I’m grateful for the opportunity to write this new article for Aimee’s blog. The topic is one I’ve wanted to explore for a while. It builds on our shared belief in the value of mutually supportive friendships, and the fact that we each write in the mental health sector. Here, then, are the top ten things I’ve learned since Aimee and I met in February 2016. I’ve focused on things I think will be most useful to other people in their lives and friendships.
1. Plans change (and that’s OK)
Whatever health issues your friend lives with, there are likely to be times they need to cancel or rearrange plans, sometimes at short notice. Rather than becoming upset, remind yourself that any frustration or inconvenience you’re feeling is minor compared to what your friend is dealing with.
There was a great example of this a few weeks ago. Aimee and I had arranged to meet, but I woke that morning to a message saying not to come over. She didn’t say why but I knew she wouldn’t cancel for no reason. At one point in my life, I’d have felt “dumped,” or been worried about what had happened or if I’d done something wrong. My friendship with Aimee has taught me not to take such things personally. My need to know is not more important than her right to handle things the way she needs to. I let Aimee know it was OK, and waited until she was ready to pick up with things again. It wasn’t a problem at all.
There have been other occasions when plans have had to change, including times when Aimee has been taken poorly while we’ve been out. I don’t feel I’m much help to her when that happens, but I’ve always stayed with her and done what I could. I’ve certainly never resented the disruption to our day. Neither has Aimee’s health ever put me off spending time with her or planning trips and events. We’re friends, first and last. Everything else is secondary.
Pro tip: Remember that your friend may need to cancel or change plans. It helps if you understand why, but put your ego on hold. Your friend doesn’t owe you an explanation every time.
2. What my friend’s illness actually means
It’s no secret to readers of Aimee’s blog that she lives with borderline personality disorder (BPD). She’s also prone to seizures which can occur at any time. She’s the first person I’ve known with either of these conditions, and from early on I wanted to learn what I could about how they impact her life. My experience with other friends — including Fran who lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia — has taught me that understanding how someone handles their symptoms and what they need by way of support can help me be a better friend. I’ve read a couple of books on BPD which I found interesting, but I’ve learned far more about Aimee’s situation and how it affects her by reading her blog, talking with her, and simply being her friend.
Pro tip: Be the person in your friend’s life who makes the effort to understand what their health condition involves, but don’t imagine that makes you an expert. They are the only expert regarding their condition and how that affects them.
3. Labels are important but people are more important
I mentioned several mental and physical health conditions just now, including BPD, bipolar disorder, seizures, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Those are diagnostic labels, and in their proper clinical context they can be useful. Some people find it helpful to have their situation and symptoms acknowledged by a formal diagnosis. A diagnosis also opens up the possibility of relevant treatment.
I’ve learned not to rely on them when it comes to understanding how things are for someone. Fran is one of several people I know who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Their lives, symptoms, and support needs are all very different. I don’t know anyone else with a BPD diagnosis, but the way it impacts Aimee’s life is personal and unique. I couldn’t rely on what I’ve learned with Aimee to tell what someone else with BPD experiences, or what their needs might be.
Pro tip: Labels are important but whatever labels we carry we are all individuals living our unique lives. Your friend may want your support and help. They don’t need fixing.
3. Where all the hospitals are
It’s something of a private joke between me and Aimee that I’ve visited almost all the hospitals in the region since we became friends. I’ve attended check-ups with her, kept her company in A&E, visited her on the ward, and driven her to appointments when I’ve had a car. When I couldn’t be there in person, I’ve kept her company on chat or by phone. I joke that it’s really educational being her friend, because I’ve learned so much about hospital procedures and medical terminology. I even got to ride in an ambulance! Joking aside, I’m grateful, and humbled, that Aimee trusts me enough to share some of her most vulnerable times with me. If the situation was reversed I know she’d do the same for me.
Pro tip: Your friend may not need this kind of support but if it’s appropriate, offer it. Being there for someone when they’re poorly is amongst the most meaningful things you can do for someone.
4. I will always want to see, but a heads-up is appreciated
It’s important that Aimee gets to decide what, when, and how much to share with me, but she respects my boundaries too. She does so by always asking if I’m OK to hear the details, or to see a photo if she wants to show me something. I’ve told her I’ll always want to know, but I appreciate the heads-up. It allows me a moment to prepare myself before hearing or seeing something that might be serious or intense.
It hasn’t happened so far with Aimee, but occasionally I’ve had to say to friends “sorry, I can’t hear the details of that right now.” At other times, people have been unable to hear topics I’ve wanted to talk about. It’s not a problem as long as everyone is honest about their boundaries.
Pro tip: Be clear with your friend if there are topics you’d rather not hear about. Likewise, respect that your friend might not always want you to know what’s going on, or feel comfortable sharing the full details.
5. It’s important to pay attention
I’ve written about this before on my own blog (in a piece called How to Be Honest Without Losing Your Friends) but one very important lesson I’ve learned with Aimee is to pay attention. This isn’t really an illness thing at all. It’s the kind of basic respect that everyone deserves and has a right to expect from a friend. But it’s especially important when someone’s struggling because they won’t have the energy to deal with people who aren’t paying attention.
