Finding My Metaphor

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I have never fancied myself a creative writer, but in trying to express how my illness feels right now, I find myself looking for the perfect comparison: The personal overhead storm cloud, the veil of sadness, the blinders – all good metaphors for depression, but I find, in trying to process my most recent spiral out,  these comparisons do not entirely capture all the small, painful struggles of this illness.

I was driving home from my parents’ house at nighttime in a blizzard. My mom had asked me to stay the night, but knowing I’m not a morning person and could not guarantee that I would wake up in time to get to work, I decided to start the 2-hour drive around 9pm. I’m a confident driver, a highway warrior. It would be fine.

It should come as a surprise to no one, that my mother was right.

I knew she was right as the all-weather tires fishtailed on the on-ramp to the highway.

I definitely knew it as I was white-knuckling the steering wheel at 30km/h taking refuge from the wind behind a transport truck.

She is always right.

Despite the windshield wipers flapping furiously and straining my eyes, I could not make out more than two feet in front of my face. Trundling through the whiteout, my side and rearview mirrors were of no assistance. My only goal was to remain on the tire tracks made by the equally idiotic souls ahead of me.

Every couple hundred yards I would feel the car slip beneath me, threatening to skid sideways and out of my control. I was exhausted but terrified to peel my eyes away even for a second. My shoulders and stomach and legs remained braced for …something – impact? An unexpected obstacle? A blast from the horn of a transport truck?

I held myself in this state of paralyzed concentration in complete silence for hours, for fear that any distraction would push me off the road. I’ll never know how many details of that drive I missed when I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the immediate road ahead. Save for a couple of transports that barreled by me at just furious speeds, it was just me and my wits on that road.

Rather unseasonably, I’m reminded of this experience and how helpless it made me feel. Yes, I could have stopped for temporary reprieve, but the drive remained ahead of me. All I could do was move forward cautiously and with very little control of my surroundings, despite how intently I concentrated. My muscles ached from tension.

In the thick of a particularly stubborn low, the sensations are familiar. Sometimes I can’t see past how shitty I feel in this moment, or more than two feet in front of my face, even though I know that this disease moves in cycles of highs and lows. I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, the trick floorboard to disappear beneath my feet, to slip and skid sideways off the track. The aftermath of bracing for impact lives with me for days after, with physical and physiological costs, and while I’m so tired, sleep is not always a relief. I move forward, slowly, in the direction I guess I’m supposed to go, knowing full well that I do not have a confident grasp on everything I need to attend to, but doing what I can.

It looks like I’ve found my metaphor, so the English major in me is satisfied. But I suppose this is where the real work begins.

Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.

“I didn’t mean to…”

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Thanks, always, to Louis C.K, for providing thought-provoking brain snacks.

As a sensitive kid growing up, my feelings were always hurt. A sideways look from a classmate or seeing whispers between friends were enough to upset me and trigger the tears. Sometimes, my feelings were hurt on purpose (even before the Internet, children were cruel) but sometimes, no one meant any harm and I was being overly sensitive.

I’m still just as sensitive and thin-skinned, but I’ve developed some emotional armour in my old age that keeps me from being hurt all the time. And while I’ve learned to adapt, I still think that there is some responsibility to claim when we become aware that we have hurt someone.

Hurt feelings are often a product of mismatched expectations: I wanted him to do this, he didn’t do this, and now my feelings are hurt. And while the dynamics of the relationship will often dictate how candid you can be about your wants and needs, communicating your expectations can save you many hours (or years) of hurt feelings.

The good ones, the ones who care about you, don’t want to see you hurt, and will likely make attempts to modify their behaviour or make amends. The others will show you how much you matter by way of how much they are willing to address what is upsetting you. How someone feels about you and how they treat you are intimately related – you will get your answer to the former by observing the latter.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“You’re so sensitive!”

“That’s just the way I am”

For all you sensitive folk out there, don’t let these phrases make you feel dismissed. Your feelings are valid and are worthy of attention and respect, especially by people who claim to care about you. Communicate your needs, express your frustrations, and continue being soft – this world needs more empathy.

 

 

Hello, Nourished Life

I’m in the process of saying goodbye to somebody. Unlike most goodbyes, that we want to avoid because they are sad, this is a goodbye I happily walk toward. I’m saying goodbye to this girl:


She looks happy right? She seems nice, confident, smiling. This is where she fools you.

Although I was 20-years old when this photo was taken, when I look at this, all I see now is a sick little girl with her collarbones and neck tendons jutting out, thinning hair, and no boobs to hold her dress up. A girl who ate only salads, who tried to literally outrun self-esteem issues at a rate of 15km per day. A girl who was scared of food and scared to miss a workout. A girl who lost her period for months due to restrictive eating and over-exercise. A girl whose problematic body behaviours went unnoticed because her BMI was still “within range,” even when her body was screaming that this weight wasn’t sustainable. A girl who regularly received reinforcement in the form of compliments that she looked great and to “keep it up.”

