Firstly I want to thank everyone who read Part One: The First Step. I appreciate all the kind words and praise – but that’s not my motivation for sharing all this. My motivation is to illuminate how I’ve helped someone, in the hope that by sharing my experience of what we went through and encountered that, you dear reader, may find it helpful and perhaps apply that to helping someone close to you.
After my friend opened up to me that day I confess I felt very out of my depth. Like most people, I had some knowledge about mental health illnesses, but in truth, none of it seemed to fit the situation I found myself in. How could I help and support my friend if I didn’t have any idea of what to do?
I went home feeling like I had already let my friend down.
In hindsight, I know the simple things like messaging and ensuring I replied to messages quickly no matter the time of day or night were actually a huge help and comfort. But, it didn’t feel like that to me. Not at the time. It didn’t feel I was doing enough.
When you care about someone I think it’s very natural to feel that way. To feel you should be doing more. I underestimated the impact of those messages at the start. It was only months down the line that I really understood.
I urge anyone if you feel someone you know is struggling, please send them a message. Not everyone wants to talk in person, not until they’re ready anyway, so a message can feel less intrusive. They can reply in their own time. Let them know you’re there for them. It really can help them to feel less alone.
In the weeks that followed, I read and read. Websites, blogs, social media and medical articles. Anything that could possibly give me a insight into what my friend was going through. Did it help? Yes, it gave me a better understanding of what mental health is and what it can do. Did it give me the answers I was looking for? No. Oh there were guidelines, but that all read so impersonal and didn’t seem to fit. None of it told me what to do to help my friend.
I had overlooked the obvious. Only my friend could guide me to what would work for her: what things helped, what things didn't.
I remember feeling so frustrated by this realisation. You see, I have a number of medical conditions myself and often need help. What I hate most is when someone assumes what help I need. When someone talks/asks other people how to help me or when they start doing something to help without asking. E.g. Reading labels to me when I’m in my wheelchair even though I’m very capable of reading for myself.
Over time, my friend’s preferences (eg responding to messages quickly, being bluntly honest, respecting her cues re physical contact/hugs) taught me how to help her. How to be effective in helping her. Sometimes it was to bluntly call a spade a spade; sometimes it was to stop talking and allow her the space and time to talk into it; sometimes it was to not hug her until she reached for a hug even though what she was telling me was killing me; and yet sometimes it was to gently provide that hug when she didn’t yet know she needed it. But every time it took honesty and respect in taking the risk of being wrong and then discussing how we could turn that wrong around, so it was positive for us both.
I won’t lie, at the start, I was scared to ask questions for fear of upsetting my friend. I was scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. I. Was. Scared. Full. Stop. I didn’t want to do anything that would add to the pain and suffering my friend was already experiencing. But, not asking wasn’t helping either.
In supporting someone with mental health illnesses, you need to be open to and able to start facing/ accepting that on occasions you will be wrong; you will say and do the wrong things. But so will the mentally ill person - they will say/do the wrong things too. It’s being able to take that and not let it break you down, and to put your heads together and figure out a way forward that is what helps.
Sometimes we wouldn't know until we tried - we were both able to be brave and honest and reflective, making changes as needed. To help support a mentally ill friend is an individual and personalised journey - there isn't a list of generalised steps to tick off (though we both wished for one at times). Your mentally ill friend may unconsciously feel pressure to provide you with definite answers - just as you may feel the same pressure. You both have to be open to trying, reflecting and adapting.
My friend didn’t need me to have all the answers nor did she expect me to be perfect. I also came to realise that in order to support my friend, I had to be willing to look in my own mirror and face my own demons because they were going to be echoed back at me throughout.
We had to find a way to help each other.
It wasn’t easy, but we found our way of doing things.
Take care Zoe