“Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on”
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) in the UK, and the theme this year is relationships and how important they are. Here’s a short (ish… for me anyway!!) post about my take on mental health and relationships.
As the MHAW campaign states; relationships are fundamental to our health and wellbeing. We cannot flourish as individuals and communities without them. They help us to learn about ourselves and other people, and teach us how to feel things like love, closeness, trust and loss.
They are incredibly important for our mental health. Good relationships can help us feel safe, secure, loved and able to be ourselves, and this can have a very positive impact on our mental health. I know for a fact that when I have good relationships in my life, my mental health is better. Obviously there are many other factors that influence how I’m feeling but there is a direct correlation. If something goes wrong with one of those good relationships then my mental health can take a turn for the worse. Everyone has had that heavy, nagging feeling that you get when you’ve had an argument with someone, and then the relief when you make up again. Whether it’s family, friends, neighbours, colleagues or partners; your relationships matter.
When you have anxiety or depression or bipolar or any other mental illness, it can be difficult to let people in. You’ve got so much going on in your head, or you don’t feel like you deserve someone treating you well or helping you, or you’re so afraid of being hurt that you push people away. You can end up feeling very isolated and lonely. This can be true of anyone, mental illness or no mental illness, but it’s important to recognise that you need other people. Yes, you have to get better by yourself and for yourself, but you will need other people to help you, support you and love you unconditionally, particularly when you’re having a tough time. No (wo)man is an island.
I am lucky to have a very close and understanding family. They are willing to help me when I’m struggling and that is very reassuring. I know that they would never leave me if I needed them. I rely on them to help me with lots of everyday things, or to go places with me, or sort things out for me when I can’t face sorting my own life out. They are absolutely invaluable and I’m really not sure where I’d be without them. They don’t all fully understand my anxiety but that doesn’t matter because they all still want the best for me and that’s what counts.
You don’t have to fully understand what someone is going through to be able to help them. People can find it very difficult to understand my anxiety, especially if they’ve never had any direct experience of it themselves. As much as it’s nice to talk to someone that ‘gets it’, I find that as long as people don’t try to tell you that what you’re feeling is wrong or invalid, then it doesn’t matter if they don’t fully understand it. I have some friends and family who just don’t understand why I’m anxious, they can’t comprehend feeling that way, BUT the important thing is that they don’t tell me not to be anxious, or try to force me to do things that I don’t want to do. They’re patient and kind and that’s what matters. I feel very comfortable speaking to people about my mental health and I think that’s testament to how kindly my friends and family have reacted to me speaking about it in the past; I don’t feel like I’m being judged.
My friends have been very supportive and kind, and even if they don’t fully understand I know that they are there for me. They’re patient with me, ask how I am, put up with my weirdness and I know that ultimately they just want me to be happy.
I am very aware that I can be pretty useless when I’m having a rough time with my anxiety. I don’t feel like going out and meeting people, or sometimes seeing people at all. I bail on plans, cancel things at the last minute, rearrange things to another time or sometimes just end up ignoring people. It takes special people to remain patient when I’m being like this. I know it can be really frustrating but I do care about you, I really do! And I’m so grateful to the people that don’t give up on me, it means so much. There are people that I haven’t seen or spoken to properly in a long time, and this isn’t because I don’t want to see or speak to them, but because I haven’t been able to, or I didn’t want to disappoint them with this ‘worse’ version of myself – I’m not the person they used to know and I feel like they wouldn’t like the anxious me… I am eternally grateful to my friends who continue to invite me to things that I often don’t go to, who try and arrange meeting up when I bail all the time, and who ring or message me when I’ve been useless and haven’t replied. These things do not go unnoticed and I really appreciate them. I got a card from one of my best friends a couple of weeks ago that ended with “Love you always and always here” and it made me sob. I think that makes me overly emotional / a mess (which I am), but it was nice to see it written down, they must really mean it if it’s in biro.
