Wednesday 25 August 2021

I'm Sure I Was Somewhere. Do I Get a T-Shirt?

What if you were there already and didn’t realise because there was no big red YOU ARE HERE arrow on the map; no neon sign or text alert saying “This is it. You’ve reached that place the others were talking about.” There should be a kiosk selling BEEN THERE T-shirts or badges. Then you’d know. And others would know too.

They say if you’ve never experienced something for yourself, you can’t understand what it’s like. I get the point, but it’s not precise enough for me. How similar must my experience be to yours, for me to understand what you’ve been through? Exactly the same? Somewhat similar? Who gets to decide?

This is not a trivial question. Depending on the circumstance, it can affect friendships and other relationships. In the health sphere, it can affect access to services, care, and support. Peer support in particular is predicated on the concept of shared experience:

Peer support brings together people with shared experiences, and these experiences can vary. For example, you might share a diagnosis of a particular mental health problem or similar personal interests. Or you may have shared experiences, such as hearing voices, identifying as LGBTIQ+ or having a shared cultural background. (Mind)

What counts as shared experience, though? Some things are pretty black and white. Redundancy. Marital breakup. Homelessness. Sexual or physical abuse. The death of a spouse or child. These have either happened to you or they haven’t. But not everything in life is as clear cut as that, mental illness included. Even if you’ve experienced something, does that automatically mean you understand how it would be for someone else?

The “What if you were there and didn’t realise” paragraph at the top of this post came to me as I was thinking about how low I’ve felt of late. Looking through my journal, there are things I’m used to hearing from others, but have rarely felt — and even more rarely expressed. Have I just been feeling low or is it something more serious? I tend to assume my experiences, dark moods included, scarcely register compared with what others go through. But what if I’ve reached somewhere they would recognise. How would I know?

Frequent readers of this blog might answer on my behalf. Talk to someone you trust, Marty. Share how you’re feeling. Above all, believe that your experiences and feelings matter and are as valid as anyone else’s. I smile as I write that. I love having my own words and ideas bounced back to me! Good friends do that. Sharing can certainly help. It’s the basis of the friendship Fran and I have grown over the past ten years. Above and beyond the value of having a safe space in which to vent, sharing helps us baseline what we’re going through. It can be profoundly validating.

Sharing also allows the other person into our world. This is important because it addresses a question I’m sometimes asked about me and Fran: “If you’ve never been depressed or manic, how can you know what it’s like?” Fundamentally, I can’t know what it’s like, and it’s important I never lose sight of that. There are certain advantages to not understanding another person’s situation, but an informed awareness of what it means to live with illness helps me support Fran more effectively. As I’ve written elsewhere:

With that in mind, I try and learn as much as possible, by talking with Fran and with others, by reading widely and by taking all the training courses I can find. I work on the basis that Fran is doing her best to share with me the reality of her situation, and share my own understanding with her. In this way we honour each other and grow together.

Some experiences are too powerful or devastating to comprehend unless you’ve lived through something similar. I can listen to someone’s story of abuse or rape, for example, but I’ve experienced nothing that even approximates to what they’ve been through. A friend expressed it perfectly:

If I met someone and we talked about trauma, I can acknowledge their experience but not much more, other than hold space. I need to respect their journey. I can empathize but do I truly understand that experience? I don’t think so.

Furthermore, everyone responds to events differently and is affected differently by them. Another friend told me she knew of others who’d gone through what she had in the past, but that didn’t mean they’d had the same experiences.

In the mental health arena, a clinical diagnosis is the closest thing to a BEEN THERE badge or t-shirt, because it implies a certain shared history, symptoms, or behaviours. People with the same diagnosis may also have medications, therapy, or other treatments in common. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson was originally diagnosed with all nine criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD). She says this gave her insight into others she’s met who satisfied fewer criteria when they were diagnosed. (A diagnosis of BPD can usually be made if you answer “yes” to five or more of nine questions.)

Even so, two people diagnosed with the same mental health condition will experience it differently. Aimee is the only person I know well who has a diagnosis of BPD, but I have three friends diagnosed with bipolar disorder and their lives are impacted very differently by it. Knowing Fran’s support needs, for example, doesn’t mean I necessarily know what my other friends need. I consider myself fortunate that I have a broader awareness of what bipolar disorder can mean for someone, from seeing how it affects these friends in different ways.

A word of caution is needed when it comes to sharing. Oversharing, or sharing inappropriately, risks overwhelm and rejection. Having someone’s unexpurgated experience thrust in your face can be unnerving, awkward, or even triggering, as a friend of mine discovered recently. She agreed with me, however, on the principle of shared experience. In her words: “The idea that to be empathetic we have to have gone through the exact same thing as someone else is unrealistic, really. It can be helpful and make for a stronger connection, but it’s not necessary.”

Returning to my original “what if you were there” scenario, there’s no certain way of knowing where we are. No YOU ARE HERE sign painted on a wall or the pavement. No GPS coordinates or what3words address we can share so others can say “Ah yes, I’ve been there too,” or find us if we lose our way. All is not lost, however. We can talk to the people we meet along the way. We can compare itineraries and histories, exchange contact details and do our best to keep in touch when our paths diverge. And if there’s no T-shirt stand, maybe this one will do.


Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash


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