Beth: My first question is: before you met me, what had been your experiences with mental illness?
Kate: Not a whole lot, eh. I have family members that have had [mental illnesses] so I know about it, but I haven’t had [close experiences] with it.
B: So it was just kind of a peripheral thing for you?
K: I’d say that’s about it, yeah. The only time that I can actually remember thinking about it was that one time [in year eleven] when this girl in my form class just started crying on the field one day. (…) It was all kind of, it was a thing that kind of happened in the background and I knew about it, but I didn’t engage with it a lot.
B: I feel like I was much the same, to be honest, in high school. I never thought that I would be one of those kids to be honest. (laughs)
K: Like it just happens to people, and you’re kind of like, it’s not like a good thing and it’s not a bad thing and it’s not, I mean I guess it’s a little bit weird but… I just kind of grew up with it. Not [personally], but you know, I knew it happened.
B: But you grew up with family members that [were mentally ill] and they talked about it?
K: I’ve only really had one experience of a family member having quite bad mental illness that I know about, and… we don’t talk about it a whole lot. Like, we did at the time, but that’s because there was a lot of worrying that had to happen and it was someone who was far away.
B: Do you feel like your family don’t talk about it much out of respect for the person, or because it was something that was a bit taboo to talk about?
K: We talked about it because it was happening, like it’s always something that [we think of] when we talk about that person… we talk about how they’re going with their meds and their mental illness and stuff, so it’s like we talk about it but we don’t specifically… it’s not something that we talk about all the time, and the family member doesn’t talk about it [with me] because I don’t talk to them a lot. So we don’t talk about it a whole lot but that’s because it was very removed from our situation.
B: I understand. So, before you knew me, you didn’t really have anyone close to you that you saw regularly, and who was dealing with a mental illness?
K: Never. Or if I did, it wasn’t someone that I was close enough with that we talked about it all the time.
B: Next question… These are all really hard questions, and I found this as well when I talked to my mum… I didn’t think about what it would be like to actually talk to the person. Like, you think, what are some good questions that might give you some good content. And then once you’re [interviewing the person] you’re like, these are some pretty heavy questions.
B: So the next one might be the “heaviest”. What is it like having a best friend slash flatmate who has an anxiety disorder?
K: (laughs) Well, that’s a very broad question. I mean, a lot of the time it’s not any different to having a normal friend. Because, like, every friend is different and has things about them that are part of their personality. It’s a good exercise in learning and also I think in trusting, because a lot of the time you sort of assume how things feel for someone else, and… like, something happens to someone and you just think of a natural response to that and you’re like, no! But really, if someone has anxiety, like you have anxiety, then when [you are anxious], I pay a lot more attention. But you know, you’re there for friends when they go through tough stuff, even things that I don’t necessarily understand as well as I would understand stuff that someone else went through. [Also] we have more sleepovers than I would normally with my friends. (laughs)
B: You mean like anxiety night sleepovers?
K: Anxiety night sleepovers.
B: Yeeeesss! [pause] Noooo…..
K: (laughs) I have mixed feelings about those [sleepovers]…
B: Do you want to talk about that at all?
K: I don’t know. I guess if I’m completely brutally honest, it’s more of a challenging friendship. That doesn’t make it any less of a friendship. And in a way it’s more rewarding because we’re so much closer. It’s not like I wake up every day and I’m like, “oh gosh! Oh no! I care about Beth!” It’s nothing like that.
B: (laughs) I’m relieved to hear that, that’s always encouraging to hear. Do you think that [my anxiety] has impacted on our friendship?
K: Yeah, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think it has definitely been a way to launch us into a closer relationship. (laughs) But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just very different.
B: Has it changed the way that you see me?
K: Not really. Like, it doesn’t change the way I see your personality. And we still do the same weird crap that we used to do before you were diagnosed…
K: It doesn’t really change how I see you. It’s just like a little bit tacked on I guess. Maybe I’m more aware of specific things, like… when we eat food [referring to my fear of food poisoning] or when I can tell when you’re being stressed out. If I saw a normal friend and they were stressed out, I’d just [give them space], but if I see you and you’re stressed out I’m like, better check up – but it doesn’t really change the way I see you as a person.
B: It’s just a bit more checking in, I guess.
K: I guess, yeah.
B: I guess the way that I see it is, you know, you don’t really get to have me without my anxiety, so it’s like people can either be prepared to deal with that, or move on. And that’s the same for me as well, like I can’t escape it [ever]. So it’s just a part of who I am.
K: Everyone’s got a bit of baggage or is a bit messed up somehow.
B: Like you and the sea.
