Sunday, November 18, 2018

Be That Person

            I have been thinking about Jan’s timely and important post.
Her discussion of suicide, risk factors, and warning signs is apt,
so I won’t belabor the point. I would, however, like to expand upon
her challenge to all of us. Jan challenged us to live with our eyes
open; to reach out. She astutely pointed out that one question or
small gesture could make all the difference. This reminds me of a
book I read by Kevin Hines, who survived jumping from the Golden
Gate Bridge. He shares his instant regret the moment he jumped. The
other thing that stood out to me is that he walked up and down the
foot path on the bridge for forty minutes in obvious distress. He
made a deal with himself that if one single person stopped to ask
if he was okay, he wouldn’t go through with it. Instead, a woman
stopped and asked him to take her picture, completely oblivious to
his despair. This experience illustrates the importance of keeping
our eyes open and getting out of our own world. As Jan challenged,
let’s notice those around us. It doesn’t take more than a few
seconds to ask someone if they’re okay.

I’m going to challenge you (and myself) further. Be willing to hear
the answer. Most people are conditioned to say they’re fine, and
maybe they are, but what if they’re not? What are you going to do if
they answer your question honestly? Show them you care by actively
listening and trying to understand or run for the hills in case
their negativity and “drama” rub off on you?

This brings me to the concept of social isolation. Social isolation
is a risk factor for suicide, as is mental illness. The problem is,
despite our awareness campaigns, well-intentioned postings of crisis
hotline numbers, and “Reach out for help, things get better”
platitudes (usually also well intentioned, I’m sure), mental illness
leads to social isolation. Let’s take depression, for instance.

I’ve noticed a disturbing misconception that depression is
contagious, like the flu or leprosy. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Sure,
other people’s moods can rub off on us. If someone is always crabby
you might notice your own irritability rising. But depression is not
a mood. On the contrary, it is a psychological disorder that
disables people from experiencing the full and typical range of
human emotion. Ignorance and fear of depression and other mental
illnesses may cause people to disengage from, avoid, or abandon
friends with these disorders, which is complicated by the fact that
often people withdraw when going through a depressive episode. Sure,
lack of energy has a lot to do with this; it’s exhausting to try to
act cheerful, fear you’ll bring others down, or feel like no one
could possibly understand.

Do we really wonder, then, why people are hesitant to “just reach
out”? Reach out to whom? When we’re too scared to have the tough
conversations, we allow stigma to persist and send a message
opposite to the one we have no trouble posting on Facebook. Saying
talk about it with the subtext “but not to me” does more harm than

Listen, you don’t have to be a mental health professional. You don’t
need to fix your friend with mental health challenges. In fact, you
shouldn’t try. Maybe they do need a therapist, but they don’t need
you to fill that role. They just need you to stick around, even when
it’s not always fun. Even when it’s not always easy. Even when
they’re not a ray of sunshine. Is it easy to maintain a friendship
with someone with chronic mental illness? Not always. But just
because something’s not always easy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do
it. I’m leaning heavily on my depression example because its what
I’m most familiar with, but you could substitute it for something
else. People with depression feel things more deeply. Sometimes that
intensity is off-putting, but it’s also real. This may not be the
friend who’s the life of the party, but they will be the first
friend there when you need a shoulder or a couch to cry on because,
hey, they get it.

Maybe people get freaked out when someone starts talking about tough
stuff such as mental illness, hopelessness, or suicide because
they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. As someone who’s been on
the other side of that conversation let me tell you that saying
nothing is worse than saying something. Ask the questions; sometimes
that makes all the difference. But go further than that. Be strong
enough to hear the answers. It’s okay if you don’t understand. It’s
okay to ask for clarification. But I’m challenging you to be the
friend who asks the questions and receives the answers with
compassion rather than anger, panic, or indifference. I’m
challenging you to be the friend who stays in a world where too many
people discard relationships the second they stop being fun. Be the
friend who stays. You might be the only one.

Now what if you have your own mental health challenges or you
already have a lot on your own plate and these conversations are
triggering for you? Am I saying you should just suck it up? No. You
need to take care of yourself and your own mental health. Setting
boundaries in relationships is healthy. Again, though, I’m going to
take it a step further. Your friend (I’m using friend for the
sake of clarity, but it could be any relationship) really needs to
feel like you care about them. Depression is really adept at
convincing you that no one cares anyway, so what’s the point? Prove
it wrong and show your friend you care by being there and being
honest. I promise you they can handle it.

People with mental illness are not fragile little flowers who blow
over in a strong wind. They deal with adversary every day within
their own minds. Respect them enough to be straight with them.
Saying, “I care about you and how you’re doing and I want to hang
out with you, but I can’t always hear/talk about
(depression/suicide/triggering topic) because it can be a trigger
for me. However, I can come over and bring you a coffee/hang out
with you/just be here. I want to know what’s going on in your life
and how you’re doing, but let’s have our friendship be about other
stuff too," will hurt them way less than your “I’ve just been super
busy” excuses or ghosting. Their jerk-brain will run with that and
make them ruminate about what they could’ve done wrong and how no
one wants to be around them, etc. Don’t insult their intelligence by
making excuses for your absence and don’t insult their strength by
deciding for them that they can’t handle honesty.

Obviously, the quote I wrote above is a paraphrase.
Boundaries and limitations look different for everyone. You might
tell your friend to check in via text so you can have time to
process and consider your response, for example. Again, your job is
not to be a crisis counselor. You might be okay talking about it,
but lately it seems they’re talking about it all the time. Tell them
that. If you value the person at all, tell them. Mental illness is
so all-consuming and it’s so difficult to find a safe person to
share that significant aspect of your life with; it’s easy to fall
prey to word vomit when you find a person willing to listen. If
they’ve been sharing that stuff with you they must consider you a
very close friend, and you probably encouraged them at some point to
open up about it. Chances are, they don’t realize they’re bombarding
you with it, because it’s their normal. I can’t say this enough:
TELL THEM. If you don’t, it feels like the rules of the relationship
changed without their knowledge. It feels like, “What did I do wrong
that my friendship is becoming more distant? Was it this
conversation? Or this one? Maybe they just stopped caring about me?”
A little bit of honesty goes a long way, and unless they’re a toxic
friend (which is a whole separate issue) the last thing they want to
do is trigger you or bring you down. They’ll appreciate that you
care about them and the friendship enough to be transparent with
your own needs and limitations.

It’s okay to set and revisit boundaries and expectations. It’s not
okay to set boundaries and shift expectations in your head and
expect the other person to telepathically get the message. It’s not
okay to discard a human being like a broken computer. Even if you do
have to end a friendship, “Listen, this friendship isn’t working, I
think it’s best we go our separate ways,” is kinder than silence.

Break the silence. I challenge you to be the friend who stays. At
the very least, be the friend who’s straightforward. Mental illness
is confusing enough. No one wants to try to interpret excuses or
silence. Be the person strong enough not to take the easy way out.
It could make all the difference. Be that person.