When I (Ben) wrote about my ongoing battle with depression recently, several people responded with the same question: Are we crummy friends? They expressed that they didn’t realize the extent of my mental illness. They wondered if they had been aloof or unresponsive in a time of need. (One wrote, “I can just imagine I said something horrifically unhelpful like, ‘Dude, you just gotta cheer up, dude.'”) They may have felt betrayed that I didn’t open up to them. (One said — I hope sarcastically — “Uhg! I’m going to have nightmares! Thank you for reminding me again that I’m the worst person in world.”)
None of my friends are the worst people in the world, and betrayal is the last thing I want anyone to feel. As I told everyone who expressed this to me, my friends have done more to help me than they’ll ever realize. It is my own failure that I’ll never be able to articulate that fully to everyone who has saved me in ways both large and small. But it’s the truth.
It’s also the truth that I did what I suspect most everyone with a mental illness does to their friends: I hid. I elided. I told partial truths. I omitted key facts. (Like, in my case, going to the hospital.)
What’s hard for me to convey, but what I also desperately want my friends to know, is that my behavior had nothing to do with them. It was not a lack of character or trust that made me divulge something to one person but not another. It was, if anything, a matter of practicality. Anyone I saw on a daily basis, I probably had to tell. I calculated who needed to know what in order for me to keep my job, my living arrangement, a social life that I desperately needed outside of work. If I was brave enough, I talked about my depression with those outside my day-to-day life. But talking about it also made it real, which is why not talking about it was such an appealing option. Out of sight, out of mind.
One friend wrote this in response to my post:
Maybe this is something that you can address in future posts. How do we, as your friends, respond? What is helpful and what is just intrusive or annoying or completely missing the point? (Are these questions missing the point?) There is a history of depression in my family which seems to have skipped me, but when I talk to my sisters about the things that they feel and are going through, I feel helplessly inept. That last thing I want is for you to feel that I am cold and aloof and uncaring about your depression.
I thought about these questions as I read Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. The book is a lyrical meditation on what it takes to support and love someone with mental illness. The first two sentences give you a pretty good idea of what it’s about:
On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad. She was fifteen and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives.
From there, Greenberg details his daughter Sally’s manic flights, her hospitalization in a Manhattan psych ward, the suffering he endures as a parent, and the healing and grieving that must be shared as a family. It is a hard, unflinching book, honest about pain and patience. That Sally (and Greenberg) comes out alive in the end is a testament to endurance.
But even after reading it, I didn’t have a good answer for my friend’s question. How do you respond to someone with mental illness?
The first thing I should say is that I did some awful things to friends and family when I was hurting. So I’d rank forgive high on the list.
Right up there with forgive I’d add listen. The truth is you’ll never compel someone to open up about his mental illness if he’s not ready. And no one wants to begin a conversation, “So, how’s the manic depression been treating you lately?” (Mental illness, unlike the weather, doesn’t make for good small talk.) But being there, at that strange and sudden moment when we do want to talk, is a gift that only friends can give.
A corollary to this: You don’t need to be a counselor. We’re already seeing counselors. We don’t need more, trust us. (Hopefully that takes a little weight off your shoulders.)
A caution, particularly if you have your own mental illness to battle: You don’t need to share someone’s pain. After Sally is out of the hospital, Greenberg goes so far as to take a full dose of her medication to “try to see the world as she does.” (This scene — uncomfortable and comical, as Greenberg becomes lethargic but keeps a scheduled meeting with his agent — ends with Greenberg getting a screenplay deal though he can barely put together a sentence.) He sees the world as she does, and in doing so becomes completely useless as a caretaker. The gesture is a noble one, but you don’t have to feel sick to help the sick.
Greenberg makes this point when he says,
Later, when the meds have worn off and I have time to see Sally in the context of my few hours in that numbed world, I realize that the drugs release her not from her cares, but from caring itself. For caring, exorbitant caring — about the meaning of a passing glance from a stranger, the look in a news broadcaster’s eye on television, the fixed fired thoughts in one’s head — is the psychotic’s curse.
Manic depressives can be given to exorbitant caring. If you are one, be wary of just how much caring you can shoulder for another.
That said, nothing has given me better insight into mental illness than reading accounts from others who have survived it. Let’s call this one understand. This is Atticus Finch’s “You never really understand a person … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” How you do this without falling into “exorbitant caring” is the trick.
What Hurry Down Sunshine adds to “the contemporary texts of mental disturbance” (Greenberg’s own phrase for the likes of Darkness Visible, The Bell Jar and An Unquiet Mind, among others) is an understanding of mental illness as something more than mere chemistry. There is a spirituality and humanity to madness as Greenberg conceives it. In the hospital he befriends an Orthodox Jew named Yankel, whose brother Noah is on the same ward as Sally. Yankel asks Greenberg,
“What do they know from ‘mental illness’ in this place? Maybe you can explain to me what such an expression means. I took Noah to the rebbe who said that he has become lost in his pleading to God. ‘I can’t help you with this,’ he told me. ‘Go see a psychiatrist.’ Our own rebbe! He should know better. There is no medicine for this.”
Another character from the book — Gato, a Dominican doorman — offers his own poetic insight, no less profound for its profanity: “Look, I got a loco of my own at home, it isn’t easy, I know the score, you got to keep loving ’em when what you want to do is shoot ’em between the fucking eyes.” That may not be the wording I’d use to answer my friend’s question, but the wisdom of that sentiment is hard to argue with.
Rachel Donadio offered an excellent review of Hurry Down Sunshine when it appeared in hardcover a year ago. “What sets Hurry Down Sunshine apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations,” she wrote, “is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it.” A hearty amen. You can read the full review here.
I realize now that my three suggestions — forgive, listen, understand — form the nice little acronym, FLU. So there you go.