I’m living with a mental illness, and sometimes that can cause people to verbally tiptoe around me, especially the people closest to me. It’s like my friends and loved ones are stuck walking on eggshells sometimes, and I want that to stop.
I recently published a blog titled “10 ‘Harmless Things’ You Say That Hurt Me”. In that post I described what living with Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be like, and I shared some extremely hurtful things people have said to me. In that post I asked for kindness, awareness, and acceptance, which I received. But then I realized something really important: in that post I shared things I didn’t want people to say, but I failed to offer advice on what to say. So, I’m doing that now.
So, I guess you could call this the follow-up. In this post I’ll be sharing 10 reassuring things (plus some bonus material) that I need to hear from my friends and loved ones.
Before I start, I would like to preface this list with three major disclaimers;
Individualization: Every person is different. What works for me might not work for someone else living with my illness. These aren’t blanket statements that can be said to anyone-and-everyone living with a mental illness, they are simply things I appreciate and find comfort in.
Relationship: It is important to examine your relationship with a person before you venture into some conversations. For example: two best friends can speak more intimately than two casual acquaintances. But everyone can benefit from kindness, whether they are a lifelong friend, or a stranger in a coffee shop.
Tone: Tone of voice is super important. Perhaps one of the most important things. You can say the kindest words in the entire world, but if you say them in a frustrated tone it can cause more harm than good.
1. You are not alone. / I’m here for you.
When I started writing this blog “you are not alone” was the very first thing I typed. Consequently, it’s also the hardest to explain, so bear with me while I try.
“You are not alone” isn’t just words, it is a feeling. It’s a promise. It’s an all-encompassing and empowering feeling. A feeling of inclusiveness and acceptance. A feeling of having someone on your side that will never give up on you.
It’s like hearing a friend say; “I’m here for you, and I will help you conquer your darkness. I will stand with you until you are ready to step into the sun again.”
It’s like hearing a loved one say; “you are bigger than your illness, and we will get through this together.”
It’s like hearing a spouse say; “I know you’re flawed, but I don’t mind, and I will always love you.”
Statements like “you are not alone” and “I’m here for you” carry a lot of weight and power, but they also place a lot of responsibility on the deliverer of the statement. You have to mean it, completely. It’s like Uncle Ben always said “with great power comes great responsibility”.
“You are not alone” means “I am in this with you”, or “I love you enough to not let you go through this alone.”
It’s powerful. It’s meaningful. So, if you say it, you better mean it.
2. What can I do to help you? / Is there anything I can do?
This applies to anxiety and depression. I’ll give more detailed examples of situations and questions later in this post, but this is a great place to start.
Anxiety: I had an anxiety attack last October while waiting in line at a Halloween maze. I have no clue what caused the anxiety attack, I effortlessly go to mazes all the time – so there is no correlation there. A friend noticed my attack early on and simply asked; “is there anything I can do for you?” Hearing those words were a blessing… First off, it was amazing to see that someone cared. Second, it forced me to slow down and consider what would help end my anxiety attack. Third, I was able to pinpoint what would help me, and say it out loud. I said, “can I listen to music?”, my friend giggled and replied, “well, of course.” Then they helped me plug my earbuds in (because my hands were shaking). The anxiety attack was 100% over before the first song ended.
Depression: To be completely honest, I ignore 90% of all human-contact-attempts when I’m depressed. However, hearing, or reading, this question makes me feel better. I might ignore this inquiry 9 out of 10 times, but it’s nice to know that the offer for help is there. Also, when I’m in a severe depressive state I have absolutely nothing to offer socially, so this type of question alleviates the pressure of conversation a little. Mostly, it’s just nice to know that someone is there, that they notice me, and that they are genuinely willing to help if I want it.
3. Your feelings are valid. / Your feelings matter.
Depression: There is a John Green quote in “The Fault in Our Stars” that helps explain this; “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” Sure, John Green wasn’t talking about Bipolar Depression when he wrote that line, but it fits.
