MENTAL HEALTH & FRIENDSHIPS | IN COLLABORATION WITH THE DESIGN PARLOUR | DISCOUNT CODE INCLUDED!!!

So, this post has been a long time in the making! Its inspiration actually came when I was gift hunting for the Birthday of three of my five best-friends who were all celebrating in the same month (March!). So, I found some lovely customisable prints on Etsy from The Design Parlour, and we decided to team up to bring you this blog post of a chat about the impact mental health can have on friendships, and we’ve even thrown in a huge discount code…

WHY IT’S AN ACHIEVEMENT TO MAKE FRIENDS WHILST EXPERIENCING TRAUMA

“A best friend is the only one that walks into your life when the world has walked out”

Shannon Alder

The best friend I met first was Sophie in 2006/2007. Now, if you’ve read, I’m NOT Disordered for a while now, you’ll know that the abuse I experienced started in 2006 so meeting Sophie around that time was pretty special and important. I mean, whilst the years my mental health was at its most poorly were horrific and challenging, the time during the actual abuse was the most overwhelming and difficult in my life. I was so full of anger and hatred towards almost everyone who mattered in my life because no one recognised what was happening to me and so, no one stopped it.

Meeting Sophie during that really frustrating time meant I felt a whole lot less isolated and alone. I mean, she didn’t know about it either, but to see that I was capable of building a new friendship whilst feeling the way I did and thinking the things I did? Well, that gave me hope. It left me thinking that if I could challenge those lonely thoughts and emotions by adding someone to my life, I might just get through it. I might just survive. Sophie made me feel stronger and more positive at a time when it felt like I had been feeling the exact opposite for forever!

The important thing though is that merely making a friend during that time wasn’t exactly the amazing bit, it was more about the type of person Sophie is that made it so special. Like, I wouldn’t have felt the sense of achievement that I did if my new friend hadn’t been the incredibly funny and bright person Sophie is. And her being so lovely like that – I mean she’s one of those people who light up a room when they come into it – kind of restored my faith in humanity! Like, it made me think there are still good people out there… My abuser might have been just one person, but he had such a colossal impact on my life that it felt like he was literally the only person in the world. Sophie helped me to build the realisation that he really wasn’t.

WHEN THEY DON’T REALISE

Unfortunately, for quite a few years immediately after the abuse, I really struggled with intense, overwhelming, and vivid memories and flashbacks of those horrible six months. Which meant that when a friend introduced me to an older boy who started buying us all alcohol, I became painfully aware that whilst my friends were all drinking to have fun, I was drinking to forget, and no one knew.

I had so many reasons for keeping quiet about the abuse… The one most motivating for my silence with my friends was the fear of judgment and the general impact it could have on our relationship. I knew that as soon as I told someone what had been done to me, they would have a decision to make – to believe me or to side with my abuser. To believe either that I had deserved it or that it hadn’t even actually happened. I assumed it was a toss-up between one of those responses because I was pretty confident that my abuser would either completely deny what he’d done or blame me in some way. And the fact that I had once been sat in my abuser’s office looking out of the window and wondering if I could jump out of it, kind of left me thinking that if my friends were to desert or judge me, I wouldn’t cope well with it!

So, I kept quiet. And I kept drinking. I kept drinking that entire Summer until a drunken fight broke out between my group of friends and another group and the Police became involved. The fact that we ended up in this situation made me wonder whether anyone would think it was ‘unlike’ me and wonder whether something else was going on. Of course, that was a desperate wish because so many people around me at that time would very understandably assume that my behaviours and decisions were simply the stereotypical changes a person can go through in their teenage years. Just your average – and very common – teenage rebellion.

It was sort of ironic and contradictory that whilst I felt so completely silenced in talking about the abuse, I was forever still hoping someone would figure it out. And that incident with the fight made me realise that no matter what happened no one was going to realise until I told them… and I couldn’t.

