Friendship and Mental Health: How to Be There when Your Friend Can’t
I wrote this post as part of the “Face of Motherhood” campaign I did in May. I hope you’ll go back and read through the posts I collaborated on with many other women who also struggled with some type of post partum mental health illness. I’m hoping to continue the series more regularly, if you have a story or advice you’d like to share please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s be honest. Right here. Right now. It is not easy to be friends with someone who struggles with mental health. There will be times when you have no idea what’s going on. Maybe she suffers with anxiety and struggles to leave the house. Maybe she has depression and struggles to get out of bed. One day, she’ll be there for you all attention on you. The next day, she can’t even imagine taking on her own problems let alone anyone else’s. It’s confusing. It’s challenging. Sometimes, it’s just not that fun.
I am that friend. I struggle with anxiety. Normally, this struggle is pretty typical of life with four children. I get overwhelmed or irritable. When I’m pregnant or postpartum, it’s not normal. It starts with the morning sickness. I spend months making tracks from the bathroom (to get sick) to the bed. It’s lonely. I would love visits but, of course, friends have kids. Friends are busy. I would say, sitting next to someone who honestly looks a little green, doesn’t sound too fun. I’ve seen it happen time and again. I disappear for a couple months and so do my friends. I would say, I spend a lot of my pregnancy feeling a little down. I’m a fairly active person but one thing I cannot push through is nausea. So, to be stuck in bed for months on end can be frustrating. To have to say no time after time when friends want to get together can be isolating.
That’s stage one for me isolation. Around 20 something weeks, I start being slightly more social. I see friends, on modified terms. It depends on the pregnancy- sometimes it’s easier to visit others and sometimes, I can’t leave my house and if you want to be friends you may as well make yourself comfortable because you’re going to be doing a lot of visiting.
The next stage is adjusting. Adjusting to the slower pace of life. Everything is slower when I’m pregnant. Time seems to crawl at the speed of a snail. My social life calms down. Even the kids extra curriculars. Luckily, this past pregnancy I was able to maintain some semblance of normalcy with my book clubs and some biweekly school centered play dates with a friend (who luckily came to us- shout out to Becca).
The third stage is recovery. I want to believe when pregnant, as soon as this baby pops out I am going to be my old normal relativey sane (stop laughing) self. This is probably the hardest part for me. I want to enjoy my baby and share him with friends and family. I want to get my house and life back in order. But, it takes time and when you have anxiety, patience is not something that comes easily.
So, what does all this have to do with friendship? Well, being friends with someone like me means understanding. A lot of it. Patience. Willingness to be open, talk it out, and not hold grudges. But, most of all being friends with me means you have to accept me, flaws and all. I’m not perfect and I don’t pretend to be. I make mistakes- lots of them. But, I try. I struggle on. And, if you’ll struggle on with me, I can be a forever friend.
1. Understand. Sometimes, the person who is battling her own brain is going to do things you can’t comprehend. Understand that you are not going to get her all the time. If you haven’t walked in her shoes, you don’t know what she’s dealing with. Even if you’ve experienced something similar, it doesn’t mean it affects her the same way. Understand that she may need to take a step back. She may need space. Not from you specifically but just from life in general. Give her space, but understand that this is not about you. She’s doing the best she can but sometimes life is just too much.
2. Forgive. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of a panic attack, I act, and then wish I hadn’t. When your friend does something that you don’t understand, whether it’s something said or maybe even harder, when it’s unsaid, talk to her. Forgive her for the mistakes she makes while suffering through her depression, anxiety, or even mania. Without true forgiveness, friendship is meaningless.
3. Be there. Yep it’s as simple as that. Be there. Even when your friend pushes you away. Even if she disappears for days at a time and doesn’t return texts or calls. Letting her know she means something to you. That’s enough. That’s all it takes. If she disappears, even when she tells you she just can’t right now, be there.
I’ll never forget while I was in the midst of my battle with PPA after baby number 4 (it was bad- you can check it out here), my friend was texting me regularly, checking in on me, caring about what was going on with me. She was worried. I told my husband to tell her that I just couldn’t right now and she flat out told him that she wasn’t going to stop checking on me. In fact, she sent me flowers. I remember, I couldn’t even really appreciate them at the time. But, looking back, it’s a bright spot in the darkness- I don’t know that I can ever express to her what her refusal to give up on me in my dark time meant.
There you have it. No, it’s not easy to be friends with someone who struggles with mental health. No, you won’t always like each other (but I’m learning that that’s just a part of life for everyone- no one likes each other 100% of the time, it’s what you do when you don’t feel particularly loving toward someone that counts). But, your love, support, and attention can change someone’s life.