How to handle friends’ mental disorders/illness

Somehow, I’ve always found myself surrounded by people with a wide variety of mental illnesses. From eating disorders to depression to complex PTSD to borderline, I’ve seen it. I’ve often lived with these people in the same house, or seen them on a daily basis. I’ve seen them on their good days and their bad days. And I’ve definitely picked up some tips on how to deal with it yourself, because boy, it can be really tough. 

Now, first of all, full disclaimer: I’m no therapist. I myself am in therapy for anxiety & depression, and I have friends in psychology. That’s it. All of this is based on my personal experience.

Still, having seen my share of issues, I have picked up a thing or two on how to handle it without sacrificing your own well being. (I am also terrible at following my own advice, as proven by the exhausted state I’m writing this article in).

Please do also note I’ve written this mostly (obviously) for people who struggle with their friends’ mental disorders. I’ve tried to keep it general, and hopefully applicable to whatever is going on with your friend.

Now, I know what you’re all thinking: ‘but Charlotte, how come you know this many people with disorders?’  Quite frankly: I have no clue. Birds of a feather, perhaps? Maybe the amount of people with mental disorders is growing? Or maybe the stigma is slowly disappearing, more people are being frank about their problems, and more people are getting diagnosed? To be honest, I’m sticking with the ‘birds of a feather’ theory.

I love my friends dearly. I really do. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world, and although I’m the type of person who’s perfectly fine with going for months without talking to them, luckily they are too, and we work brilliantly this way.

But that doesn’t mean our respective diagnoses have never caused any conflict. Whether with current friends or with past friends, our mental disorders have caused arguments, break-downs, and have even been the cause of the end of friendships. It’s a reality you have to deal with, and it’ll never become any easier. Still, there are ways of making it slightly easier, if only for yourself.

Treat them the same way you always would 

Nothing worse than telling someone that you’re in therapy for whatever reason, and all of a sudden they treat you differently and start blaming your condition for everything. I have a colleague who recently confided in me she has Asperger’s*, and the reason no one else in the company knows, is because she’s worried they’ll treat her differently. So don’t. They’re still the same person!

Celebrate the good days 
Your friend will have bad days, yes. Plenty of them! Weeks of them! Months even! Sometimes years – or, like with one of my best friends, their bad luck just doesn’t ever end, ever. But there will be good days. Celebrate them, have fun on them, and make good memories. You can use these to refer to your friend in a ‘look, we had fun that day! Not everything’s bad!’ kind of way, but also as a reminder to yourself of that very same thing.

Remember to take care of yourself first. It can be extremely exhausting to be the one to constantly talk people through anxiety attacks or to hear about how sad people are on a daily basis. Remember the saying “put your own oxygen mask on first”. It’s true. You can’t save or cure your friends, and they probably don’t want you to even try. There are therapists and social workers and all kinds of professionals for that very purpose. They just want you to be their friend, to have fun with you. But friendship goes two ways, and it’s not just about you taking care of them.

Draw a line
Don’t be too afraid to tell them you’re not up for their drama today. There’s being a good friend, and there’s being a convenient outlet for whatever’s bothering them. You’re their friend, not their therapist. So if you’re just too tired or you have your own issues to deal with or you simply do not want to listen to it today, tell them. Really, just say “I’m sorry, but I’m not up for this today, can I talk to you another day when I’m more ready?”. I know this sounds rude, but, to be somewhat repetitive: put your own oxygen mask on first. In modern society, we glorify people who are always ready for other people, who are always willing to help. But in all honesty: this isn’t realistic. It’s not healthy, either. You’re not a professional, you’re a friend with your own life and your own issues. Besides, saying ‘no’ every now and then is healthy. It’s good for you, and for your friendship! People who say ‘no’ more often usually have better and more satisfying friendships and relationships, exactly because they draw the line somewhere and don’t allow people to cross it.

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm
The harsh truth about mental disorders is that they can be disruptive, they can (and almost always are) exhausting. They can cause people to make false assumptions all of the time, and I don’t just mean the people with the disorder. But sometimes it gets too much, and you can’t spend yet another night convincing your friend that no, that boy does not think you’re disgusting, yes that other boy is actually disgusting himself and you really need to get away from him, no you’re not fat/unworthy/stupid/a waste of time and space. Sometimes, things get too much, too often, and it’s in your own best interest to take a step back and realize ‘I’m putting more energy and effort in than I should’. Sometimes, for your own health and security, you need to cut off a friendship. It’s hard, and it sucks, and it’ll feel like you’re mourning – and in a way, you are. You’ve just lost someone, you’ve lost a friendship, and you’re allowed to mourn this. But sometimes, it’s necessary in the long run. By all means, support your friend, be there for them, make time for them and spend time with them. By far most people are worth it to spend time and energy on, and all friendships are hard work to begin with. But remember the ol’ internet saying:

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm. 

Stay safe, and always take care of yourself first. Remember that none of this is your fault, you’re not responsible for your friend’s wellbeing, and that generally just being there to listen on the bad days and to have fun on the good days is enough. You’re enough. And you deserve a good friendship just as much as your friend does. They won’t always be able to return the friendship, but remember: can you? No, no you can’t. And that’s fine.

Now go grab a book and take some time for yourself.

*I would like to clarify that I personally do not consider autism and all its varieties a mental *illness*, nor do I consider most (mild) varieties a problem in any way. But I also know there are a lot of people who still do think so, and autism is still considered a mental disorder at least in the DSM IV, which is the one most used in the Netherlands. There’s a lot of discussion on whether it’s a (neuro)developmental disorder, or a mental disorder, or just a different way of wiring the brain and not a disorder at all, but all of that is a discussion for a different day (when I’ve read way more about autism). 

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