A friend in need
‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’, but what does that even mean? I have always found it a little contradictory. Surely it should be the other way around. Something like, ‘A friend who is there when you are in need, is a friend indeed’. Not quite the same ring, but it makes more sense to me.
When you’re feeling at your best, are relaxed and able to enjoy the fun of all that life brings, who doesn’t want to be your friend? But isn’t the mark of a true friend somebody who also shows up when you’re not feeling so great? Someone who offers that proverbial shoulder to cry on?
And how about if you get really depressed? Then what?
The sad thing is that when people are in the most need of friendships, that is also the time they are the least able to provide good company and reciprocate. For those who suffer with mental health issues, social cues are misinterpreted, and it becomes extremely difficult to interact in an honest (let alone fun) way. Trying to work out the balance between showing friends you’re ‘okay’ when you’re not and asking them for support when you need it, fearful that you’ll scare them off, or even resentful that they don’t understand (but why would they if you don’t understand yourself?) is stressful in itself.
A friend indeed
Somebody to count on
I have a friend, let’s call her Zoe (a cool name for a cool friend). She lives in another country. Zoe is a tech-head and I’m not, and there are parts of her life which I will never understand. But although we’re really different in some ways, Zoe is one person I know I can count on.
She visits us here in Belgium a couple of times a year. Her ideal ‘holiday’ would be cultural trips and visiting the latest exhibitions to exercise our minds and expand our horizons. Followed by haute cuisine and fancy wine in classy restaurants.
Outings and culture in Brussels
During her last visit we made a trip to Brussels with the kids. We went to the Mima Museum (protest art work), worked out the public transport system, ate at a non-waste restaurant and saw and inspected a huge amount of fossils, dinosaurs and stuffed animals (every forlorn-looking creature documented by my nine-year-old with my phone camera) at the National History Museum… It was a fulfilling day out for Zoe, me and the kids.
But it hasn’t always been like that.
No outings, no culture… but something that made a difference
Three years ago when she came to stay, I was not feeling in a good way at all and was struggling with low self-worth. Every time the phone rang I jumped, waiting for a call that would dictate the direction of my life with a summons for a second opinion about my mental health from a work doctor. Feeling completely out of control of my future played a huge factor in my depression and anxiety.
One particular internal struggle went like this:
My hair looks awful. I feel awful. Perhaps I should make an appointment to get it done but…
…if I get a call from the work doctor and go in with lovely hair, she’ll think I’m okay (and I’m not)…
…but, if I have lovely hair, I’ll feel better which I really, really want to (but which I don’t want to because then ‘they’ might think I’m well enough to go back to work – and I’m not)…
…but, if I have horrible hair, my self-worth won’t improve and I’ll continue to be ill.That would be me, circa 2016.
It’s good to talk
I told Zoe about how I felt, and I knew it sounded crazy, but it helped to just talk to somebody I trusted.
While we were supermarket shopping Zoe popped a hair-dye kit into the trolley. At home later, she high-lighted my hair for me even though it’s not really her kind of thing. She’s more a champagne-and-culture kind of bud than a pamper-and-spa friend.
It made it all the more special of her. She was there for me with what I needed.
I love her! 🥰
The true colours of this friend: hues of yellow
Another time she arrived when the weather was heating up. There were flies buzzing around the kitchen (we live in the countryside).
She pretty quickly realised her first suggestion of a museum tour in Brussels was not happening. I didn’t have the energy for it.
But I didn’t want to stay in (in my drab kitchen). It hadn’t been decorated since we moved in nine years previously and it was looking so shabby… The thought of actually doing anything about it though, seemed overwhelming for me.
So Zoe suggested we paint the kitchen. And she gave over her entire weekend to doing just that.
I could not be more grateful to her. The evidence of her presence remained and still remains long after she left, and for days, or weeks, every time I walked into my freshly-painted kitchen I felt uplifted. It was no longer an ‘old-lady’s handbag mauve’ (her words not mine), but now clean and bright in hues of that happiest of colours – yellow.
It looked better. I felt better. And I knew I had a friend who cared.
The greatest gift: friendship
Sweet things: Friendship and cake
There is another friend, let’s call her Ferne (because it’s a lovely name and she is lovely), who I met relatively recently. We met while I was still holding things together by the skin of my teeth and pretending that I was Super Woman and didn’t need to sit down. Ever.
A fellow English-speaker trying to find her place in rural Belgium, Ferne juggles a young family and a career in a (slightly) alien land. Bright, cheerful, intelligent… she organises playdates for the children and turns up with cakes. She was still quite a new friend while I was falling to pieces.
One day she arrived with an apple cake. It was delicious and I asked for the recipe.
The next time I saw her, she had persuaded me to meet in the local spa for a swim, a chat, and a couple of hours ‘off’. That, in itself, was special.
But there was more! She had a gift for me: a cake tin, a jar of apple sauce, some flaked almonds, and the hand-written recipe.
It wasn’t even my birthday.
