There’s this reoccurring dream I have where someone I love is drowning. At first, I see them like I would on a movie screen, a dot far away in the ocean. This person has no face, but I know it is someone dear to me. I don’t know how they got out there, and I don’t know why. I want to help. I want to save them. I know I’m not strong enough to swim out there on my own, so I get in a boat and row. I call to them, I reach out for their hand, but I get nothing. I throw a lifesaver, but still nothing. What I’m doing isn’t enough, it’s not working. I don’t understand why. Why won’t they respond? I begin to panic. It’s my responsibility to save them. Why didn’t I plan better? Why didn’t I bring more supplies? I want to reach in and pull them out of the water but I can’t, I’m not strong enough. I am angry. I am hurt. I dive into the ocean in an attempt to reach my friend, the one I love. If I can grab a hold of them I think maybe I can save them. But I can’t. The ocean is too big, the water is too overwhelming. I can’t stay afloat. I am sad. I am sick. It feels like I just swam out into the middle of the ocean to save someone who has made friends with an anchor.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about my personal relationship with mental illness where I shared some ways to cope with having it. There is a whole other aspect to dealing with mental illness when it’s affecting those we love and care for. Depression and anxiety are not convenient. They don’t care if you have plans with friends, or if it’s your wedding day. They don’t even respect federal holidays. They can show up anytime, anywhere. I am aware that when I am in the middle of a depressive episode, or a panic attack, I am not the easiest person to be around. My anxiety makes me irritable and my depression makes me weepy. I know that isn’t fun for people. So how do we better care for those we love when they’re dealing with a mental illness?
Bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder are just some of the mental illnesses that someone you know might be dealing with on a daily basis. There is a lot of shame surrounding mental illness. Most people are afraid to admit that they suffer from it, when in reality it’s no different than struggling with diabetes or cancer. These are illnesses that one doesn’t always have control over. Even though there are ways to manage them, there’s no way to ever rid oneself of them completely. Be patient with those who suffer. I’m aware that depression can make someone a “downer”, and it’s not always fun to be around. My hope is that I provide some healthy suggestions that can help you have a better understanding of how to be a good friend to these people.
I don’t like to make lists with bullet points when I’m dealing with something as broad and personal as mental illness, because everyone is different, and there are lots of different types of relationships. The advice I would give to a parent who is dealing with a child with mental illness is different than the advice I would give to someone who has a spouse with mental illness. And that advice is different than the advice I would give to someone who has a friend that suffers with mental illness. Because of that, and because I’m not anyone’s therapist, my goal isn’t to tell anyone exactly what to do, rather to give suggestions on how to be there for our friends that struggle. As both someone who suffers from mental illness and someone who loves many different people who suffer from all kinds of mental illnesses, I feel like I have some insight to both sides of the issue.
Don’t say “Call/text me if you need anything!”
It’s a lovely offer, but I’m not going to take you up on it. I feel too embarrassed, and the last thing I want to do is inconvenience someone else. Instead of saying this to my friends, I try to have a plan in place before I text or call them. Service is the best way to let someone know you’re thinking of them. I’ve cleaned my friends’ houses before, babysat their children, taken them dinner, or just dropped off a soda at their houses. If you have a friend who is struggling, call or text them and ask them if you can do a specific something for them. “Hey, are you home? I’m out and about and I wanted to bring you a soda!” Who’s going to say no to that? I will sometimes, to be honest. There are times when I just don’t want to see anyone, and I know sometimes people don’t want to see me. I’ve left many sodas, loaves of bread, cookies, and pizzas on friends’ doorsteps because they don’t want to see me. It’s better to have done a drop-off than to leave a doorstep empty! One of the best things my old visiting teacher would do for me is leave an Evian on my doorstep when I told her I wasn’t in the mood for a visit. God bless the dropper offers!!
Don’t tell me to count my blessings.
I understand the idea behind this, and it’s something I try to do all the time, not just when my mind is failing me, but the last thing I want to be told when I’m in the middle of a depressed episode is that I need to be more grateful. I already know that, and I’m trying. My brain is broken, and I’m sorry. But the fact that I have a family and a job and a hundred more blessings than the starving children in Africa, or even so-and-so up the street doesn’t make me feel happier. Sometimes it makes me feel worse, because I know I have much more than most, and I still feel sad.
I don’t expect other people to solve my problems for me. In fact, I know they can’t. But it’s always nice when someone opens up to me and shares their own personal experiences. It makes me feel less alone. “I understand how you’re feeling” is one of the most comforting things anyone can say to me when I’m having a panic attack, or when I’m in the throes of depression. Though you may not struggle with mental illness, we can all relate to feeling alone, sad, hopeless, and scared. When you open up to someone and share your experiences with them, it makes them feel more comfortable and loved.
My mental illness means I might not be able to go to your baby shower. Or high school reunions, weddings, relief society activities, birthday parties, etc. I try to be to as many of these things as I can, but I cannot go to them all, and when I do, I can’t always stay as long as I want to. Try to be understanding about this with your friends. It’s not about you, it’s not because they don’t like you or don’t think your party is fun enough. I’m happy you’re getting married, I just can’t be in a room full of people right now. I definitely try to manage my feelings so that I can be a supportive friend and make it to as many events as possible. But when I do have to miss out, understand that it has nothing to do with you. Your friends who are suffering with depression or social anxiety feel the same way. There have been times when I have gotten completely ready for an event and not made it past my garage. It’s awful and humiliating. I always appreciate my friends who are kind and understanding about it, and don’t try to make me feel worse than I already do.
Sometimes caring for someone with a mental illness can feel a lot like trying to rescue someone from drowning when they’ve got an anchor tied to their foot. It can be frustrating, scary, and at times can feel completely hopeless. I love what Elder Holland says in his talk “Like A Broken Vessel” from October 2013 general conference. “If you are the one afflicted or a caregiver to such, try not to be overwhelmed with the size of your task. Don’t assume you can fix everything, but fix what you can. If those are only small victories, be grateful for them and be patient. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.” Caring for someone who suffers from mental illness can be hard on us. It’s okay to step away for a bit, care for ourselves, and then come back. I know I can’t care for someone if my own mental health is failing.
When I think about mental health, I always think about riding in an airplane. How the flight attendants bring you peanuts and sky juice (aka ginger ale) but they also tell you what to do in case of an emergency. Put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t help the person next to you with their mask if you’re passed out because you didn’t take the time to put yours on first. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT AND RELEVANT TO LIFE, GUYS! If we spend all our energy and time on another person (or people), there will be no time to care for our own bodies and minds. Check in with yourself and make the changes you need to make so that you can be healthy for yourself, and for those around you who may depend on you. Mental illness might seem like the anchor that keeps someone we love attached to the sea, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t row out to try to save them. Some days you may have to try harder than others, and some days it might feel like you’re ignored completely. Stay in that boat. Keep trying. One day, you just might rescue someone.