On the Importance of Friends

I try to stress as often as possible, the importance of having a good support system while living with a mental illness. What I usually focus on, however, is the familial aspect of that support system; this month, I’d like to focus on the importance of friends.

When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2007, most of my friends left me; either by overtly telling me to never contact them again or by just not responding to my text messages and emails or by not answering my phone calls. I went from having dozens of friendly faces back home to barely a handful. It left me feeling all alone in the world, it left me feeling isolated, contaminated – as though I had to tackle this huge problem all on my own.

But I’m perseverant. I moved back to Denver after my final semester in Minnesota was up and met some new friends. But I didn’t tell very many of them about my mental illness. I was afraid that, if I did, they would just leave me and I’d be all alone again. Besides, the trauma of being a thousand miles away from home with no one to depend on was over. I thought I’d cleared the worst of it and it would be easy riding from there on out.

I was wrong.

By 2009, my condition was desperate enough that we had to take desperate measures. I started getting ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). I lost my job, I lost my home, I had to give up my dear cat, Baxter; I lost my abilities to do things I had done my whole life: read, paint, draw, fix computers – it seemed nothing was left. I had to move back in with my parents’ so they could drive me to Louisville three days a week to receive treatment and life quickly fell into a rhythm of exhaustion, terrible headaches, deplorable nausea, and crippling loneliness.

None of my friends came to visit me.

I can’t say that I blame them – most of them didn’t know what was going on. Most of them had no idea of my illness let alone the fact I was getting ECT. But there was that precious handful that knew, and they didn’t do anything either. My fiancee at the time wouldn’t take time out of her schedule to come visit me. If I wanted to see her, I would have to ask my parents’ to drive me over to her place. Oftentimes I’d just gotten ECT that day, which meant I’d been put under anesthesia, and my level of exhaustion meant I wasn’t up for our usual adventures on our bikes – I just wanted to sit and rest and be comfortable.

Life was rough. I remember spending my days in the living room of my parents’ house with the TV tuned to the same movie playing on cable day after day. I didn’t even watch the movie, I just stared at the wall. Or else I’d get on my laptop and sift through Facebook and immediately pounce on anyone who came online so I’d have someone to talk to. I was desperate for any kind of social contact, I was desperate for a friend. I don’t think I even had a solid idea of who a friend was. A warm body to talk to was about all I needed, all I craved.

But life went on. I got well enough that I decided to go back to school. I started showing up at the weekly vegan community dinner my friends were putting on at our church. I started going to church again. My life resumed a kind of normalcy, there was actual social contact again and I was feeling a lot better.

But still I didn’t tell anyone. If people asked me why I’d been AWOL for six months, I’d just tell them I was sick and needed to recuperate. People accepted this, they all knew I was sick with something but assumed it was related to the food allergies I had at the time and not a mental illness.

Then I met someone at a party/house show. And she’s been a consistent example over the past seven years I’ve known her of who a friend is.

Our friendship started out simply enough – hanging out at coffee shops and discussing things. I pride myself on my abilities as a conversationalist and we talked about everything from religion to art to radical politics and just about anything else you can think of. I felt comfortable enough with her, after a few weeks, to tell her about my mental illness. And, she didn’t leave. She didn’t stop responding to my texts, she didn’t ask me to stop contacting her. If anything, she became even more supportive. I’d be hanging out at my house with nothing to do and I’d get a text message from her saying that she was close by and wondering if it would be okay to stop over and hang out for a spell.

It was the first time someone had ever come over to visit me without me nearly begging them to come over.

Just something as simple as her thinking about me as she was getting some stuff at Hobby Lobby meant a great deal to me. And it started the seed of what’s grown into my theory on what makes a good friend of a person with a mental illness.

I suppose you could sum up the theory with the following: a good friend sees me as a person first, a good friend is someone who doesn’t make me psychotic.

It’s a simple enough requirement and seems a rather easy requirement to meet. But I’ve had friends who’ve been giving me a ride home while I’m psychotic and start asking me probing questions about the bear I’m hallucinating in the back seat. The probing questions just make things worse – for me to concentrate on the bear instead of something else just makes the bear more real, more threatening, more traumatizing. A real friend, in that instance would distract me away from the bear, not try to satisfy their own curiosity by asking someone who’s obviously distressed about the bear in the backseat a bunch of questions like: is it a brown bear or a black bear? is it wearing any clothes? is it acting aggressive or is it relaxed? do you think it’s going to attack? etc., etc.

I think it comes down to not being selfish, to seeing people with mental illness as people first instead of as their diagnosis. In my youth, I fell into the trap of confusing some people’s dozens of questions with genuine concern for my well being. People are often amazed at my ability to answer questions about hallucinations, voices, delusions, et al. and want to satisfy their curiosity about mental illness. I have no problem doing this, I see it as a sort of duty I have since it’s rare for someone with as severe an illness as mine to be able to talk so competently about it. But the person asking the questions must care about me as a person first and not see me as some kind of circus side-show freak.

