You’ve said it to me so many times when I was feeling low. I know you mean well, and I wish I could take you up on your offer. But I probably won’t.
Depression, anxiety and many other forms of mental illness directly attack a person’s self esteem. Many of us walk around with critical voices in our heads all day; when it gets bad, the volume of these voices gets turned to max. Depression lies, and it sounds like this:
“Nobody cares about me.”
“Nobody wants to know what I’m going through.”
“I’m a burden.”
“I have nothing to offer.”
“Nobody would miss me.”
These thoughts can get incredibly loud. Over the past week I have, several times, completely checked out of life (books, work situations, choir rehearsals) as I listened to my own voice tell me over and over that I was completely alone and nobody cared. And I believed it, because it was that kind of week.
In those moments, I might remember your kind offers to “call [you] anytime”, but it’s nearly impossible to make myself believe that I matter enough to interrupt your life. You might be with other, cooler people right now! You might be watching Vine compilations by yourself! You might be beating that Candy Crush level, or staring into space! You know, worthier efforts than talking to me.
“Call me anytime” is a very kind offer, but it’s incredibly hard to take for someone in the grips of the baddies. It takes a lot of strength to reach out when your entire being tells you not to, to ask for help when you think you’re not worth helping.
So for those of you who still want to support your friends, here are some alternatives to saying “Call me anytime”:
DO make an explicit offer.
If a friend tells you they’re struggling, give them an option they can say yes or no to. Offer to meet up, come over, bring food, or read them bad puns over the phone. “Is there anything I can do?” is a well-meaning question, but when my mind is on overdrive I can barely decide where to look, let alone figure out how you can help me. (Especially when I worry about inconveniencing you, which would be THE WORST.)
Make a direct offer to show what you’re prepared to do for them. They might say no, but just the fact that you offered will have made more of an impact than the vague promise that you will pick up the phone when they call.
DO NOT quietly assume that your friend wants to be left alone.
OH MY GOD DON’T DO THIS. (Imagine me flailing as I yell this at you like you’re about to tumble off a cliff while trying to take a selfie.) Do not, EVER, just walk off and assume your friend wants to be alone, no matter how much they look like they do. You might think you’re giving them space, but chances are they see you as wanting to have nothing to do with them while they’re “like this”. I have had people literally turn their back to me when I was in a bad way, when what I needed most was a hug. Don’t be that guy.
ASK if your friend needs space. They might say yes, but please make sure. If you don’t, you might inadvertently play into the hands of their illness.
DO follow up.
There is no time limit on a bad case of brain fog. It may take hours, days, or weeks. Your friend might have sounded better yesterday, but is it really over today, or did they get worse again after you said goodbye? Some people may struggle with emotional impermanence and will particularly appreciate a follow-up. I know we’re all busy, but just sending a quick text to ask “Hey, how are you today?” takes seconds and can make a world of difference.
DO take care of yourself.
Being a friend to someone living with mental illness isn’t always easy, and it can be confusing as hell. Don’t feel like you have to bend over backwards at all times to make them feel better. I’ve been there, done that, and can tell you it does not end well. It’s healthy to have boundaries, but make sure to communicate them so everybody is on the same page. You’re friends. You’re a team.
Look out for each other. Communicate.
Someone who always wants a hug