Imagine how much I could have accomplished had I directed even a quarter of the brain power I had put toward taking up less space in the world, towards my schooling and future career… I like to think I’d be backing up the Brinks truck into the driveway of my summer home.

I won’t say it’s not hard to look back on these photos and know that I was much thinner then than I am now. When these images pop up unexpectedly (Facebook, you’re the worst), I give myself a moment to float around in those feelings of inadequacy – if only I had appreciated my body then, and had not been so self-conscious with it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There is a part of me who still looks for this girl when I see photos of myself now, and when I don’t see her, the same part of me wants to look away and avoid acknowledging the reality of my actual, real, nourished body.

Soon enough however, in my back of my brain I hear the voice of my best friend Kim chanting, “No! More! Skeletor!” and I’m rushed back to the truth: That girl had a lot to learn. I’m smarter than that girl. I’m kinder. I’m a better listener, a better friend. I love myself more. My hair doesn’t fall out, but grows in long and shiny. I have a butt and boobs (both of which took a notable leave of absence during the time this photo was taken). I have hobbies other than obsessing over food labels and tracking burned calories.

I don’t miss her. Being obsessed with controlling my body and what went into it left little room to think about other people, and for the life of me, I can’t recall many instances during this time where I helped someone or threw myself into a project that wasn’t all about me. Disordered eating and exercise habits are an isolating and all-consuming endeavour in themselves, in addition to the effort put forth to avoid detection from others. This was a lonely, lonely life.

My life now nourishes me. I make a concerted effort to fill my world with good things – good people, good food, good movement, good thoughts – instead of trying to deprive my body and mind of what it wants. I consciously include things in my life that make me feel whole and allow autonomy over my life, something I was always pursuing but never achieved while restricting.

Of course there are moments where I wish I didn’t worry about what my body looks like, and I fool myself into thinking that women thinner than me could not begin to understand how I feel. Of course I deflate a little inside if someone makes a comment about how thin (and blond) I was back then. But I know these feelings are leftover from when I truly believed that my body size determined my worth, and I know better now. Media and society tell us that thinner is better, more attractive, the only kind of beautiful that matters, and we must have either reached that ideal or be punishing ourselves towards it. But at what cost? I will tell you for free that it is not worth everything I gave up in the pursuit of making myself smaller.

Along with a few LBs, I’ve gained self-awareness, true friendship, a passionate career, and a lifetime worth of belly-laughs. If gaining all this means adjusting my ideals of thinness and worthiness and saying goodbye to the sick little person featured above, then girl, bye.

Love Need Not End

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The last month or so has been a period of transition and unsteadiness, as I have moved to a new city to take on a new employment contract. I have laid my weary bones to rest on couches and air mattresses of both friends and friendly strangers with whom I have corresponded on the Internet.

I recognize that, 6 months ago, not having a private escape to call my own would have chipped away at my mental well-being and caused me sincere discomfort. I’m grateful to be in a place where I’m adaptive and open to my life being somewhat unpredictable.

I will write more about this, and discuss how my new city is a challenging but productive place for me, but in light of the recent loss of a special man who means a great deal to friends of mine, I’m compelled to talk about what happens when we lose someone to mental illness. It can be difficult to understand how someone we love could come to a permanent decision about their life, especially when we feel so much love and appreciation towards them. We might ask, don’t they know how loved they are?

Our minds are a powerful force. The mind can heal us and it can hurt us and it can make us believe things that may not be true. When the mind is not healthy, we are vulnerable to influential thoughts about our worth and consider ways to escape what feels like permanent pain. I’ve been in that place and felt absolutely sure that this was as good as my life would ever get. I wasn’t healthy enough to challenge the constant barrage of negativity, and despite their best efforts, the support and encouragement from my loved ones remained muted and unconvincing. Nothing they could have said or done would have persuaded me otherwise because, at that time, I couldn’t be reached.

Knowing that it was not me but my depression calling the shots did little to assuage my friends and family that they were doing “enough”. It hurt my heart when, during moments of lucidity, I witnessed how much it pained my mom to see me that way. I knew she loved me and I felt her love, and she was absolutely doing enough, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to her to pull me out. I had so much more work to do and changes to make.

When we lose someone in any way, through their passing or a break-up, we will undoubtedly look back and wish and wonder about what we could have done differently. If you had only reached out more, had banged down her door to see her, had demanded his attention, shown “more” love, maybe things would be different. Your mind may try to hurt you, using guilt and regret during the grieving process to try to convince you there was more you could have done.

Please know your love was enough. It was always enough.

A beautiful person was lost this week, and the world is different now. For the ones that loved you closely and from a distance, let’s remember that, sometimes, for many reasons, life has to end.

