Wednesday 13 October 2021

The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On

You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times.

In this post I want to explore what it means to be someone your friends can rely on. That might not seem all that special or unusual. Isn’t that what friendship is about? To an extent, yes. Friendship, certainly the mutually supportive kind I value most, implies a degree of commitment and trust that you’ll be there for each other. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree they have one or two friends they’d unthinkingly turn to in moments of need or crisis. It’s not that those friends are better or more important than the rest. Dependability is one role in the repertoire of caring, but it’s not the only one and it has consequences. What’s it like to be that kind of friend? Maybe you are already. Maybe you wish you were. Maybe you wish you had one. Let’s take a look.

The Steadfast Friend

Two words came to me when I began writing this piece: constancy (in the sense of being unchangingly faithful and dependable), and steadfastness (being resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering). I’ll discuss constancy later but I find this description of steadfastness by Barry Walsh very relevant, albeit couched in the language of business leadership:

Steadfast implies a sureness and continuousness that may be depended upon. The steadfast [person] is dependable, reliable, constant and unwavering. S/he stays the course, follows through, develops good habits and keeps them.

In other words, we’re talking about someone who is able to offer a stable and reliable point of reference for others. This is captured nicely in the following quotes from our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Here, Fran and I are discussing my role in our friendship, specifically that of being a safe haven.

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression. It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone.

It’s especially valuable when Fran is in mania:

I once asked Fran what I contributed most to our friendship. She gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. On other occasions, she has likened me to a rock or anchor, a still point of reference amid the uncertain tides of illness. I act as a buffer between her and the world and balance her thinking, which [when in mania] tends to be mercurial, dogmatic, and strongly polarised.

This degree of commitment is generally reserved for relationships with partners, siblings, parents or children. Thinking of me and Fran one friend asked, “Realistically, who’s got the time and energy to unfalteringly provide that level of care and dedication to someone outside your immediate family?” It’s a valid question but for me, it misses the point. Not everyone, whether living with mental illness or not, wants or needs the kind of connection that works for me and Fran. But pretty much everyone wants and needs people in their lives they can depend on.

What does steadfastness mean in practice? It means saying, as many times as your friend needs to hear it, I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. How can I help? – and not only meaning it at the time but following through. It means picking up when your friend calls or messages you, no matter what time it is, how your friendship stands at that moment, or how recently you were last in touch, even if it’s six months after the friendship broke down, because you promised you’d always be there and they believed you. I’m not necessarily talking about picking up a broken relationship. Things sometimes end for valid reasons. I’m talking about a commitment to be a steadying hand in a crisis, a gentle voice on the end of the phone, a safe space in which to talk, vent, or cry things out.

It’s not always easy, because the role is a function of the other person’s needs. There may be times you’re called on to take a step back and give your friend space because they have other things going on for them, because they’re doing better and don’t need you as much, or they’re having a really rough time and you’re not who they need right now. On the other hand, you may feel you need to hide or buffer changes in your life and circumstances so as to be the person your friend’s grown used to depending on. If you present as other than stable, solid, and reliable, maybe you’ll risk losing your role as the steadfast friend who’s always there for others.

This is something I’m working with at the moment, as I begin to explore my mental health more openly in conversations with friends and in my blogging. One friend said she felt less confident turning to me for support because she didn’t want to upset me or make my situation worse. I told her that’s not how things work for me. Being there for others, including hearing whatever they wish to share with me, never brings my mood down, depresses, or overloads me. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, my friend understood and was reassured.

Codependency and Over-Reliance

All this might sound as though I’m talking about an unhealthy degree of codependency, or putting yourself at someone else’s beck and call. It’s certainly something to keep an eye out for, and challenge if it begins to affect your relationship or wellbeing. Left unchecked, the consequences of putting other people’s needs before your own can be devastating, as they were for my mother. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to function. Ironically, she spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more. Fran and I have found openness to be the best antidote to codependency:

Begin by speaking honestly with your friend about what is going on for you. Talk about the things you are able to do, but also discuss setting healthy boundaries.

There may be others with claims on your time and energy: young children, elderly relatives, other friends, or a partner. You may be ill yourself, or have problems and issues which require your attention. There are also limits to your skills, knowledge, and competence. No one can tell you where the boundaries ought to lie, and they may shift from time to time. That is something you, your friend, and the others in your life must work out for yourselves.

Actively encourage others to play their role in your friend’s care, rather than trying to do everything yourself. Keep an eye on your health and well-being too. It can be exhausting to support someone with illness, and you may need your own support team from time to time.

For more on this, check out How to Be Kind and Clever, Four Things It’s Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear (And Why It’s Important to Listen), and What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries.

The Constant Gardener

I’m fortunate to have had several healthy examples of steadfastness in my life. The first was the husband of one of my older cousins. I didn’t know him well but I remember the devotion he showed to his wife and stepdaughters. Nothing appeared too much trouble and I’ve held him as something of a role model ever since.

