Coming out to my friends about my mental illnesses wasn’t the hard part. I am fortunate to have friends who get it, either because someone in their family has a mental illness or because they also live with one. I know I am very lucky in this respect. When I took a semester and a half off of college my sophomore year to receive recovery treatment for my eating disorder after a particularly bad relapse, I didn’t feel I had to lie to my close friends about why.
My friends were my rock, getting me through one of the most difficult times in my life.
While I was recovering and learning to live again, thousands of texts and emails were sent and hundreds of phone calls made pouring out my soul and allowing my friends to see me — fully broken and vulnerable.
I was overwhelmed with love and support and compassion through texts and emails and phone calls and cards and care packages and baby snuggles and meals.
My honest vulnerability with friends gave me exactly what I needed to enter into a life of recovery.
When I returned to college for my junior year, the transition was hard. At first, I didn’t hesitate to reach out when I had a rough day. I got through many of those initial bad days by asking friends to walk, eat, study, cuddle, pray, and talk with me.
The honesty was healing.
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I felt the unconditional support of my friends, and the bad days became fewer and further in between.
However, the more time that passed, the more I began to hide from my friends when I had bad days. I didn’t want to bother them. I was in recovery. Things were supposed to be better. I started to believe I could handle it all on my own.
There’s a stigma among people with mental illnesses that once you are in recovery, you are in recovery for good. It’s as if recovery is ridi1ng a bicycle – once you learn how to ride a bike, you know how to ride a bike for life and once you reach recovery, you are recovered for life. I was living in an idealized form of recovery.
I wanted so badly for recovery to be an obtainable, achievable event, something that wouldn’t go away once I reached it. I wanted recovery to be the point at which I could move on with my life.
I began making excuses for the bad days when I skipped class or social activities to lay in bed.
“I’m fine, just tired.”
“I can’t hang out tonight. I have a lot of homework.”
“I’m not feeling well.”
It felt easier to avoid talking about it than to admit I was struggling.
A large part of me is scared to be honest and vulnerable with my friends when I’m struggling, especially when there seems to be no reason for the bad days. I feel if I’m “too needy,” my friends will abandon me. I am afraid of “crying wolf” when my anxiety and depression flare up or my eating disorder or self-harm urges resurface.
It’s only been in the past few weeks that I’ve began to be honest with certain close friends of mine again. And you know what? They aren’t leaving me.
Instead, my friends are listening. They are validating what I’m feeling, encouraging me, and making me laugh. My friends are sitting with me, feeding me, and letting me play with their kids.
My darkness is a bit lighter because I’m letting my friends shine their flashlights into it.
Being honest with friends still isn’t easy for me. I am constantly fighting to convince myself that recovery is an ongoing process. I’m probably going to have bad days and need support from my friends for the rest of my life. It terrifies me that my friends will get fed up with my neediness and leave. I crave constant reassurance that I’m not “too much.”
Mental illnesses live on secrecy and shame. They feed on my fears of being too needy and burdensome; they are nourished on my fear of abandonment.
Honesty is the key to recovery.
I need to be honest with my friends about where I’m at. I cannot recover on my own. Talking about where I’m at in recovery is difficult no matter how comfortable I am with a person, but certain things make it easier.
It’s easier when I’m asked a specific question. Sometimes “How are you?” is too ambiguous. Ask specific things, such as “Do you feel your new medication is working?” “How has your anxiety been lately?” “How are you coping?”
It’s easier for me to text/email/Facebook message than to talk about it. It’s hard for me to be verbal sometimes, especially when my anxiety and depression are bad. Let me write to you instead.
It’s easier when I’m validated for what I’m feeling. Tell me it’s okay to feel what I’m feeling and you know it’s hard. Validate what I’m going through, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you.
It’s easier when I can communicate what I need.
Ask how you can help or what you can do in the moment. Don’t assume one way or another. Be okay with doing nothing but listening.
It’s easier when I’m reassured. Thank me for trusting you. Tell me you aren’t going anywhere. Remind me you love and support me and will always be here for me.
It’s been said, “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we’ even ‘illness’ becomes ‘wellness.’” When I reach out on difficult days, I see this to be true.
Recovery does not happen in a vacuum. We need other people to stand with us as we battle the darkness. We are stronger in the fight… with a little help from our friends.
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