WHY YOUR MENTAL HEALTH COULD HAVE YOU LYING TO THEM

“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies”

Dorothy Allison

So, I deemed the fight to have happened at the right time because I was due to start at a new College just a few weeks later. It felt like the perfect opportunity to make a fresh start. To take it as a chance to really put what had been done to me behind me and look forward to an abuse-free life.

In addition to having a new environment, going to a new school also meant it was time to make new friends and I loved the thought of meeting people who knew nothing about me. People who didn’t know what I’d done (and what had been done to me) for almost one year. I could be a whole new person. Na├»vely, I thought this would make forgetting the abuse would be so much easier and simpler. As though I could just step into this new school and my entire memory would just automatically be wiped clean!

Of course, that wasn’t the case and to be honest, if anything, things just seemed to escalate as I became more and more desperate to find some sort of escape from the memories of the abuse. But, whilst things were still very challenging, one special and amazing thing that happened during those two years at the new school was that I met two more of my best-friends; Lauren and Ellie. Although, I say ‘special and amazing’ that’s mostly if I’m considering these days… I mean, at the time – 2007 to 2009, I really didn’t appreciate Lauren and Ellie as much as I do now because back then I sort of thought of them as an extra challenge. It was almost as though I knew from the offset that I had just made friends for life, but I was becoming less and less passionate about even having a life!

So, the day I started experiencing auditory hallucinations in the form of voices, it almost felt like a sign that the suicide attempt I’d first thought about years ago during the abuse, was even more inevitable and literally on the verge of happening. I wasn’t wrong; ten days later (in 2009) I made my first suicide attempt.

In all honesty, I might have been more open with my friends if the attempt had derived purely from the abuse… But since the voices had been hounding me to do it almost every second of those previous ten days, and were the chief trigger for the attempt? Well, there was no way I was about to tell that to these lovely girls who I’d only known for two years. It would be so much less understandable than the abuse. So much harder to empathise and appreciate. So much easier to judge. When I first heard the voices, my thought was ‘I’m going crazy!’ and my fear of being carted off to be locked in a hospital left me reluctant to tell my Doctor; so how could I expect others to not hold that same uneducated and stigmatised view of mental illness?

I actually feel really terrible for thinking that my friends would ever have the dismissive, discriminatory view of my mental health. Like, surely, I should have thought more highly of them? Surely, I should have just known that they would never treat me so poorly? That they would have understood – or at least that they would have tried to? That they wouldn’t have judged me or treat me any differently? I just hope that any of those girls (Sophie, Lauren, and Ellie) who might read this will know that my unfounded panic actually wasn’t in any way remotely to do with them really. It was derived of my own thoughts and beliefs.

So, for three years (2009 – 2012) even though my records showed I had over 60 hospital admissions for self-harm, my friends remained very much in the dark about my mental health and the symptoms I was experiencing. Looking back, I literally have no idea how I managed that! I can’t believe there was such a lengthy time in my life where I didn’t share some of the biggest and most important details in my life with my best friends. I mean, whilst my mental illness wasn’t completely in control of or overwhelming the rest of my life, there were so many instances where I had to cancel plans with my friends because I was either in hospital or at home recovering from being in hospital!

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DECIDING HOW MUCH TO TELL THEM

The time to finally tell my friends about my mental health came in 2012... I had been admitted to my local psychiatric hospital again and my Psychiatrist there made the recommendation that I go to a psychiatric hospital specialising in my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). So, I had two assessments with the nearest ones. When the first assessment decided that their hospital wasn’t secure enough to manage my flight risk, I was referred to a locked ward over 100 miles away from home.

