One of the biggest fears many have, me included, when facing a battle against a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, is that people to whom we are close will pull away. I believe that it is a big part of the reason that so few people are willing to open up about their battles. The fear of losing friendships and relationships with people whom we feel are important in our lives is real and can lead to hiding your secrets from those around you, or, even worse, refusing to admit the battle you are fighting.
Sometimes, the battle starts and people are there for you. They say all the right things about staying by your side, about helping you fight, helping you get better. It encourages you and you start to believe that, with their help, you can recover. You rely on their strength, their words of comfort and caring, and you know that, no matter how you feel today, you have them in your corner to help you through it. People who are there for you are thought, not only by yourself but those outside the situation as well, as being almost saintly. The truth is, however, this is really what we should expect from people in our lives. There should be more shock about those who choose to abandon you than those who stick by you.
No battle with mental illness is a short one. These are not diseases or illnesses like the flu or an ear infection that can be defeated in a week or two. For many, the battle rages on for years. For some, it is a lifelong struggle. Sometimes, you can get to a point of “normalcy”, but the battle is not completely over, with the illness rearing its ugly head at various, and, sometimes, inopportune moments. My own illnesses are, probably, a lifelong battle, but I am learning, on a regular basis, how to respond to them and keep them under control and not let them interfere in too many ways with my life. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be times when I am faced with a bigger struggle than others. It doesn’t mean that I can deal with any situation I face, because, the truth is, my anxiety can resurface with a vengeance in certain situations, and having someone there for me can provide me with an oasis of calm to make my way towards.
I’m very lucky to have many people who have stood by my side throughout my ordeal, including some with a very limited, by their own admission, understanding of mental illness. I have, however, also faced the loss of a number of people who pulled away for reasons only they can ever explain. People who I thought would be there, but simply stopped talking to me, and/or who never even bothered to text me to see how I was doing even when they were fully aware of what was happening. I was angry and saddened by this for quite a while. Losing people who you felt you would have in your corner is heartbreaking, and when you are fighting enemies as dangerous, dastardly and devious as depression and anxiety, it feels as if you are being thrown to the ground like a rag doll, there to be trampled by a stampede of people running away from you, every one of them placing their boot heel on your emotions and grinding them into the dirt.
I have shed many tears over the people I have lost since my hospitalization. I have faced the agony of losing them over and over, because depression does that – it drags you back to that place and time and makes you relive it. These are people whom, in some cases, I have not seen in over a year, and, still, the pain can be as fresh as if they just told me to my face that they were going to abandon me. And make no mistake, that is exactly what it is. Imagine yourself drowning in the ocean and someone is in a boat a few feet away from you. Someone who could extend their hand to help you, but they don’t. They turn away while you flail helplessly, water filling your lungs while you try futilely to call for help.
No, not everyone is an expert, and not everyone knows exactly what to say or do, but the ones who claim to be close to you, who claim to love you and care for you deeply are the ones who should be there, and, the truth is, they don’t need to know those things. They just have to be there. You just need to know that they care. They just need to extend a hand so that you don’t sink under the waves.
In some cases, those no longer around are people who I have missed greatly, and I have even gone so far as to reach out to them only to be met with silence, or with comments about their “profound sadness” but nothing more. In the end, though, the ones who remain are the only ones I need, and while it may be difficult to accept the loss of those people who chose to turn away, it is something we must all do for our own good. What I have learned, through much sadness and many moments of upset, is that I have the people I need all around me, and those who have turned away, no matter how close I believed we were, are not people with whom I should be occupied. I can grieve the loss of what I thought we had, but I am no longer going to grieve the loss of those people, because I have what I need to help me when I am struggling. I have people who will always be there for me, no matter what. I know very well who those people are – family, close friends, and some acquaintances. People who have just let me know that they support me, and remain my friends. People who truly care for others, and truly want to help. I have no need to let those by whom I feel so let down dictate how I feel.
Most of all, though, I have my own growing strength and resilience. I have the desire in me to continue to get better, the desire to regain my life, and the desire to be an example for my children and others about never giving up, about not letting yourself be defeated.
I have everything and everyone I need to win this battle. And, I’ll bet, so do you.