This is the first time I have ever written two blogs in one day. It turns out, mental illness – and how people talk about it and react to it – is important to me. Shocking, I know.
Let me start by saying that I don’t fault people for participating in the #B*llLetsTalk hashtag. There are folks who are still dealing with the fact that mental illness exists, that they might have one or that people they love might have one. We are awash in misperception, so I suppose having a day where people talk about it has benefits. That does not dissuade me from being critical of the problems with the day, foremost being the branding of my disability by a massive corporation – a corporation that may benefit far more from the association than those with mental illness do.
However, since we are talking about it anyway, I’ve decided to take advantage of the conversation to offer some suggestions of things you can do to help a person you love (or even like…we’ll take the help where we can get it) who has a mental illness. Keep in mind that these are the ideas of one human brain. I do not speak for all people with mental illness, although we do have magic mind meld powers. Kidding. Our powers aren’t magical. We do it with robots.
1) Do your reading, but don’t believe everything you read
There’s a lot of information out there about mental illness. There’s a lot of good info and a lot of dated, biased or poorly researched info. I recommend a balance of mainstream research by reputable organizations and first person stories. Some of what you find will be scary and some of it won’t match what your friend is living with, but information is power and normalizing mental illness will mean you are less apprehensive and questioning when supporting your friend.
2) Help with the basics
I cannot stress this enough. When I was at my worst, it was the basics that fell away. I couldn’t always clean my house. I didn’t cook (I can’t really cook anyway, but it was much worse.) What helped? Prepared meals. A haircut. Someone coming over and helping me do my laundry. I came home once and a group of friends had painted my kitchen. I know it sounds weird, being so personal, but personal was what I needed, even though I couldn’t admit it at the time. Drive your friend somewhere so they can save some energy for healing. Buy them a relaxing CD. Visit them for a quiet tea. For the most part, we are crappy self-advocates. Ask us what we need, respect us when we can’t take your help, but be ready to help with the basics. That’s what keeps us alive.
3) Help your friend find the door
When I am at my worst, I hermit. I isolate myself. I cut everyone off and cocoon away. I sometimes literally hide under blankets. During one of my last major depressions, a group of friends made an effort to try to get me out of the house. It could be for a minute or two, sitting on my porch, but damn it, it was outside. This allowed me to set progressively larger goals for getting out into the world, with the safety net of a friend if something went wrong (which it sometimes did.) By having a friend along for my perilous adventures in reality, I was able to claw my way back from nothing to something. It was a dedication I will always be grateful for.
4) Give them a piece of you
I have talismans. They have no actual power, except that they come from people who love me and when I hold them, they are a tangible reminder of that fact. In the course of my illness, a few have stood out. A handmade diary from my sister, a polished stone from my friend Lisa, a comic strip by my friend Ty, a book from my ex-boss. Each of them were given to me in a moment when I needed to be told that I mattered and each of them did exactly that. As time has passed, I have collected small talismans all over my house. If I need to know I am loved, I can look at them and see it evidenced in physical form, something I can hold or experience. It’s a powerful feeling.
5) Know your limits
As an ally, you can’t do everything. I get that. If you can’t support us, support our support system. Be there for our partners, kids, parents or friends. Help them do the hard stuff by just being there. Listen to their frustrations, make sure they eat, take them out, be their friend. Accept that, sometimes, the only way we can get out of where we are is with the help of professionals or other people with mental illness or even time. Sometimes, you can’t help, but that doesn’t mean you should walk away. Do what you can. Do your best. Know we appreciate it. This is a team sport (I figured this was better than a war metaphor. Mental illness as battle is so overdone) and as was so eloquently summed up in the epic film Grease, “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.”
So yes, I’m on the fence about how much this teleconversation is really bringing to the table. Pretty celebrities are not the face of mental illness anymore than the other end of the spectrum is. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. If we are having a conversation about mental illness, I’d like to think we’re past just acknowledging that it exists. I’d like to think that we want to know how to help, without having to retweet an ad. The answer can be summed up in two words: Be there.