When depression happens, it’s just happens, and it demands to be experienced, felt, dealt with. It’s very important to me that the people in my life understand that I am experiencing a depressive episode, and that I’m not “just sad”.
Sadness vs. Depression: The Difference, An excerpt from: 10 “Harmless Things” You Say That Hurt Me, by The Uncustomary Housewife
“Sadness is a normal human emotion. Depression, on the other hand, is an abnormal emotional state caused by a mental illness.
Sad people are sad because something happened that caused their sadness; it could be something huge (like the loss of a loved one), or something small (like a bad first date), and sadness normally lasts a reasonable amount of time. Whereas depression needs no cause or invitation, it just happens, completely unsolicited… and there is no logic or rational thought behind how long it sticks around. Sure, depression can be triggered by a sad event, and severe sadness can lead to a form or depression, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
Sad people are sad. People with depression experience deep feelings of worthlessness, difficulty in concentration and connectivity, decreased pleasure in things that are normally pleasurable, a lack in concern for personal hygiene, and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm. I guess you could put it this way: Sadness is feeling sad. Depression is feeling nothing, at all.”
My depression may not seem logical, because it isn’t. But it’s reassuring to know that it’s seen as a valid emotion by those around me. When my friends and family recognize that I’m depressed it takes a weight off my shoulders. I don’t feel the need attend social functions that are emotionally excruciating for me; painfully faked smiles, polite conversations that cause tension headaches, dizziness because of light and sound sensitivity. I’ve literally had friends say; “I can tell your down, it’s okay, we don’t need to do this,” and that validation is an absolute God-send. Or, when my husband comes home to realize that I didn’t go grocery shopping, or fix dinner, and he says; “I understand what kind of day it must have been for you, and it’s okay.”
Anxiety: Feeling validated during a bout of anxiety is super important. An anxiety attack can be an extremely isolating experience, so validation is important to me.
Look at it this way: during an anxiety attack I feel like everything around me gets giant-sized, while I’m simultaneously shrinking, thus making me feel helplessly overwhelmed, small, and alone. So, if a friend recognizes my emotions as real, or says “I see your anxiety, and it’s okay”, or “your anxiety is valid right now”, it makes me feel stronger, and calmer.
Panic: It’s normal for me to panic over something that is absolutely unrealistic, and, I’ll admit, at times, completely ridiculous. However, during my state of panic there is no reasoning with me; trying to reason with me during a panic attack is pointless, it would be easier to convince a lion to become a vegetarian. Seriously, whatever I’m panicked about is 100% real and valid to me, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. For example: I might wake up in the middle of the night and be super worried, for no discernible reason, that all the flour in the house has freezer burn, thus preventing me from making biscuits from scratch in the morning. And, I know, this seems silly, but to me, in that moment, it is the most important thing in the world.
A thing called “depersonalization” normally happens during a panic attack. Here’s how it goes, (1) I realize that there is something to be panicked about, (2) I start panicking: thinking of worst case scenarios, etc… (3) I enter the depersonalization phase: I feel detached from my body, like I’m a bystander to my own panic. It’s almost like there are two copies of me; “Panicked Elizabeth” – obviously the one that is panicking, and “Rational Elizabeth” – the one that knows I’m being absolutely ridiculous. Sadly, “Panicked Elizabeth” is the one driving my body, while “Rational Elizabeth” is stuck on the other side of a shatterproof window, just watching the craziness unfold. Some horrible things can happen during this phase; things can be thrown, hurtful words can be said, etc… (4) Luckily, depersonalization lasts, on average, 7 to 10 minutes, so “Rational Elizabeth” eventually prevails, and I realize how ridiculous I’m being. (5) I’m super upset about the way “Panicked Elizabeth” behaved, and I have to repair whatever damage has been done.
Here’s the point: If during my panic attack someone said, “that’s ridiculous”, or “the flour probably doesn’t have freezer burn”, It would create a bad situation that could potentially send me flying off the “panic handle”. However, hearing someone say “your fear is valid”, or “that makes sense, the flour could be freezer burned” makes me feel like I’m not completely insane, and it helps me calm down faster and rationalize the fear.