K: Yeah, like me and the ocean.* (laughs)
B: So, was there anything that you struggled to understand, while I was going through the worst of it?
K: If by “worst of it” you mean meds week**… (laughs)
B: I mean meds week, and everything that came before it.
K: I mean, I struggle to understand most of it, because I don’t know how it feels to be anxious and worried all the time. I heard someone describe it as, you know when you’re leaning back in a chair and you think it’s going to fall but it doesn’t. And apparently it’s like that all the time and you’re always worrying about stuff.
B: That’s one way to describe it, certainly. It’s that same sense of… you’re not sure if something bad is going to happen but you’re afraid of it, you can feel it happening anyway.
K: I think the thing that I struggled the most to understand is not being able to command your thoughts, because I am a person that – not necessarily that I’m a super logical person or anything – but I can tell my thoughts to knock it off if I want. Or if I’m getting stressed out, like it’s just, if I practise it enough, [then when] I’m thinking stupid things I can make it stop. And I think that’s the thing I found the hardest to understand, was not being able to pull yourself together or whatever. I know that’s a really bad thing to say…
B: No, it’s really good and it’s really important that you know, you’re able to say these things because then it, I hope it’ll help other people reading and being like, so I’m not the only one that struggles [to understand].
B: Cos it is! It’s a hard thing to understand!
K: Uh-huh. The thing is, I think, I still don’t understand it but I’ve just become more accepting of it. Like I say, it’s a trust exercise it’s like, “I don’t understand how this works but I’ve got to trust that this person is expressing valid feelings to me”. And so, I think, I still don’t understand that but I’ve just… I’ve learned how to not understand it.
B: That’s really important, that you’re able to separate understanding from accepting, and be able to be like, “well, I don’t really know what’s going on, I don’t get it, but it’s not about that. I just have to trust that this is real for them.”
K: Yeah. I think that’s the most important thing that I’ve realised about living with or understanding someone who has mental illness. Especially if it’s something that you know, is not threatening to the person… [you have to be like] “you feel this, and I don’t get it, but I understand that your feelings are valid”. I think that’s the thing that society seems to struggle the most with, is not being like “well why don’t you just fix it?”
B: Yeah, because they don’t… they don’t understand. And I don’t really blame anyone for that because you can’t really know until you’ve lived it yourself. So there’s that, but then [society doesn’t seem to] get to the next part that you got to, which is…
K: How to not understand.
B: Yeah, yeah, like “even if I don’t understand, I just need to trust that this person knows what they’re feeling. Which I think, people can quite often take that away from people with mental illness. They, you know, just kind of shut down their feelings and stuff…
K: Cos the way I think about it is that, if you’ve had a really bad day and you come home and you’re like “ugh, I’ve had the worst day” and you just want to have a big vent about it and someone’s like, “well, someone else has probably had a worse day than you” or like “just pull yourself together”. And you’re like, “No! I feel bad!”
B: Yeah, and sometimes it’s not even about them coming up and being like “oh, how can I help make it better?” Sometimes it’s enough to hear people be like, you know, “I get it. You’re allowed to have a bad day.”
K: So it’s just like that, but with more things.
B: Do you think your perception of mental illness has changed?
K: Hmmm. I think so, I think mostly because I just hadn’t had a lot of experience with mental illness and when I had, it was quite severe. Not that yours is not severe, but it was like, a person that needed to go into care and things. […] I don’t know if it’s really changed my perception so much as I didn’t really have a perception before except for that it was something that happened to people and it wasn’t nice, but life went on. [But knowing you has] sort of made it more real. [I’ve come to see it as] something that sucks, but you can do life with it rather than do life in spite of it.
B: I think both are applicable, you know…
B: Like doing things in spite of the things that make it more difficult for you…
K: Yeah. I think the only thing that’s really changed is it feels a lot closer to home.
B: Yeah. Which I think is good. You know… I have a dream that one day everyone will be like you, and be like “well, I don’t understand this and it doesn’t make sense to me, but I just need to put that aside and think about what this person is telling me.” Even if the causes aren’t tangible or don’t make sense, the feelings are real.
K: Yeah. Exactly.
B: Like the hot shower scenario.***
K: Yeah I know, that’s what I always think of!
B: Yeah, fucking…
K: Like, it makes no sense, but it must have felt so awful.
B: That was one of the worst [triggers] though, to be honest. I think it was after that moment that I realised, you know, “this is getting ridiculous”… What advice would you give to someone in a similar position to you, where you have someone really close to you that has a mental illness and quite a lot of the time you’ve had to look after them on bad days and stuff?
