There are articles all over the place about how to be a friend to someone who has mental health issues or a chronic mental illness. My Facebook newsfeed is full of “what to say to your friend who has anxiety”, “how to support someone who self-harms”, or “what I wish my friends understood about my depression”. These aren’t bad things, but they leave a gap: how do you be a friend when it’s you who has the mental health problem?
When I get into thinking about this, there are lots of thoughts that start running rampant in my mind, and if I’m feeling a bit low I get stuck on a train of negative thoughts: “I can’t be as good a friend as I’d like to be. I always end up letting them down. I feel so guilty that they worry about me, and that they always end up having to do things for me.”
I’ve battled with this for years. When depression seems to have taken charge it’s hard to remember why anyone would want me as a friend. Then when hypomania creeps in, I think I’m a better friend than I am, because I don’t always see how much input my friends need to have to keep me safe.
My best friends are my prayer triplet, and they are wonderful. We’ve seen the best and the worst of each other, and after what we’ve been through together, I reckon there can’t be many friendships closer than the ones I have.
But, despite my illness, it’s not just me relying on them. We rely on each other, and know that what’s happened to all of us over the years has made us stronger. What it has taken me a long while to learn is that I’m still a person with attributes that are nothing to do with my mental health. My friendships with other people didn’t suddenly change when I was diagnosed with bipolar. Friends see the best and worst of each other, and the badness of the worst makes the best times even better.
I used to think of myself as being ‘the needy one’, and that I’d never be able to do anything helpful or useful. Most of the time it was the depression talking, but a little bit of that mindset crept in, always threatening to take up permanent residence. Having friends, and being a friend, is what counteracts that. I know that there are things I can do for my friends that no one else can, and, through them, I know that I have qualities that make me a good friend. Recognising those strengths is what gives me the confidence to offer friendship.
I can always find things that, as a friend, I should have done differently. I went through a stage where I constantly felt guilty for not being the friend I ‘should’ be. I hate some of the things I’ve said to them, even thought I wasn’t in my sane mind at the time. I feel bad that I’ve put my friends through so much, and often think I should constantly be seeking their forgiveness. But they don’t see my bipolar as a sin – and as they say, that’s what friends are for. Their love for me isn’t diminished by my illness.
But the greatest pressure, I think, is that which comes from inside. I know my friends don’t think about me the way I think about myself. And while I might be the one with a diagnosis, they need me as much as I need them.
The main thing about being a friend and having friends is that you can trust each other. My friends say I’m a good friend. We have serious times and we have a laugh together – often at each others’ expense, which I reckon is the best kind! If my mental health is flailing they are right there for me, but I’m right there for them, too. At the end of the day, I’m just a friend who loves my friends, and I can be as good a friend as the friends I have.
And when I don’t believe them they are right there to remind me, because that’s what friends are for.
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