Sharing living space with somebody can be a tricky and intense experience at the best of times. And when that person not only brings along the personal quirks and characteristics that make up every individual, but fully fledged mental illness too – then it becomes a particularly eye-opening experience.
And this is an experience that has defined my last 12 months.
Living with mental illness can be incredibly hard. And living in and around mental illness can also be very challenging, there is no point pretending otherwise. It comes with wondrous highs, shattering lows, supreme clarity and utter bafflement.
Less stigma but still much to be done
Thankfully the stigma surrounding mental illness and those who suffer it is being broken down. And people who witness mental illness up close through their loved ones, friends and colleagues are reaching out to inform, educate and help in this process. And it is not only about the person suffering the condition, it’s about those of us building it into our own lives, trying to cope and help as best we can, and doing so with reservoirs of understanding and compassion that perhaps we didn’t know we had.
Anyone who has experience in this area knows you need to be at your best to help someone in this situation. You need energy, tolerance, patience, empathy – and often you’ll need them in bucket loads.
But the catch-22 is that watching a person you love going through something as harrowing as mental illness is almost certainly going to drain energy, push patience, test tolerance and strain empathy to breaking point.
We have to look at our own fears and ignorance and acknowledge there may not be a lot we can do in the short term. You are not a wizard, nor a magical doctor able to offer a quick and lasting fix, but we absolutely can help.
The fact is this is their struggle and within that struggle they will invariably feel incredibly isolated, pained and that there is little to no understanding of what they are going through. This doesn’t mean however we cannot help in some ways and make a difference; by offering empathy, patience, tolerance and love.
By showing understanding and not judging we can play an important role.
Not ridiculing, humiliating or getting angry with a person who is already suffering will, at the very least, not compound the situation and sometimes you just have to accept that’s the best you can do.
It is not just a case of telling them to “cheer up”, “calm down”, “get over it” or to “buck up”. Such ignorance generated ‘logical’ responses have no place in this scenario and nothing could be more counterproductive. But by taking a deep breath, reaching for understanding, whilst standing back and allowing the individual to acknowledge that you are there to offer comfort and support.
Out of sight, out of mind…
Mental illness, like some other ailments, suffers in that is not visible and tangible condition in the way that a broken leg is. Such obvious injuries and handipcaps draw immediate concern and sympathy. A person who talks about having a very bad back, which can be agonising and utterly debilitating, can sound like a whiner. But the person with their leg in a cast is perceived as bravely battling along.
So it is with mental illness. So often it is viewed as moody, petulant, irrational behaviour that marks a person out as unpleasant and badly brought up. Instant, damning judgments that can only make things worse.
A dependable figure
The one thing people who suffer from mental illness often lack is a solid, reliable, constant and consistent figure in their life. Perhaps they are surrounded by fair-weather friends who are in it for the good times and the fantastic highs that can come with those suffering a bi-polar condition, but flee the moment things become too much.
It is easier to believe that love and true affection takes form in a room of harmonious friends celebrating achievement, sharing successes and strengths, seeing people in their best light and cheering them on during the ‘good times’. However, in reality, we should see real, mature love and compassion forged out of seeing the vulnerable aspects of someone, their less favorable qualities, their struggles and battles, and accepting these parts a fully as all the positive traits.
Legendary and pioneering surreal comic Spike Milligan spoke freely about his own mental health issues at the beginning of the 1970’s when these things really were just not willingly disclosed.
As a result of shellshock suffered in WWII Gunner Milligan suffered from bi-polar disorder and chronic, crippling depression. He described his illness when we commented, “It’s a gift and a curse. You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else”.
Spike learned to manage his serious condition, to some degree, and his work has made the world laugh itself silly for the last seven decades.
Many people trying to cope with mental illness expend a huge amount of energy living behind a facade, presenting themselves as often as possible in the way society suggests we should be seen. Only those closest to them tend to see behind that facade and get access to the reality of that person. The insecurities, the triggers and the multiple characteristics shifting and jarring like personal tectonic plates.
Proper friendship is a dividend of gratitude and not a response to sweeping acts of apparent generosity, flattery and promises.
It is something much greater, the keys to someone’s dignity, their self-esteem, their real self – ‘chaos’ included. And with that comes an incredible trust and understanding that, despite how things are likely to get, they believe you will still be there.
It’s a deeply profound gift and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The life of somebody with mental illness is often erratic enough and they don’t need circles of erratic people and good-time buddies flitting in and out of their lives, compounding anxieties and adding dramas – unfortunately though, that’s exactly what they do have.
What some of us are able to do is act as a kind of filter or even a shield, try and help ensure that others have a greater understanding and can cope with ‘the ride’ , and those that don’t – well, maybe we can sieve them out.
Don’t judge, don’t dismiss and, as best you can, remain a touchstone they can return to.
Being a ‘constant’ figure, when consistency in their lives is so very rare is a truly pivotal role.
Following the basis that all learning experiences are of massive benefit, this one – regardless of timing – it has taught me invaluable lessons and positively instructed me about certain human conditions that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Knowing we can’t fix it is a huge step to being a great friend in these situations and that might sound illogical…
But our natural inclination will probably be to want to make it all better, however that way lies futility, frustration, despair and all manner of negative emotions that will end up enveloping both parties.
But simply understanding that making things 5% better here and 10% better there, even in the eye of the storm, is often what a person needs. And being a reliable constant is filling a position that may have been vacant for much of a lifetime.
People with mental illness can feel marginalized, judged and isolated
Anything you can do to ensure they don’t feel that so badly is a step in the right direction. As Oprah Winfrey stated in the recent commencement speech at the University of Southern California (USC); “Because to somebody who’s hurting, something is everything.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
By Gabriella Staples