Explaining the Obstacles of Maintaining
Friendships when Suffering from Mental Illness
I know I am not an easy person to be around. I know that I can be a handful. I’m fully aware that I have a lot of issues and can be very intense at times. I know it cannot be easy being my friend. Mental illness is a scary beast and mine is chained to me like a rabid animal, likely to lurch out, snarling and baring its teeth, at any given moment. I truly never blame anyone that feels they need to exit stage right and not look back. While my friends might tout all these wonderful qualities they feel I possess, I am under no misconceptions or illusions.
I am a great listener and genuinely care about how my friends are doing. I will often look my friends straight in the eye, though, and lie to their faces. When asked how I am doing, it is usually easier to paint on a smile and reassure them that I am peachy than to unload everything that is going on in my world at the moment. It isn’t that I don’t want to trust my friends. My trust issues often have nothing to do with my current friendships, but rather revolve around the traumas of my past. I also don’t want to scare or overwhelm anyone. I don’t see myself as a priority because my friends have enough issues of their own and I know that unloading my problems onto my friends won’t change my situation but will negatively impact their lives. Truth be told, I’m also terrified that if I begin talking, the floodgates will open and I’ll end up terrifying them. I don’t doubt the sincerity of my friends offering to be there; I just am often physically, mentally and emotionally unable to share. Perhaps another time when I’m in a better place and feeling like less of a burden.
I am very empathetic. Though I can sympathize and give comfort and reassurances, I’m hesitant to give any advice when it comes to matters of the heart. If you need suggestions with recipes, crafts, or local outings, I’m your woman. However, it makes me severely uncomfortable when friends ask for relationship advice regarding their friends, family or romantic lives. My life has been a wreck so far in many ways. I’ve been wrapped up in so much dysfunction over the years that it feels like the normal status quo to me. I can feel their pain but am afraid to offer advice because I don’t want to be responsible for my friends crashing into the ten car pile-up that is my life. Please know, though, that while I don’t give advice easily, if I toss a warning out there, I truly need my friends to listen. I’ve lived through enough disasters in life that I have learned to spot many of them from a mile away. If I suggest being careful or running, I have a concrete reason even if I am unable to share it at the time. While I would love to go beyond just listening and sympathizing and genuinely help my friends with all of their problems, I rarely feel I have any positive or helpful advice to share. Perhaps another time after I’ve learned to have successful relationships myself.
I am sad a lot of the time. Not dropped-my-ice-cream-disappointed, but to the depths of my soul depressed. There’s days I must repeatedly bite my lip throughout the day just to avoid breaking down into tears. It does not mean I do not enjoy time with my friends. I often have no control over my emotions. I try to paint on a smile so my friends don’t worry but there’s often visible cracks in the facade. I know friends care and want to reassure me that I don’t have to pretend to be happy for their sake, that they’d be there regardless, but it is easier for me to pretend life is okay, even if just for a short time. While I appreciate when friends trying to share encouraging cliches about life eventually working out, merely trying to be more positive or learning to let things go will not solve my issues. I often find myself smiling sadly, conceding “perhaps,” but inside, I am know depression is not solved that easily; It has never worked before, will not work in the future, not now, not another time.
I always seem eager to make plans with friends and find ways to rearrange and juggle everything to make things happen. Though I do truly love seeing my friends, please know that my eagerness stems from the intense loneliness of depression. There are times when my anxiety is so high and thoughts have been racing in my head, driving me crazy, for so long that I’d happily do almost anything suggested just for the distraction. I am more likely to offer to be there for friends than to ask for anything myself. While I might toss ideas out there, it is hard for me to outright ask for help or to be a priority in anyone else’s life; If I cannot fathom making myself a priority, how can I imagine anyone else volunteering their time and energy towards my interests and goals. Even when tentative plans have been thrown out there, I will check repeatedly with friends, making sure they truly want to hang out – it isn’t that I’m hoping to cancel or don’t want to do anything – I’m trying to offer others an out in case they’ve had second thoughts about our plans. Admittedly, I always expect friends to jump at that easy out, telling me “..perhaps another time”.
I take scheduling plans more seriously than most people do. My depression saps my energy on a regular basis. There are days I have trouble even finding the energy to get out of bed so dedicating my entire energy storage to spending time with friends is a huge commitment for me. While it’s easy for others to cancel plans at the last minute on a whim, it’s a large blow to my psyche. I’ve dug deep into my reserves just getting ready. Putting things off until tomorrow is rarely a viable option for me. Cancelled plans are severely mentally and emotionally defeating and take days to recover from, especially if I have gone out on a limb to ask for something I consider personally important. I have severe abandonment issues. My feelings are easily hurt and I withdraw when I feel others see me as unimportant or insignificant. I agonize and internalize over cancellations, tracing back over previous events to make sure it wasn’t caused by something I said or did. I will always try to reassure friends that it is okay when they cancel, that real life happens to us all, but it is truly difficult for me when it happens because I feel I’ve wasted a good portion of my stored energy for nothing and that, on some level, I do not matter. While saying “..perhaps another time” at the last minute might feel like nothing to my friends, it is truly agonizing to me.
Much like I agonize over cancellations, I beat myself up whenever things do not go according to my own plans. Friends might tell me that my being late is no big deal, but I feel like I’ve let them down in a severely drastic way. Even when it is not entirely my fault, I internalize every miscalculation, blaming myself completely for not living up to the idealistic view I have of the friend I should be. I hold myself up to higher standards than I expect from anyone else and am my own worst critic. If I have to cancel for any reason, I will apologize profusely, over and over again, because I feel like I’ve committed a cardinal sin. It is heart-wrenching for me to suggest “..maybe another time?” because I cannot imagine anyone wanting to perhaps reschedule after I’ve ruined the day for them.
I think a lot. I analyze. I overthink. I analyze my overthinking. I internalize everything I have over-analyzed. Friends have told me many times not to let my mind run away with itself but there’s no controlling it once my anxiety has taken root. Perhaps another time if I can find a way to stop myself before it begins. I also often isolate and pull away. If I feel I’ve let down friends, I isolate out of shame. If friends mistreat me or repeatedly blow me off, I isolate because I begin to feel abandoned and figure they do not care about being in my life. If I am faced with a difficult time and my facade has begun to crack, I isolate because I do not want to overwhelm anyone or become a burden. I isolate because it is easier to be alone than to cause drama in other people’s lives. Friends try to remind me not to pull away, but my flight response is so high that isolation has become my go to move. Perhaps one day I’ll find a way to stop myself from wanting to run, another day, another time.
There are so many ways my depression and anxiety present itself every day, leaving a glaringly negative impact on my relationships with others. Friends may reassure me that I’m sweet, funny, compassionate, smart and fun, that everyone has their demons and it is no big deal, but all I can see is the giant gorilla that is my mental illness in the room . I would love to be a better friend, to not need so much reassurance, to not over-analyze, not internalize, not isolate and not spend every day depressed and living in fear of disappointing the people that matter in my life. Unfortunately, I have very little control over this giant rabid beast chained at my side, pulling me every which way, forcing its will upon me. I am trying to work through everything and to heal. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be in a better place. For now, however, I’m struggling just to stay on my feet and function. Perhaps another day..
~ Dedicated to all those friends of mine who have stuck with me, despite my struggles, over the years and have forgiven me whenever I’ve isolated and disappeared for periods of time. I sincerely love you all and appreciate the kindness, compassion and understanding you all have shown me time and time again. I could not imagine my life without any of you in it.
Republished on The Mighty on 8/10/16.