February 21, 2013

Martha blogs about mental health and friendshipFriendship isn't always easy. I first learned this as a three-year-old, stepping into a prized Wendy house at nursery school, only to be told (by a slightly bigger tot), 'You can't go in there!' My first memorable friendship snub - ouch!

In the years since then, I've thankfully learned to take the knocks. I've also concluded that whilst life is about finding kindred spirits with whom to share positive and hopefully meaningful times, it's also about navigating your way through tricky scenarios - the assorted land mines laid down by life. The Wendy house-type confrontations and, of course, much, much bigger stuff. These situations, the challenges, I think most would agree, are the true test of friendship.

For people like me who've battled with mental health issues (in my case, severe depression and mixed affective state, a type of bipolar), it feels like these tests have come thick and fast. After all, there is arguably no greater test of friendship than the randomness that can accompany mental ill-health. And that randomness - certainly before diagnosis - tends to prevail.

I've lost friends as a result of being unwell

Over the years, I've definitely lost friends and marred relationships as a result of being unwell. I count myself among the three-quarters of people who've experienced a mental health problem who have lost friendships as a result of their illness (a statistic revealed by the recent Time to Change survey).

To be fair, in my case, these relationships existed in something of a pre-diagnostic fog - these friends probably didn't realise I was sick, and for many years I didn't realise how seriously under par I was either. We were all fumbling around.

Even if they had known I was unwell, I'm sure some of these friends would still have found it hard to cope. Some people can and some people can't. Not everyone has the inclination nor the ability to stick around for someone who, it transpires, is fighting large-looming mental demons. I say this with no value judgement. There are lots of things I'm not too good at either.

It can be easy for mental illness to masquerade as rudeness

Not just that but I think it's easy for mental illness to masquerade as rudeness, self-indulgence and an inability to keep your 'chin up' when other (healthy) people appear to navigate life so effortlessly. I can see that friends who are well may find it easier to draw a line under your friendship and take it elsewhere when it all looks so self-absorbed.

To the outside world the solution may seems obvious - over the years I've been told to 'do something nice for someone else' during my darker times and to 'have a manicure' or 'have a haircut' to make myself feel better.

I appreciate these were suggestions that may well have worked for a well person who was simply having a 'bad day'. Now I'm so much better, they'd probably work for me, too - not so when I was seriously depressed. Actually, the realisation that these suggestions weren't going to work for me made me feel a whole lot worse - I was a bigger failure and more beyond help than I already thought.

I also gained some incredible friends

And so, over the years, some of my friendships fell away. Some may have naturally done so anyway as life experiences took us in different directions. But in other cases, friends probably felt they'd done with trying, that the friendship was barely reciprocated and that they were drained and bleached by the continual process of being there. It would seem it was all too much. I can really understand that.

The other surprise, though, is that I've got this far, to the age of 43, with plenty of quality friendships to my name. Luckily, during those desperately ill moments, although I may have lost some friends I also gained some incredible ones at unexpected times and from unexpected places.

Amongst them there's the wonderful work friend who was at the end of the phone at all hours, telling me to 'keep it in the day' when I spooked myself by envisaging blackness forever.

My neighbour invited me round tirelessly

There's the neighbour who would allow me to sit in his house and just 'be' when I felt like I could tear my own skin away for sadness, not to mention the friend who would tirelessly invite me for Sunday roasts when I felt like all my favours were used up but I couldn't help myself.

Then there was the playgroup friend who offered to come to the psychiatrist with me when I first got my bipolar diagnosis - a courageous and most welcome act from someone who had known me for so little time. She sat with me afterwards in a London cafe as we gripped each other's hands and toasted, through tears of relief, 'new beginnings'.

These brave acts of frienship are things I will never forget

All of these brave acts of friendship are things I will never forget, words and deeds I think I'll always feel indebted for.

Like all of us, I'm still learning about the highs and lows of friendship. But now I'm feeling so much better, I'm hoping I can increasingly become that 'available' friend of the kind who stuck around to help me. I'm humbled by the generosity and resilience of these unexpected pals. If I can be half the friend they have all been, I'll be on my way to doing OK.

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