This still bewilders me.
When I was in hospital last week, I met a couple of other abuse survivors. I didn’t really socialise as much as I did on previous admission, despite their best efforts to prise me outside for a smoke. However, we did chat a little bit, and they were absolutely lovely, very warm and kind, and with a wicked sense of humour. However, they were also severely depressed, both having attempted suicide, and they suffered from anxiety attacks.
They asked me if I had any friends. This took me by surprise somewhat – “do you have any friends?” seemed a bit out of the blue. I blinked, and then smiled and explained that I do have a wonderful circle of friends and although we may drive each other wild at times, we all support each other and care, and have a lot of fun.
Both of them asked the same thing “even though you’re depressed? They still want to be friends?”
Cut a long story short, it turns out that (just as with other patients I met on previous admissions) their friends had all disappeared once the severity of the depression was obvious. They couldn’t cope with being stressed and worried all of the time, which is absolutely fair enough. What it did to the patients’ already damaged self-worth was obvious, however, and their amazement that my friends still wanted to be even just know me was quite heartbreaking.
We discussed this in some depth, all of us completely understanding why people might not be able to cope with or face someone who’s depressed, especially to the severity that we were. One young woman said “they reached the point where they didn’t know if I’d wake up the next day. That was really hard for them, and so they had to walk away. I get that. I was ill and the illness is intense and deadly, and it scared them.” We understood. We got it. We weren’t questioning the friends’ reasons, and neither were we annoyed with them. We understood.
But then the other patient, who’d been staring thoughtfully into space for a while, said “I wonder if they’d do the same if I had cancer. Or had been hit by a bus and was in intensive care. Or had a serious heart illness. Or any other physical illness which meant I could recover, or I could drop dead at any moment.”
We sat in silent for a while, considering her words. She carried on, “you rarely hear of patients with physically life-threatening problems saying their entire circle of friends turned away. Rarely. Often you hear of how they sat by your hospital bed, and bought you flowers. My sister’s friends didn’t turn their back even when they found out the cancer was terminal. Why is it any different with mental health? Why do people turn away so fast?”
We thought, and then discussed it some more. I voiced the idea that sometimes people don’t think mental health falls into what a “friendship” should be. We agreed that friends should by no means become full-time carers and that the way the system works for the NHS puts considerably more pressure on friends and family than if it were physical health. But the patient’s friends hadn’t become full-time carers; her family had. She still had a family. She shrugged and said “I dunno. I just know if I’d been hit by a bus and didn’t know how long I was going to live, they’d be around. They’d want to see me, wouldn’t they? They’d have to help me walk, and god only knows what else…but they wouldn’t all go – ‘well I’m afraid that’s not part of friendship and it’s too stressful so I’m walking away.’ I couldn’t blame them if they did, like I don’t blame them now. But I just know they wouldn’t if this was a physical problem.”
We discussed that maybe mental health scares people more; they understand it less so just run away. Or maybe they still don’t yet see depression as an illness, or other mental health problems as an illness either. The other patient talked about her anxiety attacks and how her friends had just stopped asking her out because the anxiety attacks caused embarrassment. “It causes me embarrassment too. But if I were on crutches and needed to walk slower, would they feel the same?”
Why do people respond so differently to mental health? I don’t understand. And I agreed with the patients; despite not knowing their friends I had a good feeling that if the patients were in hospital due to some terrible accident, or life-threatening physical illness, their friends would be by their side.
Depression is an illness. It’s not a choice, it’s not a want, and it’s not a game. We cannot just “switch off” our depression and just like cancer kills, so does depression. Cancer comes in grades – maybe look at depression in the same way. Grade 1; manageable with anti-depressants…right up to grade 4 – suicidal. It’s not just us being in a “bad mood” and we cannot just “cheer up.” There are things that will help alleviate the symptoms, just as with any illness, and we all actually hope we can recover from this terrible illness, but the more severe it is the worse the pain, and the less hope we have.
Just ask yourselves; if your friend was hit by a bus and in ICU, or your friend diagnosed with cancer, or your friend suffered a heart attack…would you deem that as not part of friendship, and too much to deal with? Maybe you would and that’s completely fine; nobody should have to cope with more stress than they can handle and everyone has their rights to lay down boundaries. But I’ve a sneaky suspicion that people turn their backs less-so when it’s concerning physical health, and moreso when it’s concerning mental health.
That, to me, is very sad. Whatever the mental illness; depression, OCD, schizophrenia, anorexia, anxiety, DID etc etc etc…it’s an ILLNESS. We are not CHOOSING to live this way. Christ we’d all love it if we could just wake up tomorrow and be better; I loathe how my mental health is powerful enough to shape my life. I just want to do my degree and start living, but it’s going to take me 5 years to get my BSc. I have lost friends as a result of my mental health; I’m hardly in touch with anyone from my first year and lost a very close friend at the beginning of second year. I don’t feel any bad feelings towards them; I respect that they took care of themselves and looked after their boundaries and made sure their mental health wasn’t impacted. But it does make me sad. I am extremely lucky I have the friends that I do, that somehow they’ve managed to put up with me even when I’ve had crashes that have left me trying to take my life…or DID episodes which left them handling a 4 year old…or anxiety episodes which left me a quivering wreck in the corner….or flashbacks that lasted for hours in the middle of the night. Somehow, they’ve stuck around, and everyday I count myself extremely lucky for this, and everyday I wait for them to go “I’ve had enough,” and walk away. I couldn’t blame them. I’d wish them well and wonder how their lives were doing.
But meeting patients who don’t have a single friend outside of the hospital; that’s really sad. And the saddest part was hearing a patient basically tell me that she felt if she’d been hit by a bus, she’d be better off.
Can you imagine feeling like that?
Mental illness is very lonely. It’s still very stigmatised, and still scares people more than it probably should do, and leaves a lot of sufferers isolated and without support. If they have no friends and the waiting list for therapy is 2 years…then what? At least with physical health you’re generally seen by professionals very soon after diagnosis… I’m not trying to say physical illness is any better or worse than mental illness; each is horrible and frightening and painful in their own way. But somehow people stick around for physical illness, and the professionals are on hand sooner…
…and people run away from mental illness, leaving the person they called their “friend” without any support; professional or friend. There’s nobody to hold their hand when they’re scared, and nobody to hold them when they cry. I can’t imagine that. It makes me so sad to think there are people in this position…suffering from a horrible illness, and on their own.
As I say, I have no issue with people respecting their boundaries. It just throws me the differences in attitude; how people will and do respond differently to physical and mental illness.
We are still people…we are just ill…