Clarification: I’m not suggesting that you always agree with a panicked person. If someone is panicking about dinosaurs coming back and attacking civilization don’t say; “yea, velociraptors could be running around the shopping mall any day now”. But you could say; “I understand why you’re scared, that would truly be terrifying.” I’m suggesting that you make their fear and feelings valid, because the fear is real to them.
Note: I’ve never panicked about flour (yet), that was just a hypothetical example. Also, dinosaurs are awesome.
In summary, it’s reassuring to hear that your feelings are valid.
4. You won’t always feel this way. / This is temporary.
It’s easy to feel trapped inside your emotions sometimes; like a firefly trapped in a mason jar. It’s so easy to forget that most pain is temporary, and sometimes I need a reminder.
Mania: This especially applies to long-term-manic-episodes. When I’m inside of a manic episode my brain is in overdrive; like the Starship Enterprise at a consistent Warp 10, I’m literally white knuckling it through my life for days or weeks at a time. I forget that the “crazed speed-rush” feeling will eventually pass. It’s reassuring to be reminded. For example: I drop a lot of things when I’m manic, mania causes me to be super frantic, so I fumble around and accidentally drop things. My husband often notices my frustration, and he will say something like, “this isn’t forever”.
Anxiety: During an anxiety attack I appreciate being reminded that my fear, panic, and/or anxiousness is temporary. Anxiety attacks can feel debilitating, so the thought of a prolonged anxiety attack is horrifying. A kind friend saying, “hey, it’s okay, this will only last a few minutes” is an amazing help.
Depression: Sometimes, during depression, I develop a strong distaste for myself; I hate the fact that I’m being inefficient, and, for lack of a better word, worthless. Additionally, complex thinking isn’t my best friend during depression, so I forget that my depression will eventually go away. It’s nice to be reminded that “tomorrow is a new day” – a day that might not be accompanied by depression.
5. Take your time. / There is no need to rush.
Sometimes it takes me a little longer to do things. Maybe I’m anxious and I have to pack an extra book in my purse to calm me down. Or maybe I’m depressed, which makes me move like a sloth. Being told that “there is no need to rush” can be super-efficient in many situations.
Depression: I can’t Houdini myself happy. So, sometimes my friends and loved ones have to accept that I will be missing in action for a little while. Being told to “take your time and rest” is comforting, it alleviates social pressures so I can stay home and recharge.
Mania: I already mentioned that I drop a lot of things when I’m manic. I become super frantic and clumsy. For example: if I’m manic, and attempting to put away groceries, you can almost bet that I will drop at least 15% of the groceries – cans bouncing off the kitchen floor, apples askew across the countertop. So, if a family member says, “the groceries aren’t going anywhere, take a second, it’s okay to slow down”, it gives me a second to breathe and reprocess. However, keep in mind, tone of voice is especially important here. If you say “slow down” in a frustrated voice it will cause more harm than good. Tone of voice. Tone of voice. Tone of voice.
Anxiety: Sometimes, feeling pressured to rush through a medial task can cause serious anxiety. Being reminded to “take it slow” can be a blessing. Honestly, my friends have helped me avoid a few anxiety attacks by reminding me to slow down. For example: I was in the bookstore with a friend a few days ago, and I was trying to pick out a new book to read. Thus, I was running around like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs; i.e. like a crazy person. I was holding a stack of books that was, probably, 7 books high, and I was frantically attempting to pile more on. So, my friend suggested that I sit down and sort through the book options I already had, “let’s take a minute and narrow it down to three”, she said. It was the mental break I needed, at the prefect time.
6. Talk to me, I’m listening. / I’m always here, in case you want to talk.
Having a mental illness can be very isolating. Mostly because other people don’t understand your mental illness, thus forcing you to keep everything to yourself. Also, the fear of judgement and negative stigma keeps a lot of people from talking, or reaching out. This causes a lot of people to feel completely alone. I felt that way, for a long time.
It’s nice to hear that someone is willing to listen without judgment, or allow me to speak freely (if and when I’m feeling up to it).
