to be fixed, though. That would imply I am broken. And as noble as it is for you to want to make me better — actually physically better — I can’t just be taped back together with a few distractions. Those are temporary solutions to a long-lived problem. I think I need to come to terms with certain things in my life and learn healthy coping mechanisms, adjustments. I need your help to learn how to stand on my own as I am now, not revert back to the way I was before my mental illness took over my life. I was a different person then.
It’s not your fault. As far as I know, you’ve never experienced depression or anxiety, so it’s hard to provide aid to something you don’t know much about. I believe that would be like asking you to perform heart surgery, even though you’ve never gone to medical school. You try your best, and that’s all I could ever ask from you.
I need you to understand there’s no quick way of making me feel better — though I wish there was. Know I’m always thinking of you when I have to cancel plans because the thought of leaving the house feels like what I imagine getting stung by a hundred bees at once would feel like. Or it may feel like falling into a bottomless hole of misery. Either way, you don’t make it seem like a big deal, that we can reschedule or do something different. And I’ll never be able to form the words that adequately describe how appreciative I am of your understanding.
Thank you for sticking with me through this mental rollercoaster. I would do the same for you in a heartbeat, though I truly hope you never have to experience such an aggressive form of brain funk. Even then, I’ll be with you the whole ride. Thanks for everything.
A Grateful Friend
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Unsplash photo via Karina Carvalho.