We humans are pretty good at helping friends or family with obvious illnesses. There are meal chains, get-well cards, bouquets of cheery flowers, and prayers at services. But we humans are not quite as skilled at ministering to loved ones who are battling “invisible” illnesses like depression, anxiety or PTSD.
If you have a friend who is bright as sunshine one day, then disappears off your radar for weeks, you might be dealing with someone whose inner battle has escalated to a dangerous melee.
Please, please do not take it personally. Ask how their brain is doing; don’t assume they’re an antisocial fake jerk. They are already embarrassed by their need to withdraw. They want to want to hang out. They want to be that sunshine for you every day. They want to be blithe with a brain that only whispers kind things to them. But it’s not that simple. Chances are good they are in pain.
Even those with mental illness who eat well, exercise, create things, take meds, talk to therapists, visit psychiatrists, meditate, and steer clear of recreational drugs can have vicious setbacks that are completely mortifying to them. If someone trusts you enough to tell you it’s their mind acting up again, believe them the way you would believe a friend who confided that they are fighting cancer.
Dump the stigma. Do kind things for them without being asked, because chances are good they will not ask, because they already feel like a terrible freak and an utter failure. If they seem anxious about a social event, remember this: It may only be a little get-together for you; to them, it may drain them of precious life for a week afterward.
I have a brain like this, a brain I have a love-hate relationship with. It tells me I would be better off not here, but it is the same brain that says, 'Look at that sunrise! What amazing children! Oh, this is love!' It is very hard to explain this mind to those who have not lived with a brain that can be calm one minute, and vicious and scathing the next.
I have trouble knowing where I could possibly belong, with this brain. I don’t handle changes in plans easily. I don't like surprise visitors. I need lots of down time, alone and with a chosen few. I can’t just always “go with the flow.” I jump to the ceiling if I hear an unexpected noise. If I try to be the social creature I think you want me to be, just because I adore you and don't want to let you down, I will often pay dearly for it the next day, the next week, the next month.
Please know these brain illnesses are very much genetic and biochemical and above all, very, very real. And exquisitely painful. Be kind with those who dart back into the shadows. I know you miss them. They miss themselves, too — their least panicky, most chill selves.
Be gentle to those who are brave enough to tell you what they think they can handle and what they think they can’t. If they are telling you that, they love you and trust you more than you realize. Believe them if they say they are in pain and can't handle having company at the moment. Send notes. Cuddle them if they are cuddly sorts. A quiet 30-minute cuddle is better than a 10 mg Klonopin for a yes-touch-me type. (Just make sure your lovey is a touch-me-when-anxious type.)
Don’t stop inviting your neuroweirdos to social events; just let them know you love them plenty even if they can’t make it, and that they are always welcome in your life. We need our neuro-balanced dear ones. We need voices that argue on our behalf, that we are good enough and worthy of love. Our own minds cannot always do that for us, and that is precarious territory. We're pretty sure we're more trouble than we are worth. That's a hard way to wake up every day. Many of us would rather not wake up, because we know we will wake up with the same brain we went to bed with the day before. And we've tried All the Things. So we wake into the world gingerly. Will it be an okay day? Will we get stuff done? Will we meet up with someone for lunch? Or will we need to hide, need as much quiet as possible?
Trust me, on behalf of all neuroweirdos, we love you lots. Which is why is hurts so much to feel like we are letting you down. We can see in your eyes you don't quite understand what the problem is. The thing is, we don't either, and we really wish there were one magic pill that could make our brains behave. But it's more complicated than that by far.
We're doing the best we can to stay here on the planet with you, raise families with you, send you off to college, take you to amusement parks, make memories with you, ones in which you remember us as strong and funny and healthy and beautiful. We are doing the very best we can to do things that scare us or overwhelm us to so we can stay in your life, because we think you rock. And we are the best friends ever when it comes to accepting your flaws and mistakes and imperfections, because we know better than anyone that this life thing is HARD and nobody makes it through unscathed. Please help us to stay on this spinning globe with you by being as patient as you can, taking time for yourself when you need it, and reminding us of anything, literally anything, we've ever done right. It really helps. I swear.