Im grateful for the opportunity to write this new article for Aimee’s blog. The topic is one Ive 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 Ive learned since Aimee and I met in February 2016. Ive focused on things I think will be most useful to other people in their lives and friendships. 

1. Plans change (and thats 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 youre 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 didnt say why but I knew she wouldnt cancel for no reason. At one point in my life, Id have felt dumped, or been worried about what had happened or if Id 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 weve been out. I dont feel Im much help to her when that happens, but Ive always stayed with her and done what I could. Ive certainly never resented the disruption to our day. Neither has Aimees health ever put me off spending time with her or planning trips and events. Were 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 friends illness actually means 

Its no secret to readers of Aimees blog that she lives with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Shes also prone to seizures which can occur at any time. She’s the first person Ive 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 Ive learned far more about Aimees 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 friends life who makes the effort to understand what their health condition involves, but dont 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.  

Ive 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 dont know anyone else with a BPD diagnosis, but the way it impacts Aimees life is personal and unique. I couldnt 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 dont need fixing.  

3. Where all the hospitals are 

Its something of a private joke between me and Aimee that Ive visited almost all the hospitals in the region since we became friends. Ive 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 couldnt be there in person, Ive kept her company on chat or by phone. I joke that its really educational being her friend, because Ive learned so much about hospital procedures and medical terminology. I even got to ride in an ambulance! Joking aside, Im 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 shed do the same for me.  

Pro tip: Your friend may not need this kind of support but if its appropriate, offer it. Being there for someone when theyre 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 Im OK to hear the details, or to see a photo if she wants to show me something. Ive 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 hasnt happened so far with Aimee, but occasionally Ive had to say to friends sorry, I cant 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. Its important to pay attention  

Ive 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 Ive learned with Aimee is to pay attention. This isnt really an illness thing at all. Its the kind of basic respect that everyone deserves and has a right to expect from a friend. But its especially important when someones struggling because they won’t have the energy to deal with people who aren’t paying attention 

On the occasion that springs to mind Id gone to visit Aimee in hospital, but didnt pay attention at all to what shed 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 Id not learned the lesson at her expense. 

Pro tip: Your friend has a right to expect you to pay attention to what theyre going through, and in particular to what they ask of you. Unless you believe theyre in an unsafe situation, respect their boundaries. Dont assume you know better or attempt to ignore or override their wishes.  


6. Im not always who she needs 

Theres a part of me that always wants to be there for my friends when theyre having a rough time, and its hard to acknowledge that sometimes Im not the person Aimee needs. If shes in a mental health crisis, for example, she needs professional support and will reach out to the crisis team or other mental health services. Its absolutely right that she does so, of course. Its 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 theyre 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 thats 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 dont need to be there all the time, especially if Id 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 youre 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 Im 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. Weve 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: Recognise 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 Ive learned with Fran is that I have a tendency to interrupt when shes talking to me. From my perspective, Im usually asking a question to clarify what shes saying, but she tends to lose her place and finds it hard to pick up again. Ive learned to hold my questions until later, although Im sure Fran would say I still interrupt her too much sometimes! Theres value in questions, though. Ive always felt able to ask Aimee about whats going on for her. Shes told me she finds it helpful. A question from me might suggest something shes 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. Its also important to listen to the response, whether thats an answer to your question or your friend declining to answer. I tell my friends theyre free to ask me anything, on the understanding that I may choose not to answer 

Pro tip: Dont 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 theyre 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 isnt all there is 

Ive touched on this already when I said how much Aimee and I value each others company and how I dont 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 its 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 Ive 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 friends life, but thats not who they are and ought not to dominate your time together. Make space for other things and youll build memories that enrich and strengthen your friendship no matter what happens in the future 


10. Theres always something new to learn 

I almost stopped at nine lessons, because I couldnt think of anything else to share. But remaining open to the possibility that theres more to learn is the most important lesson of all! Aimee and I have come a long way in the six years weve known each other. So much so that its 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 others 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 Ive shared a few lessons Ive learned from being Aimees 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, Id love to hear from you. You can find me on social media at the links below, or via the contact page of my blog.  

Twitter: @gumonmyshoebook 

Instagram: @marty_at_gumonmyshoe  

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