I remember being in the assessment and the Ward Manager and her Deputy telling me that there was a full therapeutic timetable that including waking up early, going to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) sessions, doing activity groups, and attending Morning Meetings and Reflection Meetings with the rest of the ward before ‘lights out.’ When the hospital offered me an inpatient place, I told my Community Mental Health Team that I wouldn’t go because I hated the thought of such an intimidatingly strict schedule. The Team decided that they wouldn’t force me to go and a while later I made my third suicide attempt. This time though, I was put on life support whilst the life-saving antidote treatment was administered and until my blood tests finally came back normal. I think being in Intensive Care was a bit of a monumental moment in my mental health and it was a moment that left my Community Team convinced I would end up dead if I didn’t go to the specialist hospital. So, whilst they made plans to have me sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health Act, I made the decision to voluntarily go. In all honesty, a huge reason I offered to, was because I had it in my head that I could run away from the hospital, and I’d be so far away from my loved ones that I wouldn’t feel so guilty if I made another attempt or self-harmed.

From the offset of learning about this hospital, I was made aware of the fact that the average length of admission was 12 to 18 months. Knowing this meant that despite how long I spent trying to think up a lie to tell my friends why I was going to be so far away from them for over a year, I knew that ultimately, I would have to tell them the truth. And you may have guessed by now, but I don’t do things by halves! So, I wrote a post on Facebook about the entire thing! The fact that the stigma of mental health had silenced me for so long, and that now my illness was so bad I needed to be hospitalised. To this date, almost ten years later, it is still one of my most popular posts! It got so many ‘likes’ and a whole host of very supportive and kind comments from my friends.

I guess that not talking about this thing that had slowly been overpowering me and beginning to carefully and maliciously control my life, was kind of like… Like when you’re furious but you can’t express it for some reason, so it just boils up slightly under the surface and then eventually, it erupts. That period of silence had stuffed all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences down deep inside my head and so making the decision to confront them just felt like such a massive release that I couldn’t control. It was like, if I was going to talk about it, I had to talk about all of it.

Those kind and caring comments on Facebook were a huge motivation in me creating I’m NOT Disordered whilst in the specialist hospital because I was filled with the encouragement that my friends wouldn’t desert or judge me if I started writing a blog that was so much more detailed and informative. And in the end, I think that finally talking was such an incredibly amazing relief that it was actually kind of addictive. I wanted more of that feeling because now that I was an inpatient and had been for over one year by the time I started blogging, good feelings were kind of hard to come-by!

MAKING FRIENDS WITH OTHER SERVICE USERS – THE BENEFITS & DANGERS

Being in the psychiatric hospital for so long very obviously destroyed the opportunity to make new friends outside of the BPD ward and so it seemed to be predictable and natural (especially since it was a female-only ward) that I would build some friendships with the other inpatients.

It’s actually kind of funny because the girl in hospital who I felt the closest to and who I thought I had an incredibly special bond with, is actually the one person who I no longer talk to. All of the other girls though – the ones who are still alive – are still in my friends list on Facebook and we still randomly send supportive comments to each other.

Being on a ward where everyone has a Personality Disorder diagnosis meant that it was mostly a pretty volatile and often dramatic environment (it was actually a reason why I enjoyed blogging while I was there – it was an escape and a way to spend my time productively). A big reason why the diagnosis was relevant to the state of the atmosphere is because the majority of the ‘symptoms’ of BPD are centred around instability and impulsivity as well as uncontrollable anger and difficulty maintaining relationships. It meant that there were so many arguments between fellow inpatients and between inpatients and the staff. However, another trait to Personality Disorders though is an unstable mood which meant that occasionally everyone would be happy and excitable at the same time and the ward would be a really positive and supportive place to be.

Whether we were all in a good place or bad, the benefits to being friends was that we understood one another in a way that we knew no one else could ever even begin to grasp. Even when someone was silent, it was like we all knew what they were thinking and feeling. And having a diagnosis that can completely destabilise your relationships with your loved ones, can be very lonely and alienating to the point where any form of understanding and empathy can be incredibly comforting and reassuring. It could leave you feeling like you weren’t completely alone in this world. That there were others out there who could really recognise what you were going through.

