Fruit of the Loon #4: Compassionate Friendships and Mental Health Recovery

10 Jun 2018

Lately, I’ve been on a gratuity kick. It’s been two years and some-odd months since I was diagnosed with severe depression and suicidal ideation. 6 years since generalized anxiety. In a way, I’m celebrating mental “sobriety “– not including my liver. But there’s been something really beautiful forming in my life over the past few months in particular and I feel the need to make a public announcement about it.


That thing is some really, truly genuine and compassionate friendships.


This isn’t to say that friendship is a completely new frontier for me. I am not and have never been a lone wolf – we’re just going to ignore 4th grade recess when I say that. But the types of friendships that have formed over my last year and the ways that old friendships have newly manifested themselves for the umpteenth time is honestly so comforting.


And so this month’s post is about gratefulness. Because I know, deep down, that I would not be where I am today without the compassion that others have shown me.


But why talk about this aspect of mental illness recovery? Honestly? Because it doesn’t happen enough. In fact, our gut instinct when it comes to discussing mental illness is to say something along the lines of the reactions to celebrity suicides like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain: we skirt around the despair they were feeling to only acknowledge the joy that they exhibited superficially. I’m only going to say this one time but I’ll say it loud for the people in the back: not everyone who is suffering is obvious about it, not everyone who smiles is happy.


And what’s worse, there are so many conversations that take place after a celebrity suicide that aren’t productive or empathetic. Just yesterday a misguided friend made a rather harsh comment to me about Avicii’s suicide. One month on and we are still having jokes made about a tragedy. While this person did not intend to offend or disarm me mid-conversation – I can’t emphasize that enough – the fact was that we still were at this impasse.


I know I’m not alone in experiencing this. A few days ago, a really dear friend of mine texted me right before my lunch break to tell me that she could feel an anxiety attack coming on. Knowing her and knowing what I would like to hear, I responded that I could meet her even if just for a moment during my hour off. While we didn’t end up meeting, we did have a conversation via WhatsApp about how she was feeling, how the anxiety was progressing, and what would be the best way to get her back to a normal rhythm. One thing that happened during our discussion was her other friends implied that she was being overdramatic, which she promptly told me. Having been made to feel this way multiple times in my 24 years, I responded simply that sometimes people without mental health issues do not understand what it feels like to experience something invisible, intangible, and yet all-consuming to that degree.


Now before I continue about the ways that compassionate friendship has shaped my experience over recent months, I do need to make a concession of the last paragraph. In no way, shape, or form is compassionate friendship about mental health strictly reserved for between people who both experience illness or symptoms. I feel like I need to say this because (a) not having it is not an excuse for not empathizing with it and (b) there have been multiple instances in my own life in which I have received amazing generosity from small acts by those who have absolutely no mental health history of their own. Let’s start big, shall we? There’s my best friend of 22 years who sat with me on some of my darkest days and cried alongside me in frustration. The young woman who consistently checked in with me during my recovery for months, even just with a simple phone call on her way back from teaching 10 year olds all day – which, by the way, is incredibly difficult and draining, if not also rewarding. Then there are the small things. The friend who found me mid-panic summer 2014 at a friend’s beach house. I had excused myself and resorted to sitting in a corner of the kitchen floor (something I do when I’m anxious) and he came and found me. I don’t even know if he remembers. But that meant a lot. And for my third example, but not nearly the last, the friend who sent me inspirational quotes randomly and consistently for several months until I had done the damn thing and graduated from Villanova. That will never be forgotten.


But like I said, recently there has been a surge of what I like to call “compassionate friendships” that there are no bounds to my gratefulness for. These are friendships that are two-way in confiding mental health issues in their exact moment in time, the ones that support you in an instance of  “Oh shit I’m not okay.”


Before I started writing this piece, I checked in with those individuals who have given me this gift in the past month to see if they would be willing to let me anonymously reference them. The answer was a resounding yes because these individuals are also those who support We Are Alive as a mission.


This list is not exhaustive but it is expository in the sense that it shows exactly how we should be treating people with mental illness and symptoms.


There’s the friend who texted me asking about an anti-anxiety medication that I had been on when I was first diagnosed. As she has just received her own generalized anxiety diagnosis, it only makes sense to enter the prescriptive market with Lexapro as a temporary fix. While I sat as a veteran and responded that there was no need to fear medication, she opened up to me about her own doubts and worries. Each of us was listening to the other, helping to come to a conclusion that would better her own condition. And for that I am grateful.


There’s the friend who consistently checks in on my mental health, the same friend that I consistently check in on. This friendship is based on deep understanding and complete love for the other as a human being. While we are resigned to Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, it works for us. Just the other week, as I was mid-anxiety for the first time in months, I went to a corner of my room where my left, right and back were against a wall, securing me. I sent her a Snapchat of it to show that even I still suffered from symptoms. Her response was not to blast me with positivity or even to offer words of advice. Instead, it was four simple words and an exclamation point: “What a lovely spot!” accompanied a picture of her with her hand on her heart. If that isn’t compassionate friendship, I don’t know what is. And for that I am grateful.


There’s the friend who I texted with what I have now discovered is best termed
“hangover anxiety” (I’m not proud) who offered to come and sit with me, no questions asked. Because sometimes, all you need is that other body there to make you feel less alone. I know I’ve done it for her. Or that person to walk along Southbank with you on a sunny Saturday and talk about how God must think you’re a meme with all that He throws your way. And for that I am grateful (for her. The Big Guy could cool it with the stressors).


And of course, there’s my roommate and friend who always tells me like it is but never intends for anything but love. And she will always call me bae and make me feel loved because that’s the kind of friendship we have. Hell, she dressed up and came to a conference I was leading just because she knew that I would be stressed and a friendly face, even for a moment, would be a lifeline. And for that I am grateful.


These are the ways that compassionate friendship has manifested in my life in recent months. I hope that it wasn’t a vain post to make, but one that proves that even the smallest Snapchat or the biggest hug can make a difference in one’s mental health. Remember when there are discussions of suicide that there are people suffering, people who feel lost, people who feel like there is no other option, and that your words can hurt these people and actually make or break their condition.


Be compassionate. Be loving. Be human.  




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