Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Four Things It's Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear (And Why It's Important to Listen)

I’m going to talk about a few things said to me over the years by people who have what I do not: lived experience of mental illness.

They’ve been hard to hear but I’m grateful because I’ve learned something valuable each time.

“You don’t understand”

They say we all have mental health but as Fran and I describe in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder there’s a fundamental difference in experience between someone like Fran who lives with mental illness and someone like me who never has.

Well or ill, we are all people. Nevertheless, it is naive, disrespectful, and dangerous to downplay the impact illness has on those affected by it. Those who are ill […] have particular life experiences, perceptions, expectations, and needs. To use Fran’s terminology, she is the ill one in our relationship; I am the well one. Nothing more or less is implied by our use of these terms.

High Tide, Low Tide, Introduction

So when someone tells me I don’t understand what it’s like for them or I can’t help because of that gulf in understanding, it hurts precisely because I get it. How can I understand what Fran is going through when she is manic or in the depths of depression, or when suicidal “stinking thinking” plagues her? How can I empathise when another friend is hallucinating and is convinced reality is other than I perceive it to be? How can I know what it means to self-harm or overdose?

I can’t. Not really.

Rather than allowing myself the ego defence of hurt pride and self-righteous indignation I’ve learned to accept “you don’t understand” as a simple statement of fact. I can’t always join my friends where they are. And that’s okay.

I’ve also learned that although our perspectives are different – indeed because our perspectives are different – we can complement and learn from each other.

I am a better person for knowing Fran. I have a greater understanding of my strengths, values, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities than ever before. I have learned more about mental and invisible illness, suicidal thinking, stigma, determination, courage, and responsibility since we became friends than in the fifty years before we met.

High Tide, Low Tide, chapter 10, “A Life worth Living”

“Don’t be so bloody positive!”

Fran calls me pathologically positive and it’s not meant as a compliment. We only met at all because she was furious at my inept response online to someone in suicidal distress. I’ve always been a positive person, but mostly I deployed it defensively to avoid facing up to how shitty life gets. It’s been hard to accept this was hopelessly na├»ve and prevented me engaging fully with life and with other people.

There are healthy aspects to it, of course. I can help Fran counter her illness-skewed thinking but I must never allow myself, consciously or unconsciously, to invalidate her experience or attempt to bully her out of her feelings. It also helps keep me grounded when those I care about are struggling. This is part of what my friend Aimee Wilson meant when she wrote, “I’ve seen how many people you support through social media. It’s inspiring to think of the strength you have in order to be there for so many people.”

I’m grateful to all who are patient with me as I open to a deeper understanding. I’m learning that courage isn’t about being relentlessly positive. Real courage is dealing with the shittiness of life when you’re unable to set it aside or run away from it.

“I don’t need you right now”

For me, mutual caring is an essential part of any meaningful relationship. The word mutual is crucial. I may be the “well one” and Fran the “ill one” but we each have issues, hang-ups, and needs. We support and care for each other, and the same is true of my other key friendships. That’s not to say both people will give and receive equally all the time, as this anonymous quotation attests:

A relationship isn’t always 50/50. Some days your person will struggle. You suck it up and pick up that 80/20 because they need you. That’s love.

I would add — and sometimes your person will be doing okay and need less of your support, time, and energy. This is hard for me. In our early days as friends I’d react with fear and panic to any suggestion Fran was pulling away from me. It caught us both by surprise when it first happened. It took a while for me to acknowledge what was happening and accept that Fran needing less of my support didn’t threaten our friendship or mean she no longer cared about me. I’ve learned a lot about co-dependency since then but there’s no place for complacency and we remain vigilant.

Fran values the support of “well ones” when she is poorly but I also have friends for whom the opposite is true. When they’re struggling they’re more likely to seek professional help or reach out to people with comparable lived experience. This can be hard because I want to help too. One friend became understandably frustrated having to explain to me how things were for her when she was struggling and I offered to help. What she needed were friends who understood without having to ask. It was a painful lesson but one I hope I have taken on board. Aimee shared her perspective on this in a recent blog post:

I also wanted to say that if someone you know does have a mental health crisis and doesn’t reach out to you; don’t feel offended or useless. Other people aren’t usually the first place I turn in a mental health crisis — for many reasons — but I appreciate that there are a number of people in my life who could be so helpful at those times and I just don’t give them the chance. This isn’t anything against them.

What matters far more than my bruised ego is that the person finds those best placed to provide the care they need.

“Leave me alone”

Friends part sometimes. Relationships end. Where mental health appears to have played a part in the break-up it would be easy to justify myself by recalling how unreasonable their behaviour was, or how imbalanced the relationship had become. It would be easy — and untrue. I can’t think of a single friendship which ended for such reasons.

So what happened? As I wrote a few years ago, hardest for me is where the other person acted in their best interests by severing what had become for them a toxic connection:

A friend on Twitter shared a link today to her blog article about needing to let go of unhelpful, toxic people and relationships. Her words brought me face to face with the realisation that there have been times in my life when, for one reason or another, someone has needed to let go of me. It’s not an easy thing to admit to myself […] yet there are those who choose to remain distanced from me, and who would reject any attempt I might make at reconnecting. I must respect their need to do what they need to do, and to accept responsibility for my role in what has happened.

Not every friendship ends like that, of course. Sometimes it’s simply that the person’s needs or situation have changed. Perhaps they found others better suited to support them or they no longer need to rely on me as much as before. This can be hard to hear, especially if I’ve been doing my best and would like the opportunity to learn how to become the friend they need. Ultimately, though, it’s not my decision to make.

The most I can ask is that we part with honesty, in which case there need be no lasting guilt, recriminations, or regret on either side. I am grateful to those who have parted with me on such terms. We cannot be all things to all people.

Over to You

I’ve described some of the hardest things I’ve heard as a mental health ally. If you live with mental illness I would be interested to know your thoughts about what I’ve written. If like me you have no lived experience of mental illness but have friends or loved ones who do, what are the hardest things you’ve heard and what have you learned about yourself in the process?

 

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