Trigger warning: suicide
I am not always an easy person to be around.
I’m sure that most people feel that way, and to some extent it’s probably true. But there are times when I am particularly, especially, really awful to be around. What makes these times even more difficult is that they usually coincide with my periods of mental health crisis, which means that the point where my behaviour is most likely to drive my friends away is also exactly when my self-esteem is at its lowest ebb.
I don’t have a very good instinct for boundaries. I have a hard time enforcing my own, and I’m not always good at knowing how to respect those belonging to other people. I think that for a long time my personal boundaries were treated more as points of negotiation than hard lines, and by consequence I don’t have a very solid foundation when it comes to understanding how they work. If someone spells them out to me, that’s fine – but in my experience that kind of articulation often doesn’t happen until after the relationship has been damaged and feelings have been hurt.
I am a great friend until I’m not. I am fine except for when I am in a crisis, which in a bad year can last for several months on end.
I am a cryer. I am someone who panics loudly. I am a person who feels dread everywhere – in my teeth and the tips of my fingers and deep in my bones. There are days when I know with an absolute certainty that I am a miserable monster who will never feel happiness again.
I have sat in my living room at three in the afternoon and three in the morning and every hour in between consumed with an unhappiness so intense that I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it just is. And it swells up so huge inside of me that it obscures everything else including my sense of myself and the passage of time so that there is no more past and there is no more future and there is just this exquisitely awful present that can only possibly be escaped through death.
I know. I know. But also that’s just how it is sometimes, you know?
And once you’re there, you just keep going further down the rabbit hole. All you can talk about is what an awful person you are, and the more you say it, the truer it feels. When your friend disagrees, you get angry and accuse them of not being on your side (the joke is, of course, that no one is on your side because what the fuck is your side). You show up at their place crying, asking if you can crash on their couch because you’re not sure you can survive a night alone at home. When they call to check on you, you say that you’re going through the medicine cabinet trying to figure out the deadliest combination of pills.
These are all awful things to do and I am ashamed to write them out but at the time they felt inevitable. I didn’t know how else to be, and every new friendship meant counting down the minutes until they discovered the real me, the awful me, the one who cries over dinner, in the grocery store, during a very normal conversation that shouldn’t be sad at all. I felt like I’d tricked people into wanting to spend time with me, and much of my mental and physical energy was used keeping up the image of what an upstanding not-awful person I was. That is, until the next rough patch hit and I couldn’t sustain it anymore.
I did not drive every friend away. But I can honestly say that I did drive some friends away.
* * *
When I was going through a particularly hard time in university, a friend that I often leaned on for support – let’s call her C – suggested that I make a list of all the things I hated about myself. “Once you’ve got that list,” she said, “you’ll know what you want to change.”
C was big on self-improvement. She did stuff like quitting the school’s meal program and buying herself a bar fridge so that she could better follow The Zone diet in the privacy of her own dorm room. She was the kind of person who always seemed to intuitively know what she needed – a new rug for her room, an hour at the gym, a quiet night in watching Sense and Sensibility. And, in marked contrast to me, she didn’t have frequent weepy meltdowns about how much of a mess her life was. So when she suggested writing out all the worst things about myself, I readily agreed. After all, if I couldn’t identify the problem, how on earth was I going to come up with a solution?
So I parked myself in the library’s atrium one afternoon to make this list. Another friend – let’s call her K – asked me what I was doing. When I told her that C had told me that I could improve my life by thinking up all the things I didn’t like about myself and then changing them, K said something like: “You know what will really improve your life? Getting rid of the friends who tell you to make lists of the things you hate about yourself. Maybe start hanging around with the people who want you to like yourself for who you are.”
In the decade or so since then, I’ve realized that both of their ideas have merit.
I should be able to expect that my friends love me for who I am, including the wailing banshee that lives somewhere in the shadowlands of my heart who believes that she is anything but loveable.
But I should also try to take what responsibility I can for what I say and do when that banshee does her best to trash the party and leave.
Because that banshee is me and I am that banshee and even though I’m still not quite sure what to do with that information I know it’s important.
* * *
I’ve seen a few debates lately about what the “right” kind of self-care is. Should you do the dishes or leave them in the sink while you take a nap? Should you make good on your plans and go out with friends even when you feel crappy or should you bail with some transparent excuse? Should you clean your room or hunker down with a good book and let your future self worry about picking up your clothes?
I don’t think there are any cut and dried answers to these questions. There’s no good way to have a mental health crisis. Sometimes it’s smarter to wash your dishes and sometimes you need a break and it’s hard to know in the moment which one is true. On the one hand, a messy apartment makes me feel like the world is closing in on me, but on the other hand the best prescription a doctor ever wrote for me said “do more things that you enjoy.” Maybe the thing that feels worst is not making a choice and spending a four hour stretch sobbing on the couch unable to decide whether you should clean the bathroom or make yourself a cup of tea.
* * *
Here are a few things I’ve learned after nearly two decades of weathering my own breakdowns:
- All feelings are valid, but they are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. Treat feelings as symptoms rather than the disease, which is to say do what you can to alleviate them while at the same time looking for a root cause.
- When you are down the rabbit hole, there is not a single thing anyone can say to make you feel better about yourself. The best they can do is hold your hand while you go through it.
- It helps to prepare for the bad times during the good times. I have a word doc of all the reasons why my friends probably don’t hate me that I go through and read when I feel like all of my friends probably hate me.
- Wait a day before ending a friendship or quitting a job or running away from the thing that you really want to run away from. You might be making the right choice, but it rarely hurts to give yourself some breathing room before committing.
- It’s good to create a safe space for yourself on social media – a group chat with friends you trust or a Facebook page where people can post stuff for you and commiserate about mental health woes. I know this isn’t everyone’s jam, but I live in terror of exhausting people with my shit so it’s better for me to have an opt-in system where friends can choose to participate if they feel up to it.
- Your survival rate up until now has been 100%. That is the best possible rate. You have made it through every bad day so far, and statistics are on your side when it comes to making it through the next one.
- I don’t know if my good days outnumber my bad and I’m not sure it’s worth counting them, but I do know that after each storm blows itself out I’m always grateful to still be here.
If you’re in a bad place, I hope some of this helps. Happy January, darlings.