The Impact Mental Illnesses Have on Friendships
By: Maddy Rambeau
If you have a mental illness, then it will affect nearly every single part of your life. Mental illnesses are hard to put aside or escape from because they are a part of your brain, which makes up who you are and how you act. One of the biggest parts of a person’s life is their social life, which includes friendships. Mental health plays a big part in deciding how well a person’s social life and experiences are. Specifically, I am talking about the huge impact mental illnesses have on friendships.
Some of the biggest parts of a friendship are how often you see each other or communicate and how positive those occasions are. As a person who struggles with mental illnesses, I know how incredibly hard those two parts of friendships can be. As a result, one of the biggest problems that can come up when dealing with mental health issues in a friendship is becoming a “flaky” friend. “Flakiness” describes the habit of cancelling plans right before the plans are about to begin. It is generally associated with a “bad” friend because people assume that you are “too busy” for them or are not interested in pursuing that friendship anymore. Personally, I know exactly how this goes.
The easiest way to explain it is that sometimes I am scared to be with my friends. I love my friends and no they are not scary people, but I know that as soon as I am not alone I am putting myself in a “danger” zone. I have to spend a majority of my time alone or I will feel as if I am literally losing my mind. By myself I am “safe”, but as soon as I expose myself to others I am in “danger”. Yes, that is my exact thought process.
It takes a lot of work to mentally prepare myself for just one night of being with friends or going out. One night of being around other people involves a lot of self control and dealing with constant heightened anxiety. I know that I will have to try to soothe my overstimulated nerves without letting anyone know that I was even nervous in the first place. I am aware that I am exposing myself to triggering situations and putting myself at risk for a very public anxiety attack or episode. I have to put on a mask and hide my obsessive thoughts and resist the urge to count my fingers (OCD). I have to face my fears and interact with possibly multiple people without seeming awkward (Social Anxiety). I have to gather the motivation and energy to pull off all of the mental and physical work it takes to be around people, while still feeling emotionally drained the entire time (Dysthymic Depression). I also have to look good and “normal” while doing it. Talk about multitasking! When you have mental illnesses, it is EXHAUSTING to try to have fun. That may sound silly, but it is true.
There are two options: go through with the plans even though I will be in “danger” or flake on my friends and stay “safe”. If I choose to go through with the plans then that opens up a whole new can of worms: actually handling the situation well. Often when an anxious person is in a situation that they deem as “dangerous”, their body will trigger the fight or flight response, the stress response. This leads to triggering thoughts, racing heartbeat, sweating, increased nervous antics, irritability, sensitivity, and multiple other symptoms. Sometimes my body will be in the stress response mode for an entire evening, which obviously isn’t good. That can lead to self medicating. It is easy to see that if a person with anxiety is at a party, they might feel the urge to ease their discomfort. That can take many different forms like smoking, drinking, inappropriate actions, or even giving in to the fight or flight response (acting out against someone or leaving/going home). How I handle myself for the next time depends on how well the outing turned out (if I was triggered or had a negative experience). If I had a good time and a positive experience, then I am less likely to flake next time. They build on each other and that’s why it is important to try to maximize your positive and good moments, so you can have more of them.
Obviously a flaky friend isn’t a good sign, but don’t make assumptions. Flakiness is often a behavioral pattern of someone who is dealing with emotional distress. Find out if your friend is struggling with their mental health before writing them off as a bad friend.