A survey done by Mind and Relate reported that 60% of people with mental health problems said that being in a romantic relationship has had a ‘positive impact’ on their mental health. I was lucky to be with a very supportive boyfriend when I first started suffering with anxiety, and he was a massive part of pulling me through it. He helped me through some very difficult times, which I have no doubt were very difficult for him too. It can’t be easy to watch someone you love get trapped inside their own head, with seemingly no way of being able to help them. Equally I think he must have wanted to kill me on several occasions when my anxiety caused me to be completely irrational, angry, upset, distracted and/or selfish. When I wanted to just give up, I carried on because I wanted to get better for him. Other people give you something to fight for when you can’t fight for yourself anymore. Eventually life just got in the way and we broke up but I remain very grateful for the years that he supported me. Unfortunately, when we did split up, it meant I had to deal with my anxiety ‘alone’ for the first time. I’d always felt like I had an ally I guess, someone to face it with me. I suddenly felt very much alone and everything got very, very difficult. Change is a big trigger for me, and the ending of a long term relationship is a big change!
On the other hand, being alone makes you appreciate relationships even more. Hugs are important, conversation is important, arguments are important, laughter is important. Every emotion and feeling that come as a result of your relationships are important. They make us feel good and sometimes they make us feel bad, but at least they make us feel. Humans are wonderful, strange, amazing, awful and a mystery. Along with dogs, good cups of tea, bright colours and music, they make life worth living.
Good relationships make us happier and healthier, both mentally and physically. They will enhance your life. But I’ve learnt that they are something that you really have to work at. Good, strong, healthy relationships rarely just ‘happen’. You have to put in time and effort and it won’t always be plain sailing but they’re so, so worth it. Whether you see someone every single day, or speak to them on the phone once every couple of weeks, or go months or even years without seeing them, if they mean something to you then let them know, and appreciate people for everything that they are. There is good and bad in everyone, life isn’t black and white. Relationships often happen in the grey areas, where you can love someone and hate them at the same time, or be so angry that you could punch them in the face but at the same time you want to know that they got home safe.
You will achieve things you never thought were possible because of your relationships. I have done things I thought I could not do because I felt like I couldn’t let someone down (not that they would ever have said I let them down, but because I desperately didn’t want to), because I knew how much someone else wanted me to, because it was for someone I love. This doesn’t always work out, but (cliché) the people that mind don’t matter and the people that matter don’t mind.
I love doing things for other people, it makes me feel useful and gives me a purpose. Having people that you care about can take you out of your own head and give you someone / something else to focus on. I’ve baked cakes for people, written cards for people, chosen and sent presents to people, been to visit people and these things have helped me as much as anybody else. It’s a win – win situation! There’s nothing nicer than knowing that you’re the reason that someone else is smiling.
(I stole that off Meg, thanks Meg)
I’ve also realised that the key to all good relationships is communication. COMMUNICATION I tell you! Trust me on this. People can’t read minds; if there are problems then talk about them, if you’re in the wrong then apologise, if you’re happy for them then tell them, if you need help then ask for it. The joys of social media and smart phones mean that you don’t have to go anywhere in order to get in touch with people. Texts, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, good old fashioned phone calls or letters; it’s (technically) easy to reach out and speak to people you care about. Even if you have shut yourself away and don’t want to see anyone, don’t rule out a short phone call or some messages – they can be the difference between a good day and an awful day. I’ve said in a previous post that a phone call can completely change my day.
Mental health problems affect all aspects of your life; they seep through everything, tainting your work, relationships, personality… but you can deal with this, the same way you deal with everything else. Be aware of your mental health – I have to be aware that my anxiety makes me jump to conclusions very quickly, and also makes me believe negative things much more easily and strongly than positive things. I have problems trusting people, and I take things out on the people closest to me. I have to be conscious of these things and look out for them to try and catch them before they affect any of my relationships. The whole basis of relationships is that you feel something towards the other person and are connected in some way; loyalty, love, friendship, attraction, comradery, interest, trust, inspired by, protecting, respect… And the things that you do and say affect the other person, and what they do and say affects you. So be kind, be generous, be honest and be genuine.
That old saying ‘you have to love yourself before someone else can’ is true, but sometimes it takes other people to show you why you should love yourself; to show you why they love you, and how important you are to them, before you start believing it.