Mental illness carries with it a number of challenges, especially when the sufferer is young. When I was a teen, I had incredible social anxiety, exacerbated by beliefs that I was unworthy of friendship, I was ugly, and that nobody really cared about me. That nobody could care about me. I believed I was inherently unlovable and undeserving of being loved.
My mother was at a total loss as to what to do with me—until she saw an article in the newspaper about a local Star Trek club. Now, I’d been a fan of Star Trek: the Next Generation since I discovered it in 1989. I adored that show, and I’d been writing fanfic based on it pretty much since beginning ninth grade. So, Mom did what she thought was best and dropped me off at the library for one of their monthly meetings one Saturday afternoon. I briefly considered hanging out in the main section of the library for the duration of the Star Trek meeting, but ultimately decided to at least check things out, in part because I didn’t want to have to lie to Mom about having gone.
The little library’s main meeting room was already set up for the meeting, with a long table with chairs facing the room at the front, and rows of chairs facing that setup in the rest of the room. Two more long tables stood at the right, already bearing snacks and 2-liters of sodas and cups. A few of the regular club members were present, but I didn’t approach them. I sidled into a chair in the middle of the last row set up and huddled there. I can’t remember if it was Dawn or Milo or someone else, but one of those already present came over and introduced themselves, asked my name, and pointed everybody else out with their names when I admitted I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of talking to anyone.
I spent the entire meeting in that chair, and scurried out without partaking of any of the snacks when it was over, though everyone else stayed to socialize. I’d had enough, I felt stressed, and I wanted to go back to my bedroom at home and hide with my writing. Mom picked me up. On the way home, she asked me how things went, and I told her a little of what had gone on, then, to my own surprise (and probably hers, too), I admitted I wanted to go to the next meeting.
I gradually grew comfortable enough to chat with everyone after the meetings, but my first Christmas party with them, at one member’s home, proved to be a little too much. In the middle of our Secret Santa gift exchange, I retreated to an empty, dark bedroom to spend some time alone. I needed to recover from what was for me intensive socialization. It was either Kim or Dawn who followed me to ask what was wrong, and I, in my innocence, was completely honest with her when I replied. I explained I needed a break from the social activity because it was starting to stress me out, and I was getting edgy enough to start snapping at people for no reason, and I didn’t want to do that, so I needed some time to recover. She nodded and told me to take all the time I needed, that she’d tell everyone else what was going on and that I wasn’t upset or hurt or anything, then left.
I didn’t know it then—I wasn’t as self-aware and mindful as I am now—but I taught myself a valuable lesson. I learned that day it was important for me to be honest about my mental health with my friends. I didn’t realize it, but by telling Kim/Dawn why I’d retreated into isolation as I had, I’d given my friends a precious opportunity to be supportive and caring.
I realize now how big a thing that is. Up to that point, I’d fiercely guarded my mental health status, even after my inpatient visit to a local hospital’s mental ward. I didn’t tell anyone except my therapist and psych doc about my mental status. I didn’t realize, even when I told Kim/Dawn how I was doing mentally during that Christmas party, how imperative it was to be honest about my mental health.
That’s something I’ve learned over time, this honesty about my mental health. As friendships fluctuate, grow more distant and close again as they are wont to do with me, I’ve learned the value of being completely honest with my friends how I feel at any given time. If I’m upset or depressed, I tell them with complete honesty and as tactfully as I am able. This may be over the phone, or in an email, and is frequently done with them in person. I need to keep giving my friends the opportunity to understand me, particularly when I feel upset with, or angry at, or jealous of them for some reason. I’ve found that when I give my friends the opportunity to address my mental illness and its effects on me, my friendship with them strengthens.
This, I believe, is why I’m now able to pick up a friendship previously dropped or “forgotten” over the course of time when things get busy for myself or one of my friends. Not only am I honest with them about myself, but my honesty allows them to feel comfortable being honest with me, and confident I won’t get upset with them for life getting in between us. That’s what I mean about strengthening the friendship. It doesn’t matter how many months or even years fall between us from one conversation to another; what does matter is that we’re able to pick up where we left off because we both are honest with each other about what got in the way.
But I have to give my friends the opportunity to be honest, and compassionate, and caring. If I don’t do that, they won’t know I’ll welcome them back no matter what’s separated us.