When I was 18 my mum was very clear with me that my going away to university was a privilege and not a given. I made sure to appreciate that I was lucky enough to meet and make friends with a diverse range of people from all over the world over the next three years who I never would have got the chance to meet had I stayed in the rural area I grew up. With today’s modern day technology I am able to keep in contact with these people allowing for a much bigger social circle than my parents could’ve dreamt of. On Facebook at one point I had over 400 friends and having lived in two cities and a rural town I have definitely got a lot of acquaintances now.
In the three and a half years since I left university, some of the close friendships I had made at school and university have definitely fallen by the wayside. Some of this was to be expected of course. Having moved just over a year ago to Brighton over four hours travelling time from both my parent’s home and Nottingham where I went to university, I have lost the luxury of close proximity to a lot of my friends. However, I do strongly believe that I have lost some old friends and a great deal of potential new ones due to my mental illness.
It’s a very sad fact that if you use a mental health service you have a one in three chance of losing contact with friends (source Time to Talk campaign). I completely understand the reasons behind this. Firstly I am not able to be sociable as much as I would like. I have missed enough reunions and get togethers to not be surprised when I am no longer invited. I understand why former friends are often very vague when I suggest plans to meet up. Unfortunately not only can I not manage meeting up if I am unwell, there are activities that I just really struggle with. Going out or staying up late is hard for me as I have to take medications at a certain time which make me drowsy. I can’t drink much anymore either due to this medication. I can’t manage spontaneous overnights as I need to make sure I have all the right medication on me and this very same medication drains my bank account of over £100 a year that could be used on travel to meet up with friends. Incidentally that bank account is not very healthy to begin with as I can only work part time as I need at least a day a week free for medical appointments and treatment.
So face to face meetings are not always possible but there’s still phone calls, emails, instant messenger and letters, right? Except long distant relationships are also very hard to maintain with a mental illness. Over a cup of coffee in a café it’s fairly easy to have a catch up and talk about banal things for a while before you drift into the more heavy topics of conversation. Over the internet or phone it’s not necessarily so easy to do. Most conversations start with a simple, ‘How are you?’ however for someone with a mental illness this isn’t necessarily simple to answer. In my opinion you have three options, lie, deflect or tell the truth. I now tend to go for options 1 or 2 because in my experience if you answer truthfully about how bad things are a lot of people just stop asking. It takes a hell of a lot of patience and endurance to be my friend because although people want to be there for me in a crisis it’s pretty difficult to maintain when that crisis is on going for an extended period of time.
The few hardy souls who still invite me to things, answer my messages and the one or two who call me or send letters and cards are wonderful and kind people. I am extremely grateful and proud to be able to call them friends. As Jack Black once sang, ‘friendship is rare,’ and it’s precious enough that I will cling on for as long as I can. I will always endeavour to do my best by these people but hopefully this will help to explain why sometimes it is hard for me to do my bit. As far as tips go, to anyone who is friends with someone with a mental health condition I would suggest the following:
-Be tenacious. They might have turned down your last 9 invites to do things but they sure as hell will appreciate the 10th.
-Don’t be afraid to bring up your own issues and problems. I know it makes me feel a hell of a lot better when I feel like I am helping people and friendships need to be two sided.
-The answer to, ‘how are you?’ can sometimes be scary but please still ask. You don’t have to solve the problems you just need to provide an empathetic ear.