This one is pretty simple; it can be a text message, phone call, or face-to-face – oftentimes the method of conversation doesn’t matter. There is, however, one thing that really matters: you have to actually listen, and remain free from judgement.
Here’s some insider information: Opening up, and speaking freely, about mental health takes a great deal of courage, therefore, if someone is courageous enough to open up to you, simply listen. The last thing you wanna do is accidentally say something insensitive or hurtful.
If I open up, and feel judged, it makes me shutdown quicker than Punxsutawney Phil can run back inside his groundhog hole: and then I’m damned to live 6 more weeks of mental health isolation.
7. I’ll support you, / I’ll be there for you, no matter what.
I didn’t entirely realize how important the word “support” was until a friend sent it to me in a text message. It made me feel like I had someone on my team – like it wasn’t just me vs. the thoughts inside my mind. Hearing “I’ll be there for you, no matter what”, is always reassuring.
For those of you who don’t know me personally: It’s super easy to be my friend when I’m having a good day; I’m a super fun person, I’ll be the first to admit that. I’m charismatic, considerate, funny even. However, it’s not easy to be my friend on a bad day; the depressed days, the worthless days, the super manic days – those aren’t fun, for anyone involved.
During a good week my friends might call to ask if I wanna go out to a movie. During a bad week my friends might stop by to make sure I remembered to feed myself… big difference. So, “support no matter what” is absolutely important.
Also, when I decided to publicly announce that I had Bipolar Disorder I was super nervous. I asked one friend, in particular, for advice before I posted my last blog, and they replied; “I’ll support you, no matter what, and I can’t wait to read it”. That reassurance was a huge deal to me.
8. What kind of thoughts are you having? / How are you feeling today?
This type of question normally has two different purposes; (1) Curiosity: Other people are naturally curious about my emotions, (2) Checking-In: People genuinely wanna check in on me.
I’ll start with “Curiosity”. I know that my friends and family love me, but I also know that they are sometimes curious about what version of me they will be getting on any given day. Will I be manic; overtaking people (with what seems like unlimited energy), will I be anxious; worrying about everything and putting LipBalm on every 30 seconds, will I be depressed; and maybe not even leave the house? I know, all too well, that my loved ones are curious, and it’s okay to ask – as long as it’s done correctly.
People think they are sly, and that I don’t notice their inquiry, but I notice, and I don’t mind it in the slightest.
From time-to-time my husband will wake me up, with a warm cup of coffee, and ask in a kind voice; “so, how are you feeling today?” I find it calming, and endearing. And actually, it allows me the chance to consider how I feel, before I fall face first into an emotion I didn’t see coming.
Now, on to “Checking-In”. I like these types of questions. They show me that someone cares…
Depression: Being asked “what kind of thoughts are you having?” during a depressive episode can be an all-encompassing question. People who are experiencing depression commonly experience thoughts of self-harm, or even suicide. So, a question like this can give a depressed person an outlet to ask for help. In my case, mostly, it’s just nice to know that someone sees me struggling, and wants to talk.
My depression is normally pretty obvious to my husband and friends, and they all know that I’ll be stuck at arm’s length, but it’s still nice to get a “how are you feeling?” text. It lets me know that I haven’t been forgotten about, and it reminds me that I matter.
Anxiety: During an anxious day, being asked “what kind of thoughts are you having” can be super helpful. If I can calm myself down enough to articulate conversation I can explain what is triggering my anxiety; which helps my friends or family assist me in coping with it, overcoming it, or even eliminating it.
9. I’m glad you’re in my life. / I’m happy that we’re friends.
This would be a nice thing to say to anyone in your life, not just people living with a mental illness. It’s always nice to be appreciated, but perhaps it means more to people with a mental illness.
Oftentimes, I feel like an inconvenience. I know it isn’t always easy to be my friend. I’m well aware that life with me can be difficult. Therefore, I worry about the impact my anxiety, depression, and mania has on the people I love.
