My best friend lives with bipolar disorder. Our friendship has benefited my life and other relationships in ways I never could have imagined.
Photo: Getty Photos/mediaphotos
When people learn my best friend Fran lives with mental illness, I’m sure they imagine it’s hard work for me—a duty and responsibility they can’t imagine taking on. But it’s not like that at all.
Certainly, it’s not all fun and games: the manic highs, the desperate lows, the suicidal thinking that is never far away. The challenge is real, but so are the rewards. I have grown immensely. I’ve learned about mental and invisible illness, stigma and discrimination, courage, determination, loyalty, honesty—and hope. Here are five of the many ways I have benefited from our friendship:
1) Words to live by
I’ve learned that the words we use out loud and in our internal mental dialogues matter. I cannot talk Fran down from mania or out of depression, but I can help identify and counter words and thinking that keeps her trapped in unhealthy patterns. Such reframing helps her find new ways forward. Certain sayings remind us of the lessons we’ve learned in the past and support healthy choices in the present. “One step at a time” and “Baby steps are steps too” are two of our favorites. They help when Fran is struggling and feeling overwhelmed. Other phrases such as “It’s not working” serve as red flags, alerting us to the possible onset of a mood episode (in this case, depression.)
2) There’s no need to be afraid
Most of my adult life I’ve been terrified of two things: upsetting people, and failing to meet their needs. With Fran I have faced down both these fears. I would be lying if I said we never disagree or upset one another, or that I never get scared. But I am no longer paralyzed by fear. I no longer walk away. I have taken courses to expand my skills, such as Mental Health First Aid and ASIST. I talk to people and share our experiences. I talk and listen with Fran. In her words, I sit with her in the dark when she is depressed and hold the string of her balloon when she is manic. I’ve learned that getting frustrated and cross—even furiously angry—with someone, or having them angry with me, is okay if we can hold a safe space in which to acknowledge and explore what is happening. This degree of emotional maturity is the bedrock of any genuine relationship. It is the single most valuable lesson I’ve learned.
3) Wellness techniques
I make a point of researching the therapeutic and wellness techniques Fran uses. In some cases, I’ve taken online courses so I can better understand and support her. I’ve found several techniques relevant and helpful in my own life, especially meditation, wellness planning, and compassionate communication.
4) It’s okay not to know what to do (but do it anyway)
It’s okay not to know what to do or to get it wrong sometimes—I certainly do! What’s not okay is allowing self-doubt to get in the way of helping someone in need.
My former paralysis was based on the mistaken belief that someone in crisis needed me to fix whatever was wrong with them. People don’t want or need fixing. Most often what a person needs is someone to be present, to hear and acknowledge their experience non-judgmentally.
As Fran expressed it recently, “Understanding friends help me integrate in a healthy way.” Of course, there are times when practical help is appropriate, or where intervention is both wanted and imperative. A friend messaged me recently. She’d taken an overdose and needed me to phone for an ambulance. I got her details, called the emergency services, and stayed online with her until the ambulance crew arrived. Another friend posted on social media that she was feeling suicidal. I messaged her and we chatted for a couple of hours. Did it fix things? Of course not. Did it help her in the moment? I believe so.
5) I have a voice and I can make a difference
It was natural for us to reach out online to the wider mental health community. Fran and I have connected with some amazing individuals and groups all over the world. In time I took the conscious—and scary—decision to contact local organizations here in the northeast of England. It was definitely one of my better decisions! I now volunteer for a mental health charity which works to counter stigma and discrimination. I talk openly and honestly with family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve been interviewed in print and on the radio, taken part in podcasts, and spoken in public. Fran and I wrote a book and have a blog where we share our stories and invite others to share theirs. I would never have done these things had Fran and I not met.
I’m sure I have many more things to learn. I can’t wait to find out what they are.
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