K: Practical advice, I think, especially if someone’s having a bad day and they talk to you about it, is don’t try and fix it. Or, don’t try to fix it until it’s all been gotten out, and there’s been a while to process it. And then you can figure out if it’s something that you can [approach] like “here’s some things we can do” or whether you can just acknowledge that this feels like butts. And also, the one thing if you’re ever with someone who’s having a panic attack, just tell them to breathe. That’s it. (laughs)
K: I think the advice that I would give someone is to try and understand, but don’t worry if you can’t because if you’re mentally healthy, like if you don’t have a mental illness, it is hard to understand.
B: Because people can be mentally unwell without having a diagnosable disorder, right?
K: And also you can have a mental illness and be mentally healthy.
K: But if you haven’t experienced mental illness then it’s hard to understand… [so] don’t be afraid to take what the person is saying at face value, even if it seems really weird. But also, if you’re giving someone a lot of support, don’t be scared to also take some time for yourself. Obviously if the person is having a super bad time then you want to be there, but [also] don’t be afraid to encourage people to widen their support networks and take extra action. Because I didn’t do a lot of that with you, and you came to the conclusion [to take extra action] yourself anyway, but maybe if you hadn’t, I would have become a little bit more insistent.
B: I know I can’t really be angry with anyone, but I wasn’t really in a position where I knew what was best for myself, and I kinda wish that someone who could see what was going on was like “this is really bad”…
K: Because I hadn’t really experienced it this close-hand before either, I didn’t really know how bad everything was.
K: I wasn’t even thinking about “does Beth need to get help for this?” But definitely if I was in the same situation with anyone else, or if anyone else is in that situation of looking after someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness but isn’t doing much about it and it seems to be going downhill… I mean, don’t push anything on them, don’t be like “I’m booking you an appointment with the doctor, we’re going tomorrow!”
B: (laughs) Yeah, fuck…
K: But I’d say, don’t be afraid to encourage [them to get medical help].
B: Positive encouragement, like nudging them in the right direction rather than grabbing them by the ballsack and dragging them into the clinic…
K: Yeah, exactly. […] But there are appropriate times when you should take action for someone. But that’s not this situation. That’s something completely different.
B: When you’re in a situation where suicide becomes a real possibility…
K: Oh, yeah.
B: That’s when you need to be like, I need to call 111 for their benefit.
K: Aso, if you have someone who says to you “I’m thinking about going to counselling” or “I’m thinking about going on meds” or something, be like “Yes! I will support you 100% of the way!”
K: Especially on meds week. If you have a friend that has a mental illness and they go on meds, they’re going to be messed up for like a week.
B: Not necessarily, I got the short end of the stick with that one, but it does… it will get worse before it gets better.
K: I know this is going to sound kind of selfish, but it tested my patience [on meds week] quite a bit sometimes because it was what we’d had the past few months but like times ten.
B: Yeah. I felt so sorry for you that week.
K: I guess, [being someone’s support person], it is testing and it’s kind of hard, but you’ve just got to remember it’s okay to find someone else who your person also trusts and take shifts, you know? But remember that [going on meds], it works out for the best so often.
B: I don’t regret going on the meds. If I had to go through that again to be healthy then I would. But I would be more prepared this time. If I had to do it again, I would make sure that I took a week off from everything, so that I could just lie in my bed and have people bring me soup. (laughs)
K: If I was going to summarise, I would say first off, be primarily a support person, don’t worry too much about fixing problems, just listen and try to take things as they tell you. Two, if someone’s having a panic attack, tell them to breathe.
B: Yeah, don’t tell them to stop panicking…
K: Yeah or like “calm down!” (laughs) And three, if someone is talking about maybe getting help, encourage it. And if someone’s getting quite bad, positive reinforcement. Also, encourage a wider community of support so that you’re not taking it all on yourself.
B: Would you say also that it would be good to [expect] that it will be trying sometimes?
K: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s not an easy thing, especially when you don’t always understand what’s going. I think it helps that I really care about you… it helps a lot when you really want the best interest for the other person. And sometimes you’re like “why??? it’s 2 o’clock in the morning!” But it doesn’t matter when you think of how much the other person means to you. To be a support person is kind of a privilege, because they’re sharing a lot with you.
*Kate has a phobia of water, especially the ocean.
**By “meds week”, Kate means the first week I was put on antidepressants and my body was adjusting to the new medicine. It wasn’t a fun time for anyone involved. For more on that, and for my thoughts on antidepressants generally, click here.
***Shortly before I started on antidepressants, I had a panic attack in the shower that was triggered by the water being hotter than I expected.