When someone acknowledges that they are glad to know me it helps alleviate my fears of inconvenience. It’s nice to feel wanted. It is comforting to feel needed. It also makes me feel “normal”, which is endearing.
If someone tells me “I’m glad you’re my friend”, or “I’m happy you’re in my life”, it means a great deal to me. It allows me to see myself as a friend, and not simply a person floating around, aimlessly, with bipolar disorder. It makes me feel important.
This is such an easy sentiment – telling a person that you’re glad they’re in your life – everyone should do it more often. Spread a little love. Spread a little appreciation and happiness. It might make someone’s day.
10. I care about you. / I love you.
This is about as simple as it can get, right?
When I “came out” as Bipolar and OCD I was scared that people would look at me differently – that they would forget the “me” that I always was. The truth is, I’m still the same person, you just know a little more about me now. It’s been an interesting experience, really. A few people from my past have messaged me and said things like; “it all makes sense now”, or “now I finally understand why you always seemed so weird”… I’ve found it endearing – like I’ve finally given people the last piece of a puzzle. But, through it all, I’ve felt loved.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: everyone deserves to be loved and cared for. Sometimes, in the hustle-and-bustle of life, we forget to remind people that we love them. We shouldn’t forget. People deserve to be loved, and people deserve to be told that they are loved.
*Bonus Material: “Would you like to leave?”
This is a more detailed question / situation concerning anxiety in public places. Sometimes things can get overwhelming, and it’s nice to be reminded that leaving is an option. Basically, my friends and loved ones have to accept that I have limits.
A huge fear of mine is that I will ruin an experience for my family or friends. I’m always scared that I’ll have an anxiety attack, or manic episode, and ruin someone else’s fun. In reality, no one wants to leave the mall, a cookout, a ballgame, or a party because their friend has anxiety… but the ugly truth is that mental health needs to take precedent over fun. You just have to be the kind of friend that is actually willing to leave, or take a break, if that’s what’s needed.
My husband is REALLY good at this one. Luckily, we’ve never had to leave an event, though he’s offered… But he is really good at saying “would you like to step to the side?” or “do you wanna take a break?” or “want to step into the hall for a bit?”, I love him, and appreciate him for it… and he has never once made me feel like an inconvenience, even though I know it must be annoying, especially at comic book conventions.
*Bonus Material: “Would you like to go to a support group?”
Almost every town has their own chapter of NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Health, or something like it. NAMI offers free peer-led programs that anyone can attend. These programs and support groups help provide people with support and guidance. Offering to go to a meeting with a friend, or loved one, can be a huge step for them. A lot of people don’t want to go to support groups alone, so they need a little push. I know I did.
*Bonus Material: “I’ll be praying for you.”
In my last post I listed “have you tried praying about it?” as one of the things I wished you wouldn’t say to me. Now, I don’t want you to take that statement out of context. I was referencing the belief that prayer will make my mental illness disappear, or that I’m mentally ill because “I let the devil in”. I said this in my last post, and I’ll say it again; “My mental illness is not caused by the absence of God, or presence of the devil… it’s a chemical imbalance that I’ll have to live with during my time on Earth, regardless of my relationship with God.”
Now, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. I am a Christian. I believe in prayer. I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, is the only way to achieve Salvation. I also believe that no one will ever love me as much as Jesus loves me. Therefore, I would love it if you would pray for me. But, just pray for me, as me. Don’t try to pray my mental illness away, that’s not the way it works. Pray for my piece of mind. Pray for me to always have a close relationship with God. Pray for me to be a good messenger; to bring kindness and joy to others.
Offering to pray for a person is always appropriate, if done for the right reason. So, when you offer to pray for someone, or suggest that they pray, talk to God first, and make sure you are coming from a place of love.
Curtain Call: In Conclusion
Perhaps, the most important thing: Be Kind To One Another.
Sincerely, Elizabeth (the Uncustomary Housewife)
MY MENTAL HEALTH BLOG: You can read other blog posts I’ve written about mental health by visiting my “My Mental Health” blog page, by clicking HERE... because I don’t mind talking about mental health.