The Impact of Mental Illness on Friendship by Adriana Bankston

Last year, I experienced mental illness for the first time due to a series of life events. At first, I didn’t know what was going on or how to label it. Individual psychotherapy helped me identify that I was likely experiencing depression and anxiety. I spoke with a psychiatrist to confirm the diagnosis and obtained the right medication. The diagnosis itself was at first terrifying to hear. But after living with untreated mental illness for several months, I was comforted by finally knowing what was wrong, because I could now properly address it. My subsequent Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions focused specifically on tackling depression and anxiety, which have been extraordinarily helpful. In my case, identifying the problem at hand, followed by undergoing targeted therapy and taking medication to address it, has proven to be a successful overall approach to tackling it.

Before I had these tools to address it, my mental illness significantly impacted my interactions with others. While I did not recognize my experiences as mental health episodes at the time, I knew that something was wrong. I wasn’t acting like myself and couldn’t think rationally. I acted impulsively out of emotion instead of logic. I also felt unable to control what was going on.  As a consequence, I lost what could have been an amazing friendship, due to my behaviour during episodes of mental illness which occurred throughout our interactions.

In this blog post, I discuss my experience managing mental illness and the impact of the illness on a friendship. Last but not least, I want to emphasize the importance of friendships in this journey.

The beginning of a friendship…

The particular friendship I will discuss was with someone I met starting my new job last year. He had also moved to D.C. from another location a few months prior, just like me, so was also looking to make new friends. When I arrived, he was friendly and easy to talk to – everything I needed at the time, which nobody else offered. Due to his extroverted and kind personality, he immediately befriended me without question, and we spent quality time together both in and outside of the office, getting to know each other. Overtime, our friendship got closer. I began to trust him more and opened up about my personal life, including how I was going through a really rough time and a lot of transitions. 

He listened without judgement to my whole story, even staying an extra three hours at work one night when I was having a particularly bad time. I appreciated that so much. He understood what I was dealing with and wanted to be there for me. He saw the real me when I felt lost and didn’t know who I was anymore. He tried to remind me that I was someone who is highly accomplished, taking every opportunity he could to build me up and encourage me when I felt worthless. Nobody had done that for me before, and this was critical at this time in my life. 

Looking back, I suspect he probably knew that I was depressed before I did, and he did not let it define me. He also could tell that I did not have the capacity to focus on self-care, so he tried to incentivize that by encouraging me to focus on myself, and praising me whenever I successfully achieved that, no matter how small it was. He made simple comments about going to the gym, watching TV, and taking breaks from work in the evenings – none of which I was doing but all of which would have helped get me back on my feet faster. 

He reiterated that he did not want to tell me what to do, but in a subtle way, he was. Everything he encouraged me to do was for my own good, which looking back now I can see clearly, and I wish I had realized how much he actually cared instead of doubting him for it. He was a real friend, and made me realize the importance of friendships and having someone to talk to especially when things are rough. 

… And the end

Unfortunately, my mental illness affected the way I treated my friend. Due to really high anxiety, my paranoia grew. I became convinced that he hated me. I was also anxious that this friendship would end, and the anxiety ultimately led to that reality. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In an attempt to maintain the friendship, I focused most of my attention on understanding his behaviour, instead of improving my own. This became progressively worse in my mind, as I then believed that I had no right to be cared for, and that he didn’t truly care about me. To put this in perspective, this was a guy who a few years ago stood in the middle of the street with a sign saying “free hugs”, he loved dogs, and was truly one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. So why did I think he would ever show me anything but compassion? My depression made the truth difficult to see.

As time went by, my depression became worse. After a few months of living with heavy guilt because of how my actions made him feel, I knew my erratic behaviour had to stop. During what was a particularly bad depressive episode (which I didn’t know at the time), I sent him a text message which made sure to drive him out of my life. While this was irrational behaviour, it felt like the right thing to do in that moment because I wanted to stop his suffering. Now I know that this type of thinking and behaviour made no sense, that I was making it worse in my mind than it really was, and that it was very atypical of my regular behaviour. 