But love does not.

ACoA Report Card: Part 1

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Once we become aware of the effects that trauma has had our lives, at what point do we progress from being victims of our circumstances to being accountable for our choices? This is a question I ask myself a lot, particularly identifying as an ACoA (adult child of alcoholic). This two part article series will focus on how being a ACoA has influenced my personality and thinking patterns, and the steps I take to challenge some of the traits common with this group in order to be a happier person. In reflecting upon if and how much I still identify today as an ACoA, I write this piece as a progress report of sorts. So let’s see how I’ve been doing…

Even splashing around in the shallow waters of the research online, I found that most resources agree that ACoAs share common characteristics because of the circumstances of their upbringing and household. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following are traits that I certainly identify with, which I have divided into two categories, Relationship with Self and Relationship with Others. Some ACoAs find that they identify with at least some of the following traits:

Relationship with Others:

  • People-pleasing: sometimes at the expense of one’s personal comfort or dignity
  • Emotional regulation difficulties: struggles with having an appropriate emotional reaction to circumstances – can be an over-or-under-reactive to life events.
  • Hypervigilance: very sensitive fight or flight stress response
  • Seek unavailable people (emotionally or otherwise) in relationships
  • Fear of abandonment/rejection
  • Little understanding of how trust works: can be overly trusting or distrusting

Relationship with Self:

  • Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws
  • Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time
  • Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

Relationship with Self

Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws

Growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent, it became very important to maintain the appearance of normalcy, not only to preserve the secret of the ill person from people outside the family, but to avoid adding fuel to the fire in an already stressful environment. When a child or teenager is unable to express their worry or feelings in an effort to avoid rocking the boat, much of that negative energy gets turned inward and manifests as personal shame. I remember feeling like I couldn’t ever make a mistake because I was fearful that any mistake could incite another conflict, and any criticism, no matter how constructive or well-intentioned, felt like a personal attack.

And now? Grade: B

As I continue to learn more about myself, appreciating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and seeking to uncover the blind spots in my skill set, mistakes and personal deficits feel more neutral to me. Maturity and confidence help me accept that more and more of my mistakes and fumbles can be chalked up as yet another learning opportunity instead of an indictment of my character.

Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time

Many children in alcoholic families find themselves taking on much more responsibility and worry than their childhood peers, because they’re exposed to very adult problems, like the safety of their parent or the state of their parents’ relationship. I felt responsible for the wellbeing of my family and shouldered that worry in my day-to-day. At the same time, I could be wildly irresponsible with my money and my time, and to illustrate, my dignity has still not completely recovered from having my car towed on more than one occasion by ignoring parking tickets and signs.

And now? Grade: B+

I’m still prone to feeling overly responsible for other peoples’ feelings, and will sometimes still wonder if I am the cause of someone’s poor behaviour or bad mood, however, I have become much more responsible for myself – taking more ownership over my finances, commitments, and chores – a facet of adulthood I was slow to adopt. I have become more aware that other people are struggling through their days too, and their bad moods and behaviour could be caused by a hundred different things that have nothing to do with me.

Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

It should come as no surprise that ACoAs can turn to substances as a way to escape feelings- we are talking basic social learning theory and role modelling. I’ve certainly been known to manage my feelings by diluting their sting with cocktails, binge eating, or taking what I like to call a “depression nap” – can’t feel bad when you’re asleep!

And now? Grade: A-

I’ve become more aware of when my body needs actual nourishment and when I require emotional nourishment or attention. If I’m suddenly craving a drink or a carnitas burrito out of the blue, I now know to ask the right questions – am I upset? Am I avoiding something? Am I looking for comfort? These questions help me avoid misusing substances or becoming reliant on this kind of comfort and support.

As far as this progress report goes, I feel like I’ve done fairly well so far. Stay tuned for my next piece where I discuss how ACoA traits have influenced my relationships, and how I’ve tried to counterbalance these effects.

Seeking: Woman with Mental Illness

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Dating is difficult enough with its uncertainties and vulnerabilities, without throwing the challenges of mental health into the mix, however, trying to build a relationship when one or both parties has a mental illness requires, I would argue, even more care and consideration.

Dating in this modern day is, in a word, uninspiring.

With dating apps promoting “drive-thru” dating that promises another potential mate with the next swipe of a finger if you don’t like the one in front of you, it’s no surprise that we have grown accustomed to a “grass is greener” mentality towards relationship-building. If we are underwhelmed by our newest match at first impression, there are five more equally attractive folks within a 2km radius. And while many may find the casual culture of dating fun and free from pressure, this environment can become a confusing game for an individual with a mental illness.

As always, I speak only from my experience, but considering I’ve passed the crest of a decade of membership in the romantic dating realm, I feel confident that I’ve collected at least some nuggets of wisdom.

