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It’s Hard to Say No to Mentally Ill Friends When You’re Struggling Too

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

“If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”

“If you don’t look after you, you can’t help anyone else.”

These are two quotes I hear over and over. Two of the most common things people say to each other and to themselves, to try to cope with mental health issues. I know I’ve said the second one to friends who are experiencing their own depression, while trying to support and carry others with theirs.

There is a veritable gulf between them. So, what do I do? Do I handle everyone at their worst, or do I look after myself?

I live with anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, the depression has snuck up on me. For a change, I know why. Life can be overwhelming, life can be complicated and relationships… well, relationships can be draining.

When I only have to cope with my life, career, romantic relationship (or lack thereof), family and keeping a clean roof over my head, that can be plenty. I am most comfortable when I have few, quality friends in my life. I’m not a social person, mainly because my anxiety and depression has never made that easy for me.

At the moment, my depression is suffocating. I find myself trudging through tar every day. Why? Because I am trying to “handle” my friends at their worst.

I have a few very close friends and family whom I love dearly. They are all trying to cope with depression, family issues, stress, illness, devastating personal events, bereavement and anxiety, amongst other mental health and addictive illnesses. They don’t know each other, and they all lean on me. I am a good listener, I have been through a lot in life and I understand more than most; so, they all depend on me to be there, to talk to, to text at all hours of the day, to offer advice when asked.

“Surround yourself with positive people and you’ll be a positive person.”

The people I am surrounded by are trying. They are fighting their fight, and they are doing their best to make it through each day; they are not (currently) positive people. The issues they are struggling with will not be quick fixes; they will be long term difficult roads with plenty of setbacks. Yet, selfishly, I am drowning.

“If you don’t look after you, you can’t help anyone else.”

I need to look after myself, I hear you say. There are plenty of support agencies out there for them to rely on, not just you. Have you ever tried suggesting that to someone calling you up, drunk, saying they are going to kill themselves? How about the best friend, who just admitted they deliberately harmed themselves? Or the alcoholic family member who will call 20+ times in a row, who won’t give up until you answer, regardless of what you are doing or what time it is, who will then proceed to abuse you down the phone and blame you for everything that is wrong in their life.

Have you tried telling that to someone who is doing their best to support their mum, who is spiraling into depression and alcohol dependence after losing her husband? Or the friend who is a carer for their wife with a degenerative, terminal illness?

What happens when every interaction becomes a download of their innermost pain and stress?

I can’t tell them the impact they are having on me, because they can’t cope with that on top of everything else.

Finding that moment to say, “enough! I need to look after me,” is like removing a flotation device, swimming away and hoping no one drowns.

At new year, I felt broken. I told everyone I needed a breather; they were with family, so I didn’t feel too guilty or worried. I turned off my phone and hid from the world for two weeks. My depression lifted overnight. I slept without nightmares, I was no longer craving sugar and fat, I had energy and I wasn’t wanting to sleep all day long. I actually had an in-depth spring clean. For the first time in a year, I felt fantastic!

No one died. They all offered me a shoulder. They all held themselves together.

Looking after myself worked… for those two weeks. Then, back to life. The tidal wave of so many struggling souls. It all went back to “normal.”

“If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”

These are good people; they are just going through difficult times, but I can’t handle them at their worst without breaking myself.

What do I take away from all of this?

1. The understanding that, while these inspirational quotes can be “helpful” in a moment, their “wisdom” will not fix you or others. When properly considered, all these quotes are inherently selfish. They are narrow and don’t consider the bigger picture, the vast complexities of life or how intertwined people’s lives are. They have the potential to cause more harm than good.

2. Sometimes, your friends can’t be there for you. It’s not that they don’t love you, it’s not that they don’t want to be able to help you, it’s not that they don’t deserve you at your best. It’s because they need to be there for themselves, so they can be there for you when they are able.

3. The need for a quest to find balance between looking after me and being there for those I love.

4. They will understand when I need to breathe.

I choose to search for the middle ground in the veritable gulf and keep everyone floating until we reach land… whenever I am able.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Originally published: February 13, 2019
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