I had a hard time making friends until recently. I moved quite a bit as a child, had to deal with cultural differences, having a funny accent and wore braces until college. These things are pretty common barriers for everyone, and no matter your mental health status, since kids will be mean to each other in any country and regardless of there being an actual reason. I was rather socially inept in college and high school, even though there were more people around me at any given moment. Without such a pool of people, it only gets harder to find good friends as we age.
Now that my tastes and personal opinions have become more distinct, I finally feel like the people I have in my life now, are likely to stick around for a while. When previous friendships fell apart, I found value in the lessons they taught me and the various types of people I have been exposed to. Since having enough positive experiences, I no longer worry about not getting along with girls, because I have learned that not all girls are the same. Nor do I worry that every guy I meet is only looking to hit on me, because I have made incredible friends with people of all genders and sexual orientations.
While I do not define myself by my diagnoses, I have found that I do better when the people surrounding me are understanding, forgiving and generally those who assume the best in others. I hope to reflect such kind traits in my own behavior too. It took a lot of thinking before I was able to identify what truly matters when it comes to building friendships. After a few people asked me how to make friends while recovering from certain mental illnesses, I was prompted to I sit down and identify the formula, so to speak. Here's what I found:
Good Friends To Those Who Have a Mental Illness Will: Have No Change In Attitude Once They Learn About Your Issue
The best friends I have had since I started being more open about my mental health and created Mxiety, were those who told me they would support me and then…actually did. Moreover, once they learned about my issues, they continued to act exactly as they did before. Sure, we have had to discuss their concerns about the topic, but that’s natural and not something they dwelled on. It wasn’t about judgment, more about understanding better what their role will be in light of this new information. Often, the person asked me how they could help, what they could do to be a good friend and then proceeded to just hang out with me. After that, nothing changed. No avoidance of text messages, no odd excuses from previously agreed upon plans. This is critical because if I want to ensure my illness does not define me, I do not want people who will hold that label over my actions for me.
Keep Cool Should a Mental Health Emergency Arise
With anyone who I consider a good friend, I try to hold the discussion about what they can do to help should a mental health emergency arise, prior to them seeing me have one (as professionals advise). Any emergency is stressful, regardless of whether you are prepared to handle it. I have mental health first aid training and have lived with individuals who have a variety of disorders, and I still have moments where I get anxious because I am not sure I am taking the proper steps. It is crucial for me to know, should a situation arise, for example, a panic attack, that the person with me will not react poorly. By poorly, in this case, I would mean: giving me weird looks, start getting stressed themselves, or worse yet, downplay what is going on to insinuate that I am doing something for attention. My good friends will ask me if I am well and then proceed to act according to protocol. If I ask to go to the bathroom, they’ll give me a moment but might check up on me should too much time pass. They will show they care, but also understand that I am still a capable adult and don't want to feel like a fragile vase. It’s important to note, that I can only expect them to support me in such manner if I have shown respect for their time and their needs when I am well. Which brings me to my last point.
They Hold You Accountable
While my philosophy is that people do better when they are nurtured than when they are told to toughen up, I know there is certainly a time and place for the Toughen Up conversation. In fact, I would prefer friends who do this rather than just let me have my way in fear of upsetting me. Yes, I have even had friends who discussed how intolerable I was behind my back, which I do not recommend because it results in nothing positive.
I would rather my friends hold me accountable when my behavior is not acceptable. They should call me out when I don’t take time to self-care, or say something concerning about myself, and shouldn’t let me make excuses and act like was okay for me to do something when it wasn’t.
Unfortunately dealing with mental illness means there’s always a chance for someone in your life to see you at your worst. And no matter how much you prepare them for a mental health emergency (above), it can still be an unpleasant or difficult experience. The important thing is to not use your illness as an excuse for bad behavior. Once you feel better, it’s important to return to your friend and apologize for any concern caused. Better yet, learn what you can from it and explain what can be done to better help the situation next time. The worst anyone can do is double down and say that this is the way they are, putting the burden on other people to “deal with it” without shouldering some of the work or accepting your own and your friend’s limits. Expecting your friend to be there for you is reasonable, expecting your friend to take on your issues as their own, isn’t.
I have found my friends to be extremely important in helping me stay in equilibrium. Hopefully, you’re someone who has a supportive family who may take on this role, so you never feel different or left out because of who you are. As someone without close family, having reliable friends who make me want to be the best version of me has been life-saving.
I am not a professional and every friendship is certainly different, but these realizations have helped me immensely in my journey to be becoming a whole person outside of my illness. I have made some mistakes. I have confronted people when I should have been comforting them. Sometimes there was no way a friend and I could continue seeing eye to eye. Just the same, knowing how much value you offer to others is important. No one, no matter their or their friend's circumstances, deserves to be treated poorly.
So, go out there and seek out good friends.
Are there character traits you look for in friends that I didn't mention? What else is important to have in a friend, especially if you have mental health concerns?