A Grown Up Friendship

Emily T - Banner.jpg

I think in high school, we’re all waiting for something that makes us feel like we’ve grown up all at once. Maybe we already feel that way.

The truth is, most real aging doesn’t happen quickly, it’s a slow, steady process towards maturity. However, there are exceptions. There are a few things that do truly age us - grief, shock, pain, and loss.

If we’re lucky, we miss out on them until later in life.

A girl I know experienced a moment like that - at age fifteen she learned what it was like to lose a close childhood friend to mental illness, and the pain of never being able to repair deep regrets that had ended the friendship years before.

That girl is now one of my best friends, and the reason I feel I’ve experienced at least one of these moments.

The first time you call 9-1-1 for a friend that you might lose to suicide really does shake you up. There’s a lot of fear in knowing a person you love very much also has some part within them that wants to hurt someone you love very much. And it’s profoundly confusing if you yourself have never been suicidal, or experienced any kind of depression or anxiety.

You wonder, will the call do any good?

Was this the right thing to do for them?

Will they hate me if they survive this?

Will they survive this?

From where I stand now, if the last question is on the table, always make the call.

I’m up to four such calls since that night, and it does get easier every time. The story I want to share is how to get to that point-- how to be a compassionate supporter of close friends suffering from mental illness, and how to take care of yourself while doing so.

***

I’ve been close friends with people struggling with mental illness since high school. Depression, anxiety, a few things close to schizophrenia that the doctors still don’t have a name for. I was lucky enough to have close, emotionally intimate friends back in high school.

We talked out those struggles often enough.

I at least had the good sense back then to mainly listen, and not offer too much advice. It’s very easy in such situations desperately cling to some flashy cliche, some small habits that you feel like may be the reason they, and not you are experiencing this pain.

Go to yoga! Read a good book! Exercise!

I mean, surely wanting to kill yourself couldn’t just be mitigated by these trite little tidbits? But the alternative is to admit helplessness. Admit that this problem is bigger than you are-- bigger than the both of you.

Admit that it could happen to you, as well, if you walked a mile in their shoes. Admit that it might never happen to you, simply by luck of birth, situation, or genetics.

I’ve come a long way since my high school friendships.

One of the biggest, worst paradoxes one needs to accept in trying to help friends suffering from mental illness is-- you can’t help at all.

No, really.

The big alleviators of mental illness come from real mental health professionals, from well-chosen medication, and from an enormous effort on the part of your friend whose brain or experiences have dealt them a rough hand.

Helping your friend get access to these resources or making sure they are supported as they do so can go a long way, but the big strides they will have to take on their own, in their beat-up pair of shoes (which will suck, for them. In case you were wondering).

The second, more optimistic side of the paradox is that you’re helping simply by being there.

Lending a compassionate ear, listening without judgment or belittling their struggles, and celebrating the victories (no matter how small they seem!), at the end of the day, does mean so much.

At the end of the day, a person with mental illness is the same as any person in that they do not want to feel alone: they deserve to be loved, listened to, and supported through their struggles.

Give them a chance to explain their struggles. Ask questions. Ask them if they want options for support, if you can help support them. Ask. Ask. Ask. Then listen.

Remember, they’re still the ones that have to do the walking in those shoes. And that might be a rough time. They might be afraid.

Let them know when you’re afraid for them, too.

And just as most often we grow through small, hard-earned moments of maturity, mental illness becomes more manageable and less painful through such small, hard-earned moments of love and compassion.

***

The truth of the matter is, being friends with someone struggling with mental illness isn’t easy. And your friend is likely aware of that as well. A friendship is still a two-way street, but adjusting boundaries and expectations are more important than ever.

Before committing to such a friendship, you should be aware of the level of emotional labour you can handle. You should make your friend aware of what they can count on you for, and always make good on that promise.

You should make them aware of what needs you cannot fill for them, and if possible, help them find alternatives. This process is going to be ongoing, sometimes on the level of monthly, or even weekly.

Such friendships require a much higher degree of self-awareness than a casual friendship. After every interaction, you should ask yourself: was I listening? Was I compassionate? Did I respect their needs, and their autonomy as a person?

Was I still their friend, at the end of the day?

This is an equally important question. At the end of the day, you are (probably) not a mental health professional, and cannot be expected to provide the answers to their problems. The best you can expect of yourself is to be a good friend. And hopefully they will appreciate and celebrate that, just as you appreciate and celebrate their victories.

You may also need to ask yourself if your needs are being respected in the relationship, and speak up kindly, but firmly, if they are not. Remember to set boundaries, and have both parties be aware of those boundaries. Be kind to yourself. If you have to walk away because boundaries were crossed, that was not your fault.

Always, always, always have external friends or family members who you can count on for support if things get painful for you as well.

I can’t promise it won’t be painful from time to time. But I think most people feel better knowing they’ve done everything they can to help alleviate pain for someone they love.

And when you’ve both survived the experienced, and made it to the other side, older, wiser, and thriving?

I think that’s what growing up really is.

It’s been a good four years at university - I’ll be heading out to graduate school the year after next, and though I haven’t personally experienced mental illness, it has affected my life quite a bit, through many, many people that I love.

I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. At least not we build a world where the stigma of mental illness no longer exists. Where we can listen compassionately to people’s struggles with these illnesses, and empower them to seek the treatment they need without shame.

That starts one friend at a time.

And if you’re wondering about the friend I called in two years ago --  Well, I’m thrilled to say she’s doing much better now. She’s also the person I’m writing this for. From the bottom of my heart, congratulations, Ji Youn. And thank you. For teaching me, and helping me become who I am today.