Part III of the Friend Manual is (finally) here!
Have friends with mental illness? Read this.
10. Quirks vs. Symptoms
Some people have quirks. They only like open-faced sandwiches, they whistle while they ride a bike, they hate certain words or tastes or sounds. Idiosyncrasies are just a part of being a person.
The thing about quirks is that you can joke about them. You can tell other people because it’s just a thing that makes them…them like red hair or nailbiting. That’s one of the ties that bind–the little jabs and the light banter.
Do not ever treat symptoms or triggers of someone’s illness as quirks. They’re no less painful when you joke about them–and even harder to speak up about. Faking a laugh is easier than justifying your own tears, after all.
If you’re unsure what’s a quirk and what’s off limits for disclosure or funnytimes, you can just…ask. If you can’t ask your friend if your words are going to hurt them, you aren’t doing friendship right.
11. Yesterday is Not Today
Yesterday they were chipper and giddy and sparkling? That’s lovely. That was also yesterday. Having one good day, week, or year does not equal some kind of ‘cure’.
One of the most vicious things about mental illness is that you can’t always feel it coming. I’ve had some of my worst days show up in my morning coffee after my best nights. There was a point where being too happy meant depriving myself more, which in turn made me feel better about my body. It quickly became a horrible cycle, ending only after I had a very bad day.
“But you were doing so well yesterday!” is meaningless at best, a shaming reminder that you could be doing better at worst.
12. You Can’t Fix Everything
…and trying to can make it worse.
Not everything is help-able. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the best you can offer is your arms and silence and tissues. Sometimes what’s even better is going away. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it is. Maybe your voice is too loud; maybe you’re too sympathetic. Maybe you ask the wrong questions; maybe you ask the right ones and the answers hurt.
Ask. Check in. Find out.
What can I do? Do you want me to stay here, or do you want to be by yourself?
Do you want to be distracted, or would you rather sit?
Can I give you a hug?
13. Sometimes, Nobody Knows What To Do
“How can I help?” is a good question.
It’s just not always the right one.
Sometimes you don’t know what to do–and neither do I. Sometimes I’m so busy trying to keep it together and look as though I’m in control that thinking about just one more thing is too much. Sometimes I have no idea why I can’t stop crying–and stopping the big teary mess takes precedence over making you feel better about it. You can step back and just wait. Channel your inner stuffed animal–huggable and cozy and comforting without being demanding.
If you don’t want to be alone, I can just sit here until you’re feeling okay. I don’t have to do anything until [this afternoon/tomorrow/dinnertime], so I’m here until you don’t want company.
14. You Don’t ‘Deserve’ to Know Things
You’re a best friend, a cousin, someone who’s known them since they were born? You don’t have some special First In Line Pass for knowledge. This is an idea that infuriates me (and will probably merit a longer post at some point). Pressing people for more, more, more information, and claiming that your relationship justifies it is the worst kind of caring.
You won’t know everything, because you aren’t them. Sometimes sharing is painful, sometimes it’s just easier to pass the popcorn and try to forget that horrible episode you had last night. Sometimes that other friend was there at the right time, and it feels silly to tell everyone. I usually find it easier to tell people with similar experiences first, work it out in my own words, and then decide to share (or not). Demanding, explicitly or implicitly that information about my brain’s functioning should be available to you is the worst kind of patronizing.
I’m going to put together a final section with the best from the comments–feel free to add more below.