Since putting myself out there with my first blog post I’ve been so touched by the lovely supportive messages I’ve received. Some from random people on Instagram (it’s great to know that people are reading and reaching out) but most importantly from my friends. I’m incredibly lucky to have a small group of close school friends (one even from mother and toddler group when I was a toddler!) and more recent friends that I’ve made since I’ve been open and honest about my mental health issues. But, during my 33 years, there was a huge gap in the middle where I really struggled to make and maintain friends.
It’s made me reflect on how difficult I have found friendships over the years and how this has gone hand in hand with my anxiety.
I’m not someone that has found friendships easy over the years. During the times that I’ve been struggling with my anxiety I’ve tended to hide away. I worry about social situations. I worry that I’m not fun enough, not cool enough, not worth hanging out with. And then I worry about the details of social situations. Even something as simple as meeting up with a good friend, on my bad days I will worry about where we are going to meet, what to wear, what I’m going to talk about, where I’m going to park, will I have enough time to get there, will they think I’m boring, what other things I could be doing with my time that are already stressing me out, opening up about how I’m feeling, will I be able to drink (as I’m only fun when I’ve had a drink). It’s an ongoing reel of ‘worry’ that more often than not over the years has led me to cancel plans, after stressing about the event as it looms on the calendar.
The unfortunate thing is that I really really want to see my friends. I actually really NEED to see my friends. I always (without doubt) feel better once I’ve spent time with my friends. But that’s exactly why mental illness is so cruel because it tricks you into not doing the things that you really need to do, and then makes you feel even worse for not doing them. It’s a vicious cycle and when you’re in the cycle you don’t realise it, and you can’t get out.
As you can imagine this has made it near on impossible to maintain new friendships. I spent most of my teens and twenties pretending that I was totally happy, confident and had an awesome life. If I hadn’t cancelled plans then the only time I displayed any honest emotions was when I’d had a shedload to drink. I’d get ‘wasted’, cry, apologise and then do it all again next time. Somehow a small group of school friends put up with my erratic behaviour and I’ve come out the other side with these friendships intact. But I’ve struggled to keep the other friends that I’ve met along the way. I’ve struggled with confidence, I’ve struggled with my own identity, I’ve struggled with perfectionist tendencies that makes me shy away from any less than perfect situation (which of course friendships, and pretty much life itself, can be). When being inside my own head is getting to be too much then I ironically internalise and withdraw. I’ve always defaulted to retreating home and only opening up to my other half. Which of course places a huge burden on them (more about that another time!) Friendships gradually falter and fade into the distance.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Since I’ve opened up about my mental health struggles some of my most beautiful friendships have been formed. When I reached my ‘rock bottom’, I sought help through cognitive behavioural therapy which really helped me understand my default patterns of behaviour, what was leading to them and how I could change them. I’ll write about that in more detail another time but for now, these are the things that have helped me build friendships in spite of my anxiety. In fact more recently my anxiety has even helped me form some friendships as a new Mum – something I never thought I’d be in a position to do.
- Talk. I spent years hiding what I was really feeling from any friend, colleague, acquaintance and even family member. Because of this my friendships, even close ones, were pretty superficial. I made out that my life was perfect (or just avoided situations where I had to talk about my life at all). Most importantly open up and be real. More often than not other people are suffering too and it’s something you can support each other through. Real friendships are based on the truth whether that’s during the good times or the bad.
- Sometimes you just have to take it step by (small) step. During the really bad times this can be as basic as just starting from the beginning and getting out of bed. Once I’m out of bed, I’ll just have a shower. Once I’ve had a shower I’ll put some clothes on. Once I’ve got clothes on I’ll put make up on. Once I’ve put make up on I’ll get in my car. I do a lot of worrying about what might happen and when I’m in the real grips of my anxiety I have to be blinkered to very small steps to get me to the final goal of meeting someone.
- It’s ok to say no to invitations, but be honest. Over the years I’ve become very tuned in to when I genuinely need time to myself and when I’ve taken on too much, rather than when I’m just avoiding situations. But now I cancel in advance and let people know the real reason why, even if that’s because I just have too much on or I’m just not feeling up to it. Again, honesty is so important and my friends have been so supportive of what I might need to get me back to feeling my best again.
- You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a good friend – I worry a lot that people won’t think I’m funny or cool enough. My internal dialogue basically goes something along the lines of ‘why would they want to be friends with me, I’ll just not bother’. Actually friendship is more than just making someone laugh. It can be about emotional conversation, common interests, sharing the burdens of life, listening. The book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain really opened me up to the power of being an introvert and why it’s not something to hide.
- It doesn’t always have to be perfect – I’ve always thought that if I’m feeling bad that I don’t want to drag someone else down too. Sometimes it’s ok to just meet up for a coffee and have a moan. Not every meet up has to be ‘If Carlsberg did friendships’…
So, be kind to yourself. Even on the bad days. x