“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 NLT).
We were not meant to do life alone. God created Eve because He knew two are better than one, and Adam needed a helpmate. Living with mental illness only intensifies that need for help.
Mental illness is a lonely disease. Because the symptoms are invisible, I tend to put on a happy face and hide them.
But when I am experiencing an avalanche of symptoms, I need help. I need someone to talk me off of the ledge and lead me in the right direction. Sometimes, when I am not strong enough, I need someone to be my voice. My advocate.
Ideally, I would share my struggles with someone I love and trust. I would confide my symptoms to the people who are my safe place to fall.
I have a confession to make. I talk a great talk about the importance of a solid support system when managing mental illness, but I don’t always follow my own advice.
During the worst season of my mental illness, my friends disappeared. They didn’t take my calls when I sounded crazy. They didn’t answer my text messages. They sent emails saying they had their own problems and didn’t have time to deal with mine.
Beyond my husband and immediate family, my circle of friends was almost empty. I didn’t have everyday friends. You know the kind. The ones you do life with on a daily basis.
My tribe was small, and my needs were big. My husband and my mom were my solid ground. They held it together for me when I couldn’t. They made sure I received the care I needed. And though I appreciated their help, I needed more.
I needed a tribe—a core group of friends I could count on when life happens, and I become overwhelmed. We need trusted friends in place to turn to when life gets to be too much. People who are there because you chose each other—not because of shared DNA or a marriage certificate.
Finding a tribe is not an easy task, even under the best circumstances. People walk in and out of our lives for any number of reasons. When you add mental illness to the mix, the rate of people walking away skyrockets.
After I gave birth to my daughter, Ava, I felt isolated. Two weeks after her birth, I developed postpartum psychosis and had a falling out with my closest family members. I mended fences with my family, but I was still so lonely.
Finding my Tribe
I went it alone for three years, and then I stuck my toe into the friendship pool. Someone from my church told me about the local MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group. I found a built-in group of friends who understood my struggles as a new mother. Once Ava transitioned into school, and I was no longer a member of MOPS, I took with me a core group of friends.
Here is the struggle of having a group of friends who have never seen me at my worst: I don’t know how they would react to my crazy. The years they have known me have been some of my most stable. That’s not to say I am without symptoms—bipolar disorder is always banging on the back door. But I’ve been as close to normal as I’ve ever been.
And though I know they love me, sometimes I wonder how well they really know me. Deep down in the dark recesses of my mind. Until I started writing my blog, they only saw the me I show the world. But it is one thing to read about my symptoms and another to experience me at my full-on bipolar worst.
Friendship—especially between women—is complicated. Add mental illness to the equation, and it is often a recipe for confusion, misunderstanding, and drama. There is a part of me always waiting for the day when they will read something or see something that is too much. A deal breaker.
I am not just being a pessimist. I have lost my tribe before, and part of me fears it could happen again someday. And it could somehow be my fault.
There are three reasons it is difficult for the mentally ill to maintain friendships:
1. The mentally ill are reluctant to add people to their inner circle.
Living with mental illness has caused me to erect a protective wall around my heart. Although I am lonely and crave companionship, I am jaded. I have over-shared in the past, been too much and been hurt by those who couldn’t handle my truth.
An invitation to the outer court of my life is easy to get, but only an select few make it past the walls I have built. A member of my inner circle explained it better than I ever could. She told me, “I was a tough nut to crack (no pun intended), but once I let you in, I love hard, and I love for life.” That sums me up perfectly.
2. The mentally ill don’t want to bother anyone with their symptoms, so they hide who they really are.
I don’t enjoy dealing with my symptoms. They are ugly and irrational. They are embarrassing. I hide them because I am fearful I will be too much, and my friends will walk away. Again. So I have this beautifully crafted facade, and mostly it is me. But all the darkness has been airbrushed, and I have softened the harsh lines.
I’ll be honest. Even though I love my tribe, sometimes it feels easier to go it alone. When I go it alone, I don’t have to explain myself. I don’t have to be what I think people want me to be. I don’t have to hide my worst days in fear they won’t understand.
3. In the throes of an episode, it is difficult to discern where the person ends and the symptoms begin.
When I am in the middle of an episode, I am a selfish being. It is not by design; it is simply a malfunction of my brain chemistry at that moment. My rationality disappears. I become a different person. She looks like me, but I’m not there.
When symptoms are unrelenting for weeks, months and years on end, people believe the manifestations of your illness are who you really are. They can’t separate the symptoms from the person. They believe your behavior is your character.
Love the one You’re With
It is difficult to maintain friendships, even under ideal conditions. I come into my friendships dragging a ball and chain named bipolar disorder and a baggage cart that is overflowing.
I will always expect people to leave. That is a product of my experience. But I will enjoy the people in my life while they are here.
I am in a season of life now when I am surrounded by amazing women who I can call on to pray for me and stand in the gap. If I have another terrible manic or psychotic episode, will they all still be here when the dust settles?
Maybe. Or maybe not. And that’s okay. That’s the thing about friendships, they are always changing. People come and people go. It is part of the natural ebb and flow of life.
Loving someone with mental illness is not for the faint of heart. The people who love you become worn down by the intensity of your emotions and behavior. For some, your mental illness will be too much. That doesn’t make them bad people. It just means they are not your people.
I choose to love the ones I am with. I choose to remember we are all imperfect people living and loving the best we can. I choose to look past all the reasons it is hard to maintain friendships when you are mentally ill, and just keep loving.
How has mental illness affected your friendships? Is it hard to maintain your tribe of friends, or are you surrounded by people who accept you for who you really are?