A couple of months back a friend of mine asked me an interesting question. They asked me ‘how do you know someone is a friend who can support you when you’re not well?’ I was a little bit taken a back by the question and asked them why the wanted to know. They expressed feeling disappointed by someone who had fallen off the face of the planet when they were depressed. Sadly, this is a common story. It can be hard to navigate friendships when you have a mental illness. The sad reality is that many people can not handle the challenge of supporting someone who is going through mental health struggles. So for those of us who have a mental illness choosing a support network we can rely upon can be an important part of the recovery process.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying ‘if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best’. I feel this is how many people choose their support networks. We expect people to stick by us through thick and thin. But for me I believe a person doesn’t have to be able to handle you at your worst to play a meaningful, supportive role in your life. For instance, I have many friends who I never speak to about my mental illness. They are aware of my diagnosis but the most I will say to them is ‘it has been a rough week’. Yet they play an amazing role in supporting me through my mental illness without perhaps doing the ‘dirty work’ that others might expect of them. I am perfectly happy with these sorts of relationships. They play a key role in my life.
It is not the job of someone else to save you. I think when we realise that we can start to be more realistic with the expectations we place on our friendships. Expecting someone else to be your ‘ride or die’ friend when they are not someone good at coping with mental illness is not just unrealistic but unfair. Having these sorts of expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration and hurt for all concerned parties. It is important to have realistic and fair expectations of your friends. It has become quite useful for me to think of my friends from a utilitarian perspective. I have my friends I know I can turn to in a crisis. I have friends I can go to for a coffee and a laugh. I have my friends I can talk to about my mental illness. I have friends I prefer not to talk to about my mental illness. By dividing my friends up into little groups I can rest assured that my needs will be met when they need to be. It can be painful finding out that people you perhaps thought fell into one category actually belong to another. But this is where it is important to remove expectations from the equation and just accept your friends for who they are. Even if they aren’t the best person to be around in a mental health crisis, they can still play a key role in maintaining your mental health stability. Neither is more important or valuable than the other. All friendships are valuable when it comes to overcoming mental illness and adversity. But when we expect people to be something they are not we inevitably meet with disappointment.