Having Friends With Mental Illness And Coping For Attention

February 17, 2016  |  

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Friendships are like most relationships: they involve a symbiosis, a delicate balance of give and take to make them work. Maintaining equity in a friendship is frequently difficult for healthy people; however, when you have friends with mental illness, the balance can get shifted more drastically than in other relationships.

I have two close friends with mental illness, Nicole and Ken. I actually have more friends with mental illness, but Nicole and Ken are the ones with whom I share the most. With Nicole, I usually share my workaday struggles living with bipolar. She has also experienced depression, so we can talk about our symptoms or our thinking patterns or how sometimes it’s hard to work. When we’re both feeling pretty well, our friendship is like any other. But when one of us is doing better than the other, there is tension, at least from me.

Friendship is about sharing and picking each other up when you’re down. It’s also about celebrating times when you’re up. When you have friends with mental illness, sometimes you don’t get to share your wins because you have to be there for someone’s losses. When I’m feeling well, I feel like I don’t want to hear about anyone’s bad times. I feel a little selfish for that, but when you’ve had an excruciating time maintaining a good mood, and that mood is tenuous at best, you feel like you need to do everything you can to protect yourself. Even if that means being less than available for a friend.

With Nicole, and I suppose with any friends with mental illness, its sometimes harder to connect with her down times when I’m not in the same position. Healthy me is so drastically different from depressed me — I act differently, I think differently, I dress differently, I do different activities — that it’s almost like I’m two distinct people. The two people barely know each other and I’d like to keep it that way. So I try to help Nicole when she’s depressed, suggest some solutions to her problems and bide my time until we can relate like “normal” people. By the way, I’m pretty sure she has similar feelings.

Ken and I have a different friendship. We have different mental illnesses so we can’t commiserate about how we feel, we can only talk to each other. When we are both well, we talk about our diseases, our prognoses and share details about our treatment. Mental illness isn’t the basis of our friendship, so we do talk about other things. That is, when we want to talk.

When I’m really depressed, I don’t talk to anyone. And when Ken is really anxious, he isolates as well. Our respective confinements may alleviate the type of situation that I have with Nicole, but they don’t exactly leave a lot of time for the friendship, which also annoys me. When I’m feeling well, I enjoy life so much but I’m unable to share that with a friend who isn’t responsive. Sometimes I am so disconnected  from my depressed self, I wonder what I’d done to drive my friend away instead of understanding that he might be having a hard time. As with Nicole, I have a whole set of guilty feelings stemming from my disconnection with my depression.

All relationships require maintenance and effort from both parties in order to be sustained. Frustrations occur when one party doesn’t do what’s necessary for the relationship to continue satisfactorily. When you have friends with mental illness, or you have a mental illness, sometimes it is impossible to prioritize the friendship over your own issues. During those times, it’s best to maintain your health and keep communication open with your friends.

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