The biggest struggle I’ve found is how to incorporate a conversation about mental health into the dating equation with someone you’re interested in. While this can come up more organically when meeting people through friends and connections, broaching the subject of my mental illness remains one of the biggest hesitations in my dating life, regardless of how we meet. I’ve become more comfortable with identifying with depression in recent years, however, it is not necessarily a topic that comes up authentically and comfortably on a first date at East Side Marios.

Does a person I’ve just met require or want this information? Is sharing this part of myself contributing or detracting from my otherwise charming first impression? I guess if I decide to bring it up with someone, their positive or negative reaction would certainly help form my opinion about whether or not they are someone I want in my life. But I also don’t want to misrepresent myself by sharing my mental health struggles when this other person only knows a few things about me, like my cat’s name and where I went to school. With such little information about me, someone else may assume my depression may seem like a much larger part of my identity than it probably is.

However, I’ve certainly made the mistake of hiding my mental illness behind the “cool girl” façade (and if you’ve read or seen the movie Gone Girl, you will know of what I speak) where I found myself initially allowing myself to be strung along going with the flow, and “down for anything” because I was so cool like that. I should have known, being the farthest thing from cool, that my mental illness would eventually rub up uncomfortably against the cool girl disguise, and the discrepancy between how I felt and how I acted would make me miserable. I never felt like I could explain to someone that I liked why I needed to pull away, or how uncertainty made me spiral out, because I wasn’t certain the truth would be accepted. After all, this other person didn’t know me very well.

I also found it difficult to determine how I myself felt about someone else because my anxiety causes me to be very concerned with how I am perceived and accepted by others. I was more worried about being liked than taking the time and energy to decide if I actually liked him – was he kind, patient, mature, funny, and generally my kind of person. Was I 100% myself around him? If not now, could I be?

I’ve taken away a number of lessons and endured a few romantic fumbles that, if I haven’t been able to laugh at by now, I will one day. In the meantime, I’ve left drive-thru dating behind and I’m focusing on relationships that add both comfort and novelty to my life, where I feel at ease being myself.

What to Give a Fuck About

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This winter was brutal. After a long and sunless couple of months, I feel like I am finally waking up. As much as I wish my spirit animal is an enthusiastic teacup pig, I know I embody many more of the qualities of a hibernating brown bear.

I feel better. Between the improved weather, bedtime routine adjustments, and yet another change in medication, I am feeling more myself and better able to adapt to life’s inconveniences. Don’t forget the “soft” changes I’ve made in adding more creative and mindful outlets to my day-to-day, which you may have read about here.

I think the most important adjustment I’ve made involves a change in mindset that I’ve adopted from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, a book that supports understanding what you value, discovering what is really important and not letting everything else bother you so much.

The book doesn’t pretend that life can exist without problems – life will have problems and that’s all but guaranteed. But Manson asks the reader to determine what problems we wouldn’t mind having. If someone wants to make a ton of money and be highly successful in their career, they may have to deal with the problem of working late and spending most of your time at the office. For one person, working late is a problem they wouldn’t mind having – they love what they do and want to spend lots of time doing it. For someone else, working late means time away from home, which would be a problem they could not happily live with.

Someone who wants kids and who values raising a family will have their own problems – sleepless nights, less free time, hundreds of loads of laundry, and the parents’ own needs and wants taking a back seat initially. These are problems that many parents would gladly choose as they raise their kids.

As I surface from a depressive episode that took me out at the knees, I’ve started identifying what I give a fuck about and what kind of problems I don’t mind having. I give a fuck about showing up for my family and friends, recognizing the big and small wins with them. This means hustling across this great province to do so, which costs money. I don’t mind having money problems in exchange for healthy relationships because my people make me happy. For someone else, they couldn’t live with money problems and would choose to have another problem instead.

Taking the pressure off to care about everything has significantly improved my mental well-being. Being more selective about what I give a fuck about has made room for the things that are really important, and also recognizing that life is not designed to be comfortable at all times. If my expectation is that my life is supposed to be free of hardship, perfectly organized and with gorgeous filtered lighting, I am setting myself up to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I give myself permission to be less than perfectly put together, to choose a few things to care about and work on those, and cut myself a little slack for the rest.

 

A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Helpful, and not so much.

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Up to this point, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of the mentally ill.

If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who suffers from mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful: 

“Get well soon!”

Said with undoubtedly the best of intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “Get Well” or “Feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it”, that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. Certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is that there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe Try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know EXACTLY how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help, however, could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried…yoga? Meditation? Have I tried NOT being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet, and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your success stories – just keep in mind that your mentally ill loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “let me know if there’s anything I can do” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favourite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized that I was paralyzed by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you”

There are times where I am fearful that the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me that I’m not fighting this alone.