When you’re suffering with mental health issues, it is often the case that your self-confidence is at rock bottom. You don’t want to ‘bother’ other people. You don’t think friends will want to see you or that anybody cares really. A gesture with so much thought behind it moved me beyond words.
The sadness of the self-fulfilling prophecy
With other friends though, your internal jabbering about them not caring enough to see you can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not everybody is there for you in the way or at the time that you need them to be.
But guess what? They can’t read your feelings.
I have another friend – let’s call her Penny (because if I’d have said ‘Penny for your thoughts?’, perhaps I wouldn’t have judged her harshly when I recently felt abandoned – and also because ‘the Penny has finally dropped’ for me not to take everything so personally). I thought I’d lost her along the way but she contacted me recently. She had come across some email correspondence from the time I lived in Bulgaria, 12 years ago. It had made her nostalgic and she thought I might like to read it too.
Faraway friends close the distance through connection
At that time, I was a soon-to-be mother and she was an old hand – with three baby births under her belt already. Understandably, I was excited but pretty scared and nervous. Her wise words had calmed me down and reassured me that everything would be okay.
If I didn’t have all the latest baby gear it didn’t mean I was going to start off on the wrong foot and be a bad mother. No Moses basket? A drawer would do nicely for a while. Not able to buy a breast pump and have it sent to my address in Bulgaria? No worries. She’d send hers to my mum and have her bring it over for me.
I had completely forgotten how close we’d once been. So immersed was I in my own little story of judging others for ignoring me when I was depressed that I’d conveniently forgotten that she might have been going through her own ‘stuff’, that she might also have been experiencing a time of need.
Instead of me feeling bitter that she wasn’t there for me, perhaps I could have asked myself, where was I for her?
She saw a little opening of opportunity for reconnection and took it and I’m so glad she reached out to me.
After all, we’ve got history!
When another friend I felt had let me down (through, surprise surprise, not being there for me when I needed her (it seems I was rather needy there for a while!)) invited me to a celebratory event, I didn’t know how to respond. I was surprised to be invited as we hadn’t seen each other for so long and I had been silently grieving the loss of our friendship for a couple of years.
I pondered on it for a while and came up with three choices:
- Make an excuse and not go – the easiest choice, but it would mean our relationship was definitely history
- Go but not say anything about how I was feeling – the second easiest choice, but I would not be honouring my truth and would therefore harbour resentment. So ultimately, this would be doing both myself and her a disservice
- Say how I was feeling – the most difficult thing to do (for me). To actually show your vulnerabilities and express that you have been hurt is hard and it could be construed as confrontational. It’s scary to attempt to change a particular dynamic of any relationship.
I chose solution 3 and effectively put our relationship on the line. But I am glad I did. It was a difficult conversation for both of us. But I got it out and said what I had to say. I listened to what she had to say and was surprised that she was shocked and hadn’t even realised I’d felt abandoned.
Then we were able to move forwards.
I might not see her very often, but I still love that friend very much. 🥰
Stages of (some) friendship(s) I went through when I had mental health issues
Shame – I don’t want to ‘bother’ my friends with my problems (again)
Embarrassment – my friends must think I’m pathetic and a failure
Sadness and self-blame – I don’t have any real friends. They’ve let me down. I’m not worth their effort
Anger – why were my friends not there when I needed them? They must have known how much I needed them
Blame and rejection – I don’t need them any longer. They weren’t there for me when I needed them (this is when I thought I was moving on)…
…Honest communication – telling them I was hurt, listening to their responses and realising that we’re all human (this is when I was actually moving on).
Lessons in friendship
Honesty is everything. You can’t move forwards if you are not honest. You can’t read your friend’s mind just as you can’t expect them to read yours. If there is something on your mind that’s affecting your relationship, if you don’t spill the beans there is no future.
If you know somebody who you suspect is struggling with mental health issues, remember that every little gesture is magnified a hundred-fold for them. A phone call, a kind word, some flowers… these could all have a huge impact on your friend’s recovery.
At the same time, if you are already supporting other people close to you through their own trials, and you feel you simply don’t have the mental energy for anybody else, then self-preservation has to be key, and the kindest thing is to make clear boundaries and ensure you safeguard your own mental health by not taking on too much!
If you are the one struggling with mental health issues, please try to remember that if your friend has not been in touch for a while, it may not be (and probably isn’t) about you. Everybody but everybody has their own ‘stuff’ going on and they are more than likely inside their own headspace.
Ask for help. If you can, tell a friend that you need their friendship right now. Show them you value, trust and respect them enough to be honest and vulnerable. But if they are still unavailable, try very hard to not take it personally and whatever you do, don’t let it stop you from looking for support elsewhere.
Friends are not perfect. Because nobody is. That’s what makes us human. Zoe doesn’t read my blog – even though she is one of the first people I told about it, saying that it was ‘important to me’. But that doesn’t matter. That woman dyed my hair when I was feeling at my ugliest. That dearest of friends painted my kitchen and turned my drab mauve surroundings into a burst of happy sunshine.
Do you have a friend in need? I encourage you to… Reach Out!
A friend in need… probably needs a friend!