How my mental illness helped me better understand my friendships
Sometimes, when I think back to the beginnings of my mental illness, the signs are shockingly obvious. It was the spring of 2014 and, after investing 10 years of my life into my career, I was a well-respected manager with the chance to open my own storefront. I should have been elated, but the feelings of excitement were being slowly drowned out by another emotion I’d soon come to know all too well: dread.
Suddenly, I was hiding away in closets at work to cover up my breakdowns — silently crying tears of anxiety. My physical health suffered because of skipped showers and missed meals. My only motivation each day — work — was also what scared me the most. I was terrified of missing deadlines, letting colleagues down, and generally failing at my job. My short commute became torture, and I started to fantasize about swerving into the highway medium — not necessarily wanting to die, but being strangely alright with the possibility.
When I shamefully shared these self-harming thoughts with my concerned husband, it was like opening Pandora’s Box. Through sobbed confessions, I expressed all of my fears, anxieties, and paranoia, spilling them out to the man who had been my best friend since our very first meeting.
I was ready for him to respond with disgust and anger. Wasn’t I failing him as a wife and as the mother of his children?
Instead, he listened silently and consoled me as I admitted my disappointment in myself.
Never a man of many words, he was miraculously able to (temporarily) quiet my worries by saying, “It’s okay. I’m going to help. I love you.”
With those words, I understood that my biggest concern was actually facing the people I loved and admired once they finally knew about my mental illness.
I was afraid that my value only existed when I was well, that my friendships with them were only built for fair weather — not the storm created by my mental health. I was terrified of losing them.
I had to leave work (the place I’d attached much of my value to), and I checked out of my social circles so I could keep my diagnosis a secret. I was ready to give up instead of get help, but my husband wouldn’t let that happen. Instead, he started setting up appointments for me, taking time off work to help me through each day, and acting as a focal point for my pain, anger, and paranoia. He treated me like I should have been treating myself: gently, patiently. I realized that some friendships — like ours —could truly be unconditional.
It wasn’t just my husband who came to the rescue. My parents moved in and assumed the roles of caretakers.
I knew they’d always had such high hopes for me, their eldest daughter. Feeling defeated in front of them crushed me. But instead of the disappointment I expected from my parents, they gave me kindness and understanding. They slowly got me out of bed and around the house. They didn’t allow the pity I felt for myself to linger, yet never guilted me for feeling sorry for myself. My dad bought gardening supplies and built a gated spot to plant seedlings — no doubt knowing that the act of caring for something, even on a small scale, would open up my heart to more. Through my parents, I saw that friendships can come from unexpected places, giving you just what you need.
The support I got from my family made me begin to hope for the same responses from others. Unfortunately, I learned that not all friendships are built to last.
The relationships I’d developed at my job were relationships that I’d built over a decade. But when I left, the only person to contact me during my treatment was Human Resources. It turned out that my work friendships could only exist for as long as I was employed there.
But as I dealt with the loss, I started understanding that some friendships aren’t all that deep be begin with — and that’s actually okay.
Using various excuses, I politely avoided my high school and college friends during the first few months of my treatment — but eventually, I needed to be honest with them. I wasn’t sure what to expect from them, my closest friends. Would it be the kind of support I received from my parents and husband? Would it be the kind of indifference I received from my work colleagues?
What I ended up with was something much more difficult to cope with: Pity.
Their words were supportive and encouraging, but their faces were thinly veiled masks of discomfort — it was a painful lesson on how people stigmatize mental illness.
I noticed their uneasiness whenever I brought up my mental health. It’s not that they didn’t feel for my situation; it was just terribly obvious that they didn’t want to be reminded of it.
I was angry at first. No matter how uncomfortable my mental illness made them feel, I would think, it was definitely more painful for me. I slowly allowed myself to understand their perspectives. Some friendships aren’t equipped to confront catastrophes, but that doesn’t make those friendships any less genuine. My friends couldn’t offer to fix my pain, but they could still empathize with it. And they still love me, nonetheless.
The way my mental illness redefined my relationships is one of the most powerful transformations to have come from my diagnosis. My depression and anxiety are something I’ll continue to deal with daily. I continue to have just as many good days as I do bad. But if I’ve learned anything from being broken and rebuilt again, it’s that I won’t have to do it alone.