Wednesday 9 November 2022

I Am Not Afraid: Three Messages of Hope for Caring Friends

I can’t promise I won’t get scared sometimes, but I am not afraid.

The first key message I want to share is that there’s nothing to be afraid of in being friends with someone who lives with mental illness. That might seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s important given the degree of stigma and social isolation many people experience if they live with debilitating illness of any kind. We all like to believe we’re above such prejudices, but if we’re honest most of us can admit to having felt uneasy at times in the company of people who, on the surface at least, appear different from us or whose needs leave us feeling uncomfortable or helpless. Even if we don’t feel that way ourselves, we might have had difficulty dealing with other people’s negative reactions to our friend or loved one.

If anyone had told me years ago that I’d meet somebody online who would become a close friend, I’d have been happy to believe them. If they’d gone on to say that this person would live on the other side of the world and that we might never meet in person I’d have found the prospect interesting, even exciting. If they’d then told me that my friend would have bipolar disorder, and at the time of our meeting would be in high mania, frequently distressed, subject to the darkest depression and at times suicidal, I’m not sure I’d have hung around to find out more. I’m glad I did.

Before I met Fran I had little experience of mental illness, primarily because throughout my adult life I’d chosen to distance myself, literally and emotionally, from its visitations. My sister was diagnosed with mental health issues in her early twenties and my mother knew harrowing times with depression and anxiety. In each case I fled the scene — literally and figuratively — horrified by their situation and the depth of their need. There’s little honour is absenting oneself from the pain of others but I can be honest enough to admit that I did so. Years later, a friend developed crippling multiple sclerosis and whilst I was not utterly absent this time, I acquitted myself poorly and helped her very little. Her sobbing on the telephone terrified me. I rarely called her and never made the effort to visit. I wrote letters to her every day throughout what turned out to be the final year of her life. It allowed me to feel I was doing something, but it was not at all what she needed.

History had shown me no great candidate to be a friend to anyone with serious illness or in desperate need. It’s fortunate that I’d grown somewhat by the time Fran and I met, but our success as friends is as much down to Fran as it is to me. It takes two to make a friendship work.

The second message, then, is that you don’t have to be superhuman or special in any way to be of help and support to someone else, no matter their mental or physical health or the relationship between you. Your past history, your failures as a person, real or imagined, don’t mean you can’t be there for your friend or partner, your son, daughter, or parent if you’re prepared to be as honest with yourself as with them. Recognise and accept that it’s okay to be less than perfect. It’s okay to get things wrong sometimes. It’s okay for either of you to get upset or frustrated or angry, as long as you can find ways through it to the other side. Be who you are and do what you can.

The third message I want to share is the best of all: this kind of relationship can offer so much to both people involved. It isn’t about you as the well one supporting your friend all the time, with no regard for your needs. It isn’t about always putting them first. It’s about sharing the high points and the low points and all points between. It is about growing a healthy, changing, dynamic relationship that’s beneficial and fulfilling to you both.

I’ve learned and grown and laughed and cried so much since I met Fran. I’ve developed a far greater sense of who I am (both “good” and “bad” aspects) and discovered that I can make a real difference to the lives of other people; not by being or Imagining myself better than them but by becoming better than I was before. Most of all, it’s about sharing. You and your friend or loved one are on a journey together. Take things one day at a time, one step at a time. Support, encourage, comfort and care for each other. Embrace the journey.


This article is adapted from material originally written in 2013 for our book High Tide Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. One short passage has been blogged previously. It has been edited lightly here to bring it up to the present date.

Photo by Benjamin Davies at Unsplash.


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