On the occasion that springs to mind I’d gone to visit Aimee in hospital, but didn’t pay attention at all to what she’d asked of me. It upset and hurt her at the time, but she explained afterwards why it was such an issue. We grew closer as a result but I wish I’d not learned the lesson at her expense.
Pro tip: Your friend has a right to expect you to pay attention to what they’re going through, and in particular to what they ask of you. Unless you believe they’re in an unsafe situation, respect their boundaries. Don’t assume you know better or attempt to ignore or override their wishes.
6. I’m not always who she needs
There’s a part of me that always wants to be there for my friends when they’re having a rough time, and it’s hard to acknowledge that sometimes I’m not the person Aimee needs. If she’s in a mental health crisis, for example, she needs professional support and will reach out to the crisis team or other mental health services. It’s absolutely right that she does so, of course. It’s testament to her experience and self-awareness that she understands what is most likely to help in a given situation.
As an aside, self-awareness is a controversial concept in this context. People are often denied support in the mistaken belief that if they’re sufficiently self-aware to request help they should be able to manage on their own. I use the term in its most straightforward and positive sense. Knowing what you need — and what is likely to be unhelpful — is incredibly valuable.
Finding that I’m not on Aimee’s list might offend my ego but that’s my issue not hers, and utterly irrelevant in that kind of situation. I want Aimee to receive the support and help she needs. I trust her to ask for my help when she needs it. I don’t need to be there all the time, especially if I’d only be in the way.
Pro tip: Check your ego if you find yourself upset that your friend sometimes needs other people more than you. They know you’re there and will check in with you when they're ready. In the meantime, you might ponder why you need to feel needed all the time.
7. Sometimes I am who she needs
This is the other side of the coin, because there are other times when I’m exactly the person Aimee wants to hang out with! I remember her once telling me that one of the things she values most about our friendship is the fact I don’t see her as someone ill who needs supporting all the time. I enjoy her company and want to share the good times as well as the not so good. We’ve spent many days out together and look forward to many more. Our mutual passion for blogging is an important part of our friendship. We both love having someone to share ideas and projects who understands the ups and downs of the blogging life!
Pro tip: the value you bring to the friendship. Help your friend in ways that are meaningful to them but remember that friendship is about more than mutual support. Your true presence is the greatest gift you can offer your friend.
8. Ask questions (and pay attention to the answers)
Something I’ve learned with Fran is that I have a tendency to interrupt when she’s talking to me. From my perspective, I’m usually asking a question to clarify what she’s saying, but she tends to lose her place and finds it hard to pick up again. I’ve learned to hold my questions until later, although I’m sure Fran would say I still interrupt her too much sometimes! There’s value in questions, though. I’ve always felt able to ask Aimee about what’s going on for her. She’s told me she finds it helpful. A question from me might suggest something she’s not thought about before, or help to clarify something in her own mind.
It does matter when and what you ask, of course. Too much questioning while someone is in pain or struggling is unlikely to be helpful. It’s also important to listen to the response, whether that’s an answer to your question or your friend declining to answer. I tell my friends they’re free to ask me anything, on the understanding that I may choose not to answer.
Pro tip: Don’t be embarrassed or shy about asking what your friend’s going through, or to clarify what they’re telling you. Ask gently, though, and respect if they’re unable or unwilling to answer. One of the most valuable questions you can ask is, How can I help you best right now?
9. Mental health isn’t all there is
I’ve touched on this already when I said how much Aimee and I value each other’s company and how I don’t just see her as someone with health issues, but in our case it goes a little further than that. A lot of our conversation does revolve around mental health, because we each blog in that space and many of the projects Aimee is involved with relate to mental health in some way. But it’s nice to have things that are outside of that bubble. In our case that includes creative journaling, planning trips, watching movies, listening to music — and eating pizza!
This is something I’ve noticed with other friendships. The strongest and most resilient include a health focus on things other than help and support. Without that grounding, the relationship may struggle if your friend no longer needs as much support.
Pro tip: Mental or physical health issues may play a big part in your friend’s life, but that’s not who they are and ought not to dominate your time together. Make space for other things and you’ll build memories that enrich and strengthen your friendship no matter what happens in the future.
10. There’s always something new to learn
I almost stopped at nine lessons, because I couldn’t think of anything else to share. But remaining open to the possibility that there’s more to learn is the most important lesson of all! Aimee and I have come a long way in the six years we’ve known each other. So much so that it’s hard to imagine there was a time before we were friends. Not all friendships are forever but I believe we have a lot of growing and learning still to do in each other’s company. I certainly hope so!
Pro tip: Every connection holds the potential to teach us something new about ourselves and how we relate to other people. Approach your friendship in that spirit and cherish the opportunities it brings.
Over to You
In this article I’ve shared a few lessons I’ve learned from being Aimee’s friend. I hope you found them interesting. Maybe you agree with them as life lessons. Maybe you disagree, or have different suggestions from your own experience. In any case, I’d love to hear from you. You can find me on social media at the links below, or via the contact page of my blog.