By Bede Batters
I was brought up in the Highlands in a very rural area, where I was also home educated. It took me a long time before I made the decision to go for higher education. I finally did go for it in my late twenties. By waiting this long I had some self-confidence to learn and a bit of shyness to get over. However, I knew myself very well before I was thrown into the confusing and stressful environments of social interaction, and very quickly gained these missing attributes.
I’m explaining this to get across how much belief I had in myself, my abilities and my knowledge. We are amazing and powerful beings, capable of truly astonishing things. Unfortunately this power, when directed towards harmful thoughts and behaviours, loses none of its force.
During my one-year college course that allowed me access to university, I got to know, almost from the first day, a fellow student who became one of my closest friends. I would see her almost every day, either at college or after classes when we would take long walks around the small suburb she stayed in. In between times we had an almost perpetual text conversation going, a conversation that lasted for almost two years, without a single day going by without at least one (but usually much much more than one) message. As can be imagined, we got to know each other pretty well during this time.
I quickly discovered that my friend had a lot of self-confidence issues, and later I realised these issues were just the surface of a range of deeply rooted mental health issues. Most of these centred around food and body image, but they spiralled out into a bewildering array of self-harming behaviours and destructive thought patterns.
I have already said how much belief and faith I had in my own abilities and in those around me, so with absolute confidence in the power of doing the right thing, I threw myself into helping this person.
What I didn’t know then, but have now realised is that depending on the issues you are dealing with, there isn’t just you and the sufferer involved in a relationship like this. There’s you, the sufferer, the mental health issue, and all the intelligence, ability and power that a human has, which is shared with the mental health issue. I had so many learning curves to go through during my friendship with this person, but I was well aware of how minds can work and I was prepared to learn.
So I did research and never once just wasted words. I was always consciously choosing what to say, what to encourage, giving my time, effort and intelligence to building trust, cooperation and supporting this person who was clearly suffering. She was my friend, one of my best friends, and she was smart, lovely and capable. If only she could just get over these issues her life could be amazing.
The truth was I had no idea what I was getting into, and after about three years of one of the most intense ‘friendships’ I’ve ever experienced and probably will ever experience, I had to draw back. We still stay in touch, but I’ve promised myself never to get drawn back into how it was, because despite all my confidence and belief that I was doing the right thing, we, I, developed a co-dependent and deeply unhealthy relationship.
I have no idea if it ever truly helped her, because even after three years of daily communication, I still never really got the truth or the full story. It became a war. I expended every possible effort to try to make even the smallest impact, to help even a little, but there was just no way of breaking through to any solid ground.
It is a three-way relationship, and even if you spend 100% of your time with the sufferer of a serious mental health issue you still aren’t there, with them, inside their mind. The mental health issue isn’t just a friend, family member, partner – it is the constant day in day out, all night, 24/7 companion, and it is intelligent.
Having been so deeply involved with a mental health issue from the perspective of someone offering support, I have discovered an alarming gulf of information and help. There are barriers everywhere that stop sufferers from getting adequate help and tying supporters hands so that all they can do is become another victim of the mental health issue.
I’ve had a situation where I would get as much of the truth as I could from my friend and then with her permission I would call her GP. I would explain everything she told me or write it down so that he would be informed next time she met him. Via me she could get the information out, past the crippling shyness and fear her issues gave her. Despite this I could never actually attend the appointments with her, and it quickly became obvious that despite her trusting me and her GP to an extent, neither of us got the full or the same story.
I’ve been to eating disorder support groups, where I found a disappointingly low number of attendees, most of which were the organisers, and discovered from both people in my position of support and those directly suffering, that it was a very similar story.
There are online support groups, but surprisingly few and the internet is just as dangerous as it is helpful, particularly for eating disorder sufferers. Not to mention it still relies on the sufferer themselves putting in the time and effort to seek help and maintain good behaviour.
As I said before, it began to feel like a war. But it was a fight with an enemy that you couldn’t see, touch or deal with, and the only one who ever actually got hurt was my friend, or me. Eventually I was defeated. I couldn’t help her and I actually realised I was becoming twisted by her issues in my own way, which wasn’t doing either of us any good. I gave up. I left her alone with a demon tormenting her and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Now imagine she was my daughter, my wife, my parent. In short someone I couldn’t just ‘back away’ from with a relatively clean conscience. Mental health issues are incredibly complex and they need a wide range of different approaches and methods to even begin to unpack them.
Those on the front line, living with sufferers and attempting to guide them back to a healthy life, need almost as much support. Even seemingly innocuous issues can be entirely crippling and spread to every part of life. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is soul destroying to see a person you love tear their own life apart, to hate them for it, and then to realise you resent them for having put you in that situation.
Mental health issues are like a poison, those effected by them can become toxic to those around them, but that does not mean they should be ignored and isolated. In fact, it means it is even more important that supporters are better informed. It means we as a society need much more awareness and actual clear advice as to how to provide effective and safe help to people who are suffering beyond anything we can imagine.
I failed my friend, and we as people and as a society need to do better.