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How Can I Be A Good Friend When I’m In A Bad Place?
How to deal when your friends are just as sad as you are
“Hey, fancy a coffee today? I’m feeling a bit out of sorts.”
As I text this, I realised that ‘out of sorts’ could mean a myriad of things, but, on this occasion, out of sorts meant, hopeless, sad and a bit alone. That said, out of sorts sounds far nicer. My phone sprang back with a text from Hayley*.
I arrived at three, my second beta-blocker of the day was starting to calm my racing heart and despite the cold weather, I was drenched in sweat. I waited, poised in an uncomfortable chair, eyes focused only on the door. 30 minutes later, a phone call, of which Hayley explained that she was also struggling with anxiety. She wasn’t going to make it. I stood, knocking my now cold tea to the floor. Shaking hands grabbed at napkins, attempting to clean up the mess I’d created. Tears sprang to my eyes, as I stumbled out into the street and walked home. I sat in the hallway of our tiny terraced house and sobbed for over an hour. Gut-wrenching sobs amid Domino’s flyers. Hands clutching at the cold vinyl floor for something to ground me.
Gut-wrenching sobs amid Domino’s flyers. Hands clutching at the cold vinyl floor for something to ground me.
I couldn’t blame her. I was experiencing the same thing. And, yet as I turned to my phone, seeking someone, anyone, to talk this through with, I wondered who could possibly understand.
And, yet, like me, most of my friends experience some form of mental health issues.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but most likely, I feel like those of us who have experienced the overwhelming sadness of depression, can see something that others can’t. A sort of understanding of the strange isolation of mental health issues. Akin to the Thestrals in Harry Potter, where others see a magical carriage, we see the fragile horses dragging it forward.
With these friendships comes a certain responsibility, we all see the Instagram graphics of ‘check in on your pals’ or, ‘a true friend is the one that calls’, but what happens if it’s both of you? What happens when you’re both feeling as lost and frustrated as each other? Whose responsibility is it to call then? The problem with these messages is, akin to many things, a lack of nuance.
A friend blinded by heart-racing anxiety often can’t see past their own feet, certainly not another friend that needs support.
A friend blinded by heart-racing anxiety often can’t see past their own feet, certainly not another friend that needs support. So, who do you talk to, when the people you want to talk to need something from you? When they’re in a pit of despair, it feels unhelpful at best, callous at worse, to simply climb on top of them. There’s a unique sort of loneliness in having friends to call, but, knowing what you want to say, what you want to talk about, isn’t helpful to them. In fact, it could even set back their own recovery.
People are often quick to label these ‘one-sided and toxic friendships’. According to at least six articles, I should cut them from my life, simply because they’re not currently serving my needs. It’s as if friendship is akin to a bar tab that can simply be split down the middle when the lights come up, a sort of ‘I listened to you’ and ‘you listened to me’.
I’m not implying that we should all continue friendships that we no longer take joy in. Simply that we should have a little more patience, that our friendships require more care and work, especially when they’re long term. It’s a sort of Schrodinger’s responsibility, both sides are both simultaneously responsible and not at all.
The other issue at play is the way in which we support.
I often find that those who experience mental health problems also have a knee-jerk reaction to help others. A need to prioritise others over themselves is almost instinctive, simply part and parcel for those with low self-esteem. When both parties are desperate to care for the other, while simultaneously being unable to look after themselves, it creates a tricky dynamic.
“Firstly, it’s really common for people with anxiety or depression to prioritise others over themselves,” explains Holly Beeden, clinical lead at Living Well UK, when I sit down with her.
“A need to help others can often be a form of avoidance for people experiencing mental health issues – helping other people means that you don’t need to help yourself. You’ll get the short-term relief of knowing you supported a friend, but, there’s no long-term benefit. It can also be a projection of our own feelings.”
We all know that other people’s problems can feel far more manageable than our own. And, when I actually think about it, I’m aware that I’ve been guilty of refusing to acknowledge my own problems while simultaneously parroting to my friends that they need to ‘really look after themselves’
Holly continues, “it’s worth saying that there are benefits to having friends with similar mental health issues. These shared experiences can allow us to normalise our mental health discussions, or, just feel like we’re not losing the plot. It’s far more common than you might think. But, the challenge is when it comes to potentially triggering each other – one might feel relief at sharing a problem, but the other friend is then overwhelmed.”
I consider both the times I’ve felt as if I’m drowning in my friend’s problems, and the times they’ve struggled to stay afloat in mine.
I consider both the times I’ve felt as if I’m drowning in my friend’s problems. A sea of awful ex-partners, sadness and sorrow. As well as the times they’ve struggled to stay afloat in mine.
“Knowing yourself and your own triggers is a start. If you can feel the physical signs of anxiety, your heart begins to race or you can feel yourself getting stressed, it’s time to be honest. Boundaries are really important here and, if you feel like you can, have a really open conversation about where your boundaries lie. For example ‘this topic is a really tough one for me’. And, ask what your friend’s triggers are, where they draw the line.”
Holly explains that a lot of the time, anxious souls will jump in to help, wanting to create solutions for our friends, rather than just being an ear for them. “There’s a big difference between actively listening and jumping in to rescue them. They might just need to vent, with no action or solutions needed. Your role is to simply listen, and when you catch yourself getting too involved, simply pull yourself back a little.”
Lastly, Holly recommends creating a plan for when we feel low. “Sit down with your friend and communicate how you respond to poor mental wellbeing. Maybe you need a bit of pushing to leave the house, or you need someone to give you a call. That way, if you’re feeling low, your friend already recognises how you need supporting.”
“Especially for those who experience depression, getting out and doing things is the key to not slipping into that dark pit. If you have a tacit agreement that no matter what, you’ll grab a coffee on a Tuesday, this can be really positive for someone experiencing that. As long as it’s not too intense or heavy, having these shared plans can really give us a boost.”
I saw Hayley last week and she apologised repeatedly.
“Depression, it just makes us so selfish.” She sighed, as we attempted to create some sort of ‘break in case of sadness plan’. She tells me about her nights wandering her flat like a ghost, unable to taste food or even sleep. I tell her about the hallway and the tears, the feeling of my skin being so sensitive, it felt as if I’d split in two.
“I’ve had the same thing!” she shared, “so, next time it happens, try turning the lights right down…”