The second is a current friend of mine. Like me, she cares for a best friend who lives with mental health issues. She also supports a number of other friends. We relate well because we understand the particular demands – and rewards – of this kind of steadfast care. With characteristic insight, she once said to me, “Maybe we’re just these weird people whose forte in life is to be needed.”

My third example is the character of Marnie played by Susan Sarandon in the 2015 movie The Meddler. One moment captures Marnie’s generosity of spirit perfectly. The lines are delivered by her friend Jillian, played by Cecily Strong, at her (Jillian’s) wedding, which Marnie funded and helped arrange.

“Marnie, words cannot even begin to express my gratitude to you. After my mother died I couldn’t imagine being loved so unconditionally by someone who wasn’t my family.”

Staying with fictional characters, my fourth example is Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. Played by Sean Astin in the movie adaptation, Sam was Frodo Baggins’ gardener, but also “[his] steadfast companion and servant, portrayed as both physically strong for his size and emotionally strong, often pushing Frodo through difficult parts of the journey and at times carrying Frodo when he was too weak to go on.” According to the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, Sam’s top three personality characteristics are loyalty, kindness, and heroism. He’s also been called “a quintessential ISFJ” on the Myers-Briggs personality scale:

The ISFJ is known as the defender or protector, which is exactly what Sam does for Frodo. ISFJs are also known for their loyalty and quiet determination. Sam is willing to sacrifice everything to stand by Frodo’s side and save Middle-earth.

I used to be a devoted fan of Tolkien’s work, and ran a fan group called Middle-earth Reunion between 1996 and 2005. In one of my favourite stories for our quarterly magazine, I explored Sam’s steadfast service through my main character, William (Bill) Stokes. In the following excerpt, Bill finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer, and finds healing for the pain and guilt he’s carried since she died.

And it came to him, hard and sudden. If the second acorn — this tiny oak tree in the plastic carrier at his feet — was the gift of the Lady then he was Samwise Gamgee. Not warrior but steadfast companion, whose hands were not those of a healer but gardener of a line of gardeners.

In that moment he saw himself through Joan’s eyes. She didn’t see — hadn’t seen — him as a failure, hadn’t hated him for failing to make the disease go away. They had been married twenty-seven years and he had been what she needed him to be. Faithful friend, truest companion on the longest road. He was her Sam.

Not Aragorn, damn his eyes. Sam. The hands of a gardener.

Bill Stokes, grower of things. He knew at last what the last tree was for.

My final gardening reference is the character of Justin Quayle in the 2001 novel The Constant Gardener by British author John le CarrĂ©. According to one reviewer, the book’s title “refers to Justin’s determination to grow things, literally and figuratively. We see Justin gardening as a hobby, offering gentle but diligent attention to his plants. On a broader thematic level, gardeners never stop digging, and after [his wife] Tessa’s murder, Justin digs endlessly for the truth.”

This finds an echo in a talk I attended in September for World Suicide Prevention Day. Asked about this year’s theme, “Creating Hope Through Action,” mental health advocate and author Jake Tyler said the most important action he’d taken during the long months of lockdown was to nurture the relationships that meant most to him. He reminded us that connections require ongoing, dutiful, care in order to blossom and remain healthy. They also need room to grow. Fran and I discuss this throughout our book, most specifically in the following passage in which we describe one of our guiding maxims.

Open Hands. Open Arms. Open Heart.

This important principle reminds us not to hold too tightly to people, relationships, and situations. Healthy things grow, and to grow is to change. In the time we have known each other Fran has moved from mania to depression and out again. She has grown in self-awareness, and developed tools for looking after herself. I have learned a great deal about what it is like for someone living with illness, and how to respond to Fran’s needs and the needs of others. At times Fran needs me close beside her, at other times she needs space to grow independently.

“Open hands” recognises that change is natural, healthy, and necessary. It gives us permission to grow without feeling guilty or restricted. Imagine holding a small bird in the palm of your hand. It feels safe, protected, and cared for, but it is free to move, to grow, and even to fly away. “Open arms” reminds us that, no matter what happens, we will always welcome each other back as friends. “Open heart” connects our friendship to our wider network of relationships with other friends, family, and the people we encounter in our lives.

On that note, I’ll bring this discussion to a close. I’ve examined some aspects of being a reliable, steadfast, and constant friend. It’s not without its challenges but I believe they’re far outweighed by the rewards. The quotation at the start of this post is one of the most genuine, heart-felt, and meaningful acknowledgements I’ve ever received.

“You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times.”

Do you have someone in your life you trust always to be there for you? Do you fulfil the role of constant gardener for your friends and loved ones? How does it feel? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


Photo by Avelino Calvar Martinez on Burst.


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