The other side to a friendship with other inpatients or service users and the mutual understanding, was the negative to it. The chance that rather than supporting each other to stay safe and recover, self-harming could become very competitive and influential. I’ll literally never forget when one girl snuck a blade into the hospital and the girls passed it around knowing full well what the other was going to do with it! The most motivational concept for this is that whilst you’re really poorly, it can sometimes feel as though self-harm can be beneficial. That it can sometimes help. And that can mean believing that encouraging someone else to do that would be kind. That it would help them to come through a really dark time that you might feel you’ve struggled with yourself. A time when you genuinely hate the thought of absolutely anyone else experiencing it too.

STRUGGLING WITH THE COMMITMENT

“Without commitment, you cannot have depth in anything…”

Neil Strauss

When I agreed to go to the specialist hospital voluntarily, a big reason for that was the thought that I’d be able to escape from it and that with it being over 100 miles away from my loved ones, there’d be no one who really cared about me enough to either stop me from attempting suicide or force me to get help when I did. So, having that very suicidal belief and rationale meant that at first, I was reluctant to make friends because I honestly didn’t believe I would be there and alive for much longer…

Aside from the practical side of it, there’s also a reluctance to add anyone to your world as a protection factor – for them. You know, when you attempt suicide or self-harm or something, there will always be someone who says, “think about how such and such will feel!” As though that thought had never crossed your mind! As though when you became suicidal or had thoughts to hurt yourself in some way, you just instantly forgot about your loved ones. As though sometimes, the thought of your friends and family will magically erase all of the powerful, horrible and negative thoughts and feelings and you’ll suddenly be safe and happy again. So, sometimes, not making friends can be about wanting to have less people that you could disappoint or hurt through your mental health journey.

IS IT REALLY THAT IMPORTANT TO KEEP IN TOUCH REGULARLY?

If it were up to me, I’d speak to all five of my best friends every single day and I’d see them at least once a week! But this is reality and in reality, none of my best friends are nearby! I actually have two in Scotland and the other three aren’t exactly easy to get to – even on a bus route. Plus, the very obvious fact that everyone has their own life and their own schedule of appointments and things so it can be hard to find a mutual time to speak or see each other…

Keeping in touch is something which I think a lot of friends will have contended with recently since the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns that caused such a huge level of isolation for everyone. But you’ll probably know by now that I’m very much a ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ kind of person, so I look at that challenge as a real testament to how important and special the friendship is. Because if it can stand that and – if anything – become even stronger, then you can take on anything!

Lockdown was also a huge aid in people seeking out new methods of keeping in touch – I feel like social media and technology/the digital world in general became so much more essential and rewarding because for a lot of people it was the easiest way to stay connected with friends. In searching for these new methods, it also really highlighted people’s creativity and their dedication to the friendship – that they would take extra steps to not let the relationship burn out.

Recently someone realised her friend wasn’t in touch as often as they used to be and she asked me how I cope with not talking to my best friends very often and I told her that the true test of our friendship is if we don’t speak for a while, and then get together and it’s still the exact same. It’s as though we’ve been in touch the entire time. The lack of contact has never been more powerful than our friendship and how much we love each other.

HOW TO COPE WHILST SUPPORTING THEM

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not in my nature”

Jane Austen

I think that balance is the most important aspect to being able to support a friend through any challenges. It’s vital that you still allow the opportunity to look after yourself too because if you begin to struggle out of neglect for your own mental health, how can you support your friend?

One really big obstacle in my mental health recovery was the recognition that I deserve anything nice and positive. That my body is deserving of something other than pain. I mean, I had spent so many years doing nothing but causing damage to myself in so many different ways; so how could I just turn around and treat it to a shower or makeup or nice nails?! But I soon learnt that a hugely helpful fact in supporting my healthier ethos and view of myself was that I would be encouraging others to have more positive thoughts on themselves, so why should I be any different?

When I started blogging – and on a variety of occasions during my blogging career (the past nine years) – I’ve found myself not taking care of my mind or my body and I’ve always become very aware that if that continued, my blogging would lapse and so would the chance of me helping others through it.

Type in ‘IMNOTDISORDERED’ at the Etsy checkout for a 20% discount off any of The Design Parlour’s products: TheDesignParlour | Etsy


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