What a difference a friend makes

Radio is carrying new PSAs emphasizing the importance of friends when dealing with mental illness.

Here’s a case where I think tax dollars have been very well spent. Some of the ads are a tad annoying, but that’s after I’ve heard them too many times. They make the point: if you have a friend who has been diagnosed with mental illness, stick around. A friend can really make a difference.

I have a friend who was my college roommate my freshman year. She was one of my bridesmaids in my wedding, and I hers. We go in and out of contact because both of us lead busy, complicated lives, but she has stuck around.

How do you thank someone like that? I did send her an email telling her how much it has meant to me over the years, and maybe that’s enough.

I’ve known other people with mental health issues, but I’ve known them because our lives intersected in our world of mental health activism and support groups.

C is the one person who has been there from day one. Looking back, I guess I had depression issues that first year of college, but I tried to tough it out and cope. Despite some crazy behavior in the dorm, she didn’t kick me out. She stayed my friend. Maybe we had our small-town Southern Illinois backgrounds in common, our typical Midwestern family lives. There was just some kind of glue that never came unstuck.

A more likely outcome is that the friend would find a reason to walk away. I’ve had that happen, and I know plenty of people who have gone through it. Even when you have experience with mental illness – or maybe because of it – there’s just a tendency to look the other way. It’s understandable. I’m sure it happens with things like cancer, too.

No one wants to see the cold, hard reality. It’s ugly, it’s frightening and there’s an overwhelming dread of knowing you don’t have the elixir. It’s easier to turn around, and I can’t blame anyone who does that.

I’ve been lucky that C has always been there, and lucky that my family refused to give up. I just can’t imagine having to endure it alone. I’m not confident I would have survived.

I wonder how many others out there were cast off by the one person who pledged to help them, the psychiatrist. In my case, he was also my shock doc, and he told my family I was a lost cause. (After the shock failed and left me in much worse shape than I’d been.) He advised them to dump me in a hospital, walk away and “forget you ever knew her.”

If he wasn’t dead, I’d probably send him a copy of the radio ads.

Fortunately, my family was horrified at the suggestion and refused.

Turns out they were right, he was wrong.

Having even one person in your life who cares can mean the difference between the blackest, most hopeless misery, and a tiny bit of light. Sometimes that tiny light can be just the opening someone like me needs to breathe deeply, and find a sliver of determination to fight back.