Some things in life are an awful lot easier said than done, and unfortunately, sometimes when a mate or someone you care about is going through a rough patch, striking up a conversation about it or letting them know you care can absolutely feel like one of them. Where do you start? HOW do you start? What if they don't want to respond? What then?
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be difficult to be in someone's corner. There are lots of ways you can help, and not all of them have to be as hard as trying to have a direct conversation about their struggles face to face. Here a few little things that (from experience) can help make bridging the gap a little easier, so that no matter from what distance, you can always find some way to be there.
I don't know why this is true, but sometimes everything just feels so much safer and easier to say or let go of when you have your hands wrapped around a warm mug. But equally, there's something hugely comforting about sitting in silence with a friend whilst you both sip and take some time out, even if you don't talk at all.
The amazing thing about meeting for a coffee or asking someone if they'd like to drop in for a cup of tea is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime. My mum used to come and just sit with me on my bed and have a cup of tea with me in silence on my bed at uni. Or sometimes when I could manage it we'd meet for coffee in the corner of a little coffee shop and make our own little space there too.
The important thing about these moments is that even if it's only 10 minutes, it's time away from everything else in your life where you can feel how much the person next to you cares, and I know how much I cherished that. If hot drinks aren't your thing, you can go for a glass of wine or a pint, or get takeaway bagels and sit on a bench in the park – but never underestimate how important and comforting sitting next to someone can be.
#2. Asking how they are
Sometimes saying “how are you?” can be a bit difficult, because the socially conditioned response is to say “I'm fine thank you”. This feels automatic more than ever when you're most absolutely not.
When someone asks how you are in everyday life, it's more of a polite part of the 'hello' dance rather than a genuine inquiry into your mental wellbeing. There's an overwhelming fear that no one *really* wants to hear in response that actually things are really horrible and even the thought of showering reduces you to tears, because we're all scared of the response. We're afraid of being a burden, or too much, or too intense. We're too scared of losing people.
It's of course always still a good idea to ask someone you're worried about how they are, but if it feels like you're hitting a wall a bit, sometimes it helps to approach from a different angle: My friends know I find it hard to start talking, and in turn I know that they don't always feel like it either or don't always have the 'time' (we're all at jobs or uni, and sometimes long, consistent conversations just aren't feasible). So instead, we send each other tiny implicit messages of support that let them KNOW we're thinking of them, that we’ve noticed things seem a bit rough and that we care about how they are, without actually going through the awkwardness of 'confronting' them about it.
For example, a tiny text saying 'Just in case you needed to hear it today, you're an ace & beautiful human being and I love you squillions – you've got this!' can say everything it needs to and more. It means that whenever that person checks their phone, wherever they are, they might get a tiny ray if sunlight all because of you! Speaking from experience, it can change your whole day, and it means the world.
#3. Find safe places to talk
If you're able to meet up face to face, there are secret times and places that sometimes just make talking or unconditional love, comfort and understanding just a little easier to communicate.
Walking together or sitting driving are both amazing, because the experience of talking to someone whilst you're side by side can be so much more freeing and less daunting than face to face. The changing scenery helps too, because when you walk outside or watch lights flash past in a car in the dark, your mind isn't fretting as much about the intensity of what you say, because it's noticing everything all around and you're creating a mutual experience that's completely your own. It sounds silly, but it's worth a try. Trust me.
#4. Post power!
As we get older, it becomes more and more likely as we find our own lives that we might even end up on the other side of the world from a friend we love and care about. When it's just not possible to see someone face to face or be nearby, little handwritten letters and tiny care packages are the closest and most brilliantly comforting thing you can get next to giving someone a real life hug.
Letters are amazing for the same reasons as texts mentioned above, but they're also even more like a real-life hug because handwriting does amazing things at closing distances both emotionally and geographically, and you can keep them forever. I still have letters my mum wrote me when I was first in hospital when I was 11, and I still have every single one to keep safe.
Letters can sound like a scary prospect, but they don't have to be essays - write a little note in a card about why you love them as a friend, or send them a bunch of cuttings of their favourite actor (I cried happy tears when this happened too – there's nothing quite to cheer you up like the joyful bizarreness of opening an envelope and 67 tiny pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch's face fluttering out). If that all seems too much, you can send a bunch of post-it's with silly in-joke references on them, or tell them what you bought in the supermarket, ANYTHING at all. Just let them know you're rooting for them, and lovely effect will be the same. 'This is not a letter, but my arms around you for a brief moment'
#5. Little gestures
When everything starts getting messy with your mental health, one of the first things to disappear off the radar is your ability to practice self care and the normal, tiny acts of compassion we show ourselves as human beings in order to keep going. Eating properly, showering, sleeping, washing our bedsheets, all become impossible or too daunting or unimportant. This is where the people who care about you can be complete and utter superheros.
When things have been awful for me, some of my friends have posted me little surprise packages full of things to help remind me it's okay and necessary to look after myself, like mini shower gels and notebooks to write future hopes in and give me something to focus on looking forward to, or a silly fluffy pen or a photo. When I was at uni, a friend I don't see an awful lot sent me a surprise box with little letters attached to each item and I was so overwhelmed with her kindness and love that I cried. I still have every single one.
It doesn't have to be that big a gesture, it could be something as simple as ordering a pizza to their house or posting their favourite biscuits through the letterbox, but it'll fill them with more joy, and relief than you know.
Hopefully this might give you a couple of ideas, but the most important thing is that the only thing you have to do to be in your friends corner is let them know they're supported and loved. What you do and how you do it doesn't have to be hard, it can be an easy, fun and wonderful adventure all of its own, and whether you give them the extra cheese off your pizza or send them a grand piano, it'll mean more than you can imagine.