I quit drinking when I was in my third year of university. Since then I’ve had a beer or two from time to time, but I really avoid it because alcohol just makes me sleepy and sad. When I started a new job that year and could no longer afford to sleep until noon every day, I started to realize that my partying days were numbered. Unfortunately, my friends couldn’t really comprehend this. At the time I was in a low grade of depression, which didn’t help. My friends still wanted to include me by encouraging me to come to parties and nightclubs and just avoid drinking — but that is kind of like going out for dinner and just eating the breadsticks. Yes, you’re physically there and you’re participating, but it isn’t any fun. People constantly ask why you aren’t eating and they try to force their french fries on you.
This attempt to include me came from a good place. My friends tried, but I still ended up feeling left out. For all their good intentions, they just didn’t understand. Maybe they didn’t try very hard to get it, maybe I didn’t try very hard to explain. Probably both. Eventually I stopped going, and they stopped inviting me.
Empathy and patience are interconnected. Empathy is defined simply as the ability to share someone else’s feelings. An ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, or an attempt at least to see an issue from their perspective, is easier said than done. It takes patience. In the case of mental illness this is especially hard because illness changes a person’s entire outlook on the world. It is hard for loved ones and friends to understand why a sick person can’t just snap out of it. I would hear things like, “Why can’t you just stay up all night and party? It’s fun!” When the truth was that it was difficult and downright unhealthy for me.
As a society we find it much easier to identify with physical illness. When we see someone struggling to get on a streetcar with crutches we feel for them. Often we jump up to help. But depression isn’t treated with a cast. The symptoms aren’t physical and if you’ve never felt that prolonged hopelessness, I can understand the inability to comprehend. I have empathy for loved ones struggling to get it.
Patience is key from both sides. If you’re trying to explain your illness to friends, it will probably take many conversations to get the point across. You may even have to run through a number of people before you find a sympathetic ear. And if you’re struggling to understand a loved one in pain, avoid giving advice of what you would do in their situation and just patiently listen. Try to see that it is the illness making them feel this way. Listen to their symptoms with an open mind the way you would for someone with a broken ankle. With sympathy, offer support, but a knowledge that you can’t make their ankle better any faster than nature intended, and neither can they.
I had a house guest this past weekend who proved to me that good friends will eventually come around. My old roommate from second and third year university, a girl who at one point was my best friend in the world, came to stay. In our last year living together, we had misunderstandings and disagreements over my inability to participate in our late night social life the way I once did. This weekend, we had a lovely few days together. We talked about jobs and relationships and life the way we used to. She gave me hope that those who are meant to be in our lives will connect with us, regardless of illness. Empathy on both sides and three years of patience has brought a great friend back to me.
Healthy Minds Canada is currently running a Crowdfunding campaign to build a Mobile App to teach empathy to students. Donations can be made for as little as $1 and your contribution might make the difference for someone struggling with being the odd man out. The game tackles bullying, making the player feel for both the victim and the bully. A worthwhile teaching tool for kids of all ages struggling to understand someone who is different.
For more of my writing please visit One Flew East, One Flew West
About Sarah Lindsay
Sarah Lindsay is in her mid-twenties and lives in Toronto with her boyfriend and their dog (who also has some anxiety issues). Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2005 at the age of 16 and is still trying to figure it out. Follow Sarah’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, or additionally you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her new website: SarahsMoods.com