I don’t have many friends. The friends I do have, I value highly; so it makes it all the more painful when they walk out the metaphorical door. I’ve lost several friends in the past couple years, and recently upset another. If I believe their version, this was because I am a lousy friend. Sadly, these are friendships I cared deeply about, into which I put real effort, and my efforts still were not enough.
There are two sides to every story; mine is that those things which they took as evidence of me not caring about them were actually misunderstandings caused by my autism and, to a greater degree, my mental illness. I have received advice on how to be a good friend to neurotypical people; I would like to return the favor.
Being friends with someone with a mental illness (such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or any combination of these) is probably more work than being friends with a neurotypical person, which raises the question: why bother?
Well, because we are people, and we have other traits too. Maybe you and your friend both share a passion for music, or for books, or for horses or cats. Maybe you grew up together, or went through college together. Your friend might have a wonderful ability to make you laugh, or to see the world differently. Your friend might be an amazing artist, or a deeply empathic listener. And one thing that all of us crazy folks have in common is that we have suffered; which means that when you’re suffering, we are unlikely to throw out platitudes like “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!” We already know, from personal experience, that that’s not true.
So, here we go …
1) Be the one to reach out. Both people have a responsibility to keep a friendship going, and you shouldn’t be the one reaching out every single time; you should, however, expect to reach out more than you would with a neurotypical person.
This may sound unfair – both people should be reaching out equally, right? But the fact is, when you have a mental illness, there are many internal barriers to reaching out. We have a tendency to get trapped in our own heads, for various reasons. We might be depressed, or we might be spiraling into psychosis. We might be so disorganized in our thinking that we just don’t think of it, or we can’t figure out how to put the words “How are you?” together. Or, we might not reach out because we’ve decided, for some reason, that you hate us.
So when we overcome all of these barriers and reach out to you, you should see this as the equivalent to a neurotypical person reaching out 5 times. It’s the same amount of effort, the same degree of motivation to know how you’re doing or spend time with you. Really!
The flip side of this is that, at times, we may seem “needy” and be messaging you more than you like. If this is the case, it’s OK to let us know. Please just be nice about it.
2) Don’t take it personally. We forgot your birthday? We said we were coming to your party but then canceled last minute? Before you interpret these things as a personal slight, check in with us to see how were doing. These things are probably signs that we’re struggling, not signs of malice or indifference directed at you.
3) It’s OK just to BE together. Neurotypical people like to get together and do things. I like to do that sometimes, but often I don’t have the energy or resources for a highly stimulating activity. You will be able to spend more time with your neurodivergent friend if you’re comfortable just hanging out with them, not trying to cram endless activities into a two hour slot. Sit around, talk, go for a walk, play chess, do a puzzle, have coffee. If that requires too much energy for them, watch a movie at somebody’s house. (Movie theaters cause anxiety and sensory overload for me, personally. This may not be true of your friend.) Sit on a park bench together and space out. It’s all good!
4) Don’t invite them over and then, when they show up, have four other people at your house. Neurotypical people love to do this for some reason. Just because I have the energy to spend time with you, does NOT mean I have the energy to spend time with you and all your other friends. Sorry. Also, letting me know five minutes before I get to your house that other people will be there, isn’t any better.
5) Forgive them when they screw up. Forgiveness does NOT mean you stay in an abusive friendship, or that you tolerate endless amounts of hurtful behavior. It does mean that if you have a basically good, caring friend who does something crazy once in a while, you stick with them.
For example, let’s say your friend goes into a paranoid rage one day and lashes out with curse words in a manner that is out of character for them. OK, they shouldn’t have done that, and they should apologize. And when they apologize? FORGIVE THEM. I know, it’s easier said than done. But I have forgiven neurotypical friends for some pretty hurtful things, so I believe it’s doable.
And if all of this just seems not worth it to you? Well, then it’s not. But if you care about someone with a mental illness and you think they are worth the effort, I hope that these tips are helpful to you.