I would often swing from one version of me to another – I think it made it impossible for my friend to keep up, or get to know the real me. One day I was fine, the next I felt worthless. I was friendly and approachable, and cruel the next. Looking back now, I know this was my depression, yet it was frustrating to not be able to figure out what was going on. After I got my depression diagnosis, and after reading extensively around the subject, I found an article saying that depression lies. Everything made a lot more sense as to why I constantly felt worthless and pushed people away instead of keeping them close. Depression had controlled my life, and the negative beliefs I had about myself felt true. It wasn’t until I decided to seek help and take matters into my own hands that things began to change. 

I recall multiple instances during this mental health crisis where my friend called me out on my erratic behaviour, and rightly so. Of course, I took it negatively, and assumed he was being unkind, when in fact, he was trying to help. Conversations were often forgiving but directive, trying to help me improve, but I did not see them that way at the time.  I realize now that he was actually doing me a favor, and this was really helpful, because if he did not care, he may not have reacted at all, or tried to help. And this was a constant theme in our friendship – due to my depression, I interpreted everything he said and did negatively, assuming that he didn’t care, when actually he was the only one constantly checking up on me and giving me subtle advice on how to improve. That is probably one of the best things anyone could have done for me at the time. 

Throughout this experience, I did not see his point of view. Now, more than a year later, I look back and realize that he probably didn’t know what to do in this situation. He was trying to be as supportive as he could while maintaining a boundary that would encourage me to stop relying solely on him, which was a good step in my recovery and something I had to do in order to overcome a lot of the issues I was dealing with. I don’t blame him for anything, and can now see his perspective as to the challenge he had supporting someone with mental illness who wasn’t even aware that they had depression and anxiety and that is was dictating their life.

Unfortunately, at one point, the strain on our relationship reached breaking point and we went our separate ways. Over time, my episodes of depression and anxiety had translated into a behaviour that drove him further and further away. Once the episodes passed and I felt like myself again, I realized that I had engineered a permanent solution to a temporary problem – but it was too late to go back. I couldn’t take back the hurt I had caused him.

Lessons learned

In retrospect, I can see now how difficult it can be to support a friend with a mental illness. I wish that things had gone differently. I’ve learned it can be both difficult to maintain a friendship on both sides of the equation, being mentally ill as well as for those trying to support their friend in need.

This particular experience has also given me pause to reflect on other people in my life and try to be more caring with them and seeing their perspectives. I remain grateful to my friend and happy that he was in my life, even for a short time, and will always have fond memories of him and our time together. I will also remember what he taught me and carry that with me always: he taught me to believe in myself, and that I didn’t need his approval or anyone else’s. He made me want to discover myself and who I want to be.

I also learned to appreciate those who love me unconditionally and don’t judge when I am unwell. As a result, I’ve become more thankful towards those who have stuck by me during this tough time, offered advice and a listening ear. I realized that those people are true friends, and I’m working on deepening those relationships. Now, I am also starting to get better at recognizing when I’m about to have an episode of depression or anxiety, and when I feel that way, to stop and let it pass, because it’s just temporary. I try to make sure to let it pass before taking things out on others. I’m hoping that will save me from ruining another valuable friendship like this one.

As a direct result of this experience, despite it being difficult at the time, I also find some positives. I have become more grateful for those around me and I am striving to maintain close friendships. I have also become an advocate for speaking out on mental illness. While my personal experience has been difficult to live through and share openly, if I can help at least one person who is struggling, it will be worthwhile. And I now know that finding a support network and friends that love you unconditionally despite having mental health illnesses is crucial for getting through tough times.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is how much getting professional support can help manage mental illness. If you are struggling, do not be afraid to reach out – you are deserving of help. Depression cost me a friend – don’t let it cost you one too.

Adriana Bankston

Adriana Bankston is a former bench scientist, with a passion for improving the academic enterprise. In this context, she is an advocate for academic mental health as a way of creating a positive and supportive environment for early career scientists.