I don’t expect my friends to be perfect. How could I? Invariably my own delusions and paranoia get in the way and friends do sometimes make me psychotic. Mainly through miscommunications and my inherent need to be perfect. But is that my friend making me psychotic, or myself making me psychotic? I would argue the latter. Suffering is inevitable when I meet someone new. Unfamiliar territory is stressful and stress is the progenitor of psychosis and suffering with mental illness. And what’s more unfamiliar than meeting a new person?

So the rule isn’t a hard rule of only maintaining friends who’ve never made me psychotic. Even the best of friends have been a source of psychosis at times. It’s important not to be rigid, it’s important not to be stubborn in applying the rules to people. People make mistakes, and I make the most mistakes. What matters is how they see me. Do they see me as a person? Or do they see me as a mental illness? Do they see me as someone to satisfy every question they’ve ever wanted to know about psychosis, delusions, paranoia, voices, and all the rest of the stuff that comes with having schizoaffective disorder, or do they see me as a person, deserving of love and respect just like any other person?

I’m thinking of the Bible’s definition of love right now:

”Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I think it would be appropriate, for our purposes at least, to substitute the word “love” with “friend”.

A friend is kind, a friend is patient. A friend does not envy …

I’ve learned a lot from the first true friend I made after ECT. She’s shown me what friends really do for each other – nothing necessarily extravagant (though she did commission an artist to make this really awesome miniature giraffe out of felt for my birthday this past December), but just simply being there when I need her, just simply being a decent person to me. She doesn’t make me psychotic.

In not making me psychotic, she does a few specific things:

  1. She accepts that if she asks me to do something last minute that more often than not I won’t be able to do it. I need to carefully plan my day, I need to have certain expectations for how a day will go. But she still keeps asking, because there’s the off chance I might be able to go. She knows that me not being able to go isn’t an indication of a lack of love toward her, but rather a limitation of my illness.
  2. She respects my limitations. I can’t often be in crowds, so she knows that hanging out with me will probably be done at my apartment or else when the coffee shop next door is not very crowded. She also knows that I tend to get paranoid walking home from her and her husband’s place after dark, so she offers me a ride.
  3. If we’re trying something new (e.g. something that might possibly be beyond my limitations), she makes accommodations. When her husband gave a lecture a few months ago, they invited me. But, not knowing how many people would be there or how I would be feeling that night, she came up with an “escape plan.” She told me that at any time I could tell her I needed to go and we would get out of there. We got there early enough that I had my choice of seats, so I would feel as comfortable as possible.

Because she’s accommodating of my illness, I feel completely comfortable with her. I can do things I wouldn’t be able to do with other people. I know she has my back, that she has my best interests in mind, and I know she actually thinks about what kind of environment would be best for me and how to navigate that environment.

I think a lot of it comes down to respect. Any friend of mine must know about the things I go through and respect the severity of them. I have a number of rules which I try to stick to as closely as possible because those rules are what enable me to stay so relatively healthy. My friends must respect those rules, must respect that I take my pills at 9:00a and 9:00p and as such I don’t schedule anything after evening pills and hardly ever schedule anything before morning pills. My friends must respect that I don’t do well in crowded or noisy spaces – I can get panic attacks, I can get psychotic. So we don’t usually go out to restaurants at peak hours. If we do go out to restaurants, we either sit out on the patio or else we go during a time when it’s not so busy. (And, as an aside. The Google Maps App on your smartphone has a really nice feature wherein it will tell you when a place is usually the busiest so you can plan to go there when it’s not so crowded. All you you have to do is look up the place in the app and scroll down where you’ll see a bar graph indicating peak times and times when it’s not so crowded).

The friends that I have, I know I can depend on for just about anything. If my parents’ aren’t available, or I need help sooner than my parents can get here (it’s a 40 minute drive from their house to mine), I know I can call any one of them and they’ll help me as best as they can.

I don’t have as many friends as I did before I was diagnosed ten years ago. I think it’s a combination of being ten years older (and hence a lot less social, not to mention having a mental illness that makes me a lot less social) as well as being more discerning about my friends. I decided a while ago that’d I’d rather have a few friends I could depend on with my life rather than a bunch of friends who’d abandon me at the first sign of trouble.

It’s important when you have a mental illness to be discerning about your friends. To be willing to distance yourself from certain people, regardless of how friendly or nice or generous they are, because they don’t respect the golden rule of “don’t make me psychotic” or because they don’t treat you as a person first. It’s not necessarily the easier path to take. The process of distancing myself from a friend who isn’t living up to the golden rule is a painful one. I like people, I want to be everyone’s friend.

Without that discerning, I think I’d be a lot worse off. It’s hard to be friends with someone with a severe mental illness – I know that it can be a tall order to try to accommodate all of my needs. I know that it can get boring to always meet at the same place and have to schedule hang outs several days in advance. There isn’t a whole lot of spontaneity in my life. But that lack of spontaneity is a necessity. A lot of how I live my life is out of necessity.

In May, I celebrated the 7th anniversary of the last time I got ECT. As I did the year before, I decided to hold a dinner for all of my friends, to thank them for being there for me, to help me celebrate how well I’ve been doing. I don’t think life can be successfully lived (however you determine “success”) with a mental illness without a good support system. It takes a team of people, all loving you, all supporting you; giving you their time and their effort to help you through the messy trappings of life with a mental illness.

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