I don't know when you're reading this, but at the time of writing it, we're just at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, although it's Sunday, so I may have missed the boat already!.
The theme for the whole week was relationships. We had some great blogs published over the course of the week that highlighted the impact mental ill-health can have on them. Some good, some not so good, but that's nothing really to do with mental illness, but more just a consequence of life. I thought it was only fair to put my two-pence in.
Relationships are hard. I don't think there's any getting away from it. No matter whether you're dealing with any sort of mental illness or not, balancing other peoples feelings and emotions, as well as your own, can be tricky. For me, it's hard enough understanding how I feel half the time, without having to appease everyone else.
I know that sounds a little cold or selfish, but it's true...for me at least. When I'm feeling unwell, the last thing I can think about is how someone else feels about my illness. It's all I can do to get through it in one piece. The dark clouds that engulf me mean I barely recognise myself, which is never a great platform to manage any sort of relationship, with anyone.
It's also something I know many other people are going through. It's not unique to me. Thoughts you know to be untrue still feel very real and situations appear a far cry from what they really are.
Given the theme of MHAW (that's for you acronym fans) I thought I'd try and help you (and also me) understand how my own illnesses make relationships hard (or even harder). I hoping that it might even help describe your own feelings, when you may have struggled before to express them.
I'm going to look at the feelings that manifest themselves and how it makes me feel. I'm also going to do my best to illustrate the difference between how I feel and the reality of the situation. That's something that all too often gets lost in the moment.
I don't write this as any sort of expert on relationships. Lord only knows I've managed to stretch my own relationships to breaking point at times. In my time I've lost some relationships that I really valued but I've gained some I never thought I would. I've cut those that were making me ill and I've tried my best to rebuild and maintain those what make me well. These are just my thoughts, for what they're worth.
A STUMBLE DOWN MEMORY LANE
My memory used to be incredible (even if I do say so myself). Not quite an eidetic memory, but I could recall all sorts of details for any number of important and trivial events. All that seemed to change when I had a nervous breakdown in 2011. I don't know if that's a particular symptom of an event like that, but ever since, I struggle to recall information I really should know. I can't even remember if I've shampooed my hair when I'm in the shower...so I do it again, just in case!
As I became more 'forgetful', naturally that impacted on my relationships. Forgetting friends birthdays or failing to recall important events my wife (or anyone else) holds dear puts a strain on relationships. It's going to.
Once you realise you've forgotten something, you feel even worse and the self-loathing begins again. To them it feels like you're being deliberately obtuse or being blatantly difficult. "How can you not remember that??" is a good question, I only wish I had a good answer for them.
The thing is, for many mental health conditions, the short-term memory can be affected. Add to that feeling unwell means you start to look at the world with blinkers on. You begin to focus with an almost tunnel vision view of the world. As much as you want to see the bigger picture, you just can't, so don't beat yourself up about it. Your friends will understand, in the same way you would if the situation was reversed. For what it's worth, I've embraced technology to remind me of dates I need to remember. It might work for you too....or go old-school and buy a diary.
For me, frustration is probably the biggest challenge when it comes to relationships. It's cost me relationships with family and friends. I know for a fact, when I'm unwell, my patience is short and my ability to be tactful is almost zero. My wife and I often joke that my PTSD has given me a 'Zero Tolerance To Bullshit'. If you're going to tell me something, just tell me. I don't care if you think it's tactless or overly-truthful, I'd just rather you were honest. Don't worry about sugar-coating it, tell it like it is. That works well when it's coming at me, not so much when it's going the other way.
I get it. As a society, we're pretty nice. We like to respect other people's feelings and try hard not to offend anyone. I also realise I'm in the minority when it comes to my 'bullshit filter'. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about trying to offend anyone. I know where societal boundaries are, but the frustration I feel when I'm unwell can make relationships even harder. It's made even harder when people are telling me what they think I want to hear. Trust me, I don't want to hear that, so let's just do the truth shall we!. It's so much easier and saves so much more time. My wife is used to this 'new me' and actually understands it, but others....not so much.
Sometimes it's just better if I don't say anything, but that is often misconstrued as ignorance or apathy, but it's rarely either of those things. When I'm face to face with someone, it's a lot easier. I can explain and I can help them understand. I can give context, but over text message, tweet or any other form of non-verbal communication problems can occur. For many other those forms of communication, context is lost completely which makes honesty, sarcasm or blunt speaking completely interchangeable.
I also understand not everyone is like me (I pity you all ;-) and most of you will retain a semblance of etiquette, which is fine. But if you're often on the receiving end of some seemingly blunt messages or firing them off yourself, it may be worth just taking a step back and not hitting the 'reply' button too quickly.
GUILT AS CHARGED!
After frustration, the feeling of guilt is probably the one I struggle with most. You might think guilt is purely a personal trait, that it shouldn't affect relationships other than the one you have with yourself. If only that were the case.
Living with depression, as I do, means that your view on the world and your relationships within it, get skewed. You tend to project your own feelings on to them. This projection is pretty realistic. It feels perfectly normal to feel like you're not good enough to be a friend, a husband, a boyfriend, a father, a brother or a son. That you're not worth their time, but somewhere deep inside of you, you know that's not true, but that feeling isn't always strong enough to force its way into the light. Surely they're better off without you?
Of course they're not, but it's hard to shake that feeling off. It might not always feel like guilt, but that's what it is. You feel guilty that you're imposing on their lives. If your text isn't reciprocated immediately, it doesn't mean they don't care. If you don't respond straight away, it doesn't mean you don't. People have a million other things going on their lives, many of which you won't know about, in the same way they won't always know about yours. Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you are enough. It's ok to be yourself and let others accept you for that. Guilt can be let go of, so open your hands and let it drift away.
I can be pretty stubborn. My wife tells me it's a family trait, but I absolutely, categorically refuse to believe that! Many people can be stubborn, it's not purely a mental health 'thing'. My own stubbornness manifests itself in a way that means my relationships can feel a little one-sided.
I understand that, for many, depression can make you feel paranoid. It affects what you think is going on with friends and family alike. We become consumed by feelings of what we think is happening, rather than what is actually the case.
I'm not sure I get paranoid in the usual way. For me, I just become convinced of what I think is going on and I will not be told otherwise. Maybe it's a mixture of paranoid and stubbornness, or perhaps I just suffer with that many men do; the fact that we're always right ;-) Let's call it 'stubbanoid'.
If you're feeling the same, all I would say to you is to talk. Talk to whoever you think is doing whatever you think they're doing. Talking and communicating is always better than worrying about what you think is going on. I always say my extended family's motto should be 'We'd rather talk about you, than to you'. I'm convinced that if you think one thing, it probably won't be the whole truth (unless it's me, then I'm always right). Rather than worrying about something, talk about it to them instead.
Mental illness has a way of magnifying our thoughts and emotions, and often not in a good way. This view affects our whole lives, including our relationships. It alters our view of the world, but because it's 'our' perception, it feels like it's the only one. It's not.
It's made even worse on days when we're feeling unwell. On those days when we're feeling ok, we'll also see the world another way entirely. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.
The fact is, if your relationship with friends and family is strong enough, it will weather any storm. If it's not, then it won't, but that's ok too. There will always be a time when any relationship is tested. It's only then will you know if the bond is good enough, it's not about if you're good enough.