Just friends

‘So you’re really going to be just friends?’ my colleague asked, innocently cementing my hatred for an expression we casually use time and time again to talk about the art of going platonic.

If you had the misfortune to read my last post you’ll know I recently extricated myself from a rather confusing romantic encounter. We both accepted the onward trajectory wasn’t going to be relationship-ville. To me, in the past, this has always meant a parting of ways. No sexy time equals no time at all. If we bumped into each other in the street of course we’d stop and chat or at least acknowledge each other’s earthly existence, but the hang-outs, phone calls and texts stopped and there’d definitely be a Facebook break-up.

Except this time my ex-lover really, genuinely wanted to stay mates – and presented such a good case for keeping the friendship afloat I just couldn’t find a reason not to. Meaningful, stimulating conversation? Check. Guaranteed laughter and fun when together? Check. Mutual respect and support for one another? All present and correct. And, if I’m honest, having someone so intent on spending time with me purely driven by the belief I’m a pretty cool lady to be around, just feels nice.

I know what you’re thinking, oh cynical reader. And no, I can assure you I’m now about as attractive to this man as a venerial disease. He’s not still trying to get into my pants – and I’ve genuinely lost interest in going anywhere near his.

We even managed a very sensible dating post-mortem discussion in the pub without anyone getting thrown in the river – immensely impressive considering said pub’s proximity to the Thames. This was adulting at it’s finest. Practically dissolving in a puddle of smugness I relayed my newfound maturity to several of my nearest and dearest who were intrigued, supportive and offered varied insight into the idea of being ‘just friends’ with someone you’ve been romantically involved with. There it was, repeatedly, this expression I’ve come to detest.

‘Just’ friends – a word pairing I abhor because, actually, friendship is important. In fact I think it’s probably more important than romantic relationships – I’d be nowhere without the platonic connections in my life. To date I haven’t ever managed to stay friends with someone I’ve been involved with, but I’ve never actually tried particularly hard. And perhaps I should have.

Whether this time will be any different remains to be seen and I’m still not sure whether the brevity of our flirtation will help or hinder things. Is it easier to make friendship stick when the romantic foundation is weak, or harder because those relationship building blocks we so lack leave us with less to cling onto? Yes it was only a fling so it’s a smaller transition from lovers to buddies, but we really haven’t been in each others lives for very long. This, coupled with a few lingering feelings of confusion and resentment over the way things ended (on my part), might make the passage less than smooth.

However I’m a woman in her 30’s with increasingly fewer opportunities to connect and spend quality time with like-minded people who aren’t swamped with other life commitments and responsibilities. In these days of drifting friendships and spending far too much time in playgrounds with my mates who now have young offspring, I’m determined to at least try to sew the tattered threads of our romantic liaison into something new. Here’s hoping I’m up to the task.

 

When romance goes awry – rewriting the story

Oh amor, amor, amor. The heat, the passion, the adoration and sheer wonder of it all. Except when it’s unreciprocated.

I’ve been dating someone for a little while, someone who initially I wasn’t quite sure about, as well as feeling generally reticent about whether I wanted anything beyond a fling anyway. But we hung out around once a week nonetheless – there were dinners out, drinks thrown back, interesting conversations and romps between the sheets. Then a couple of weeks ago after he cooked me dinner and we spent the night cuddling in front of a film, something terrible happened. I caught feelings. Suddenly this man that I’d felt reasonably blase about, despite really enjoying his company, was all I could think about. I wanted more.

However, it turns out, he doesn’t. The point at which my uncertainty blossomed into a quiet kind of admiration was the juncture at which his initial attraction dwindled, fizzled and died. There’s not enough chemistry here for a relationship, he said. I really enjoy spending time with you, find you fascinating and would love to stay friends, he said.

Ouch.

I’ve come a really, really long way since the dark valleys of depression, but this. This was hard to stomach. Having worked so hard to strip bare the negative thinking my illness hardwired into my brain, it was astonishing how quickly I slipped back into telling myself the same story again – you’re not good enough.

So what does anyone who’s walked the black dog and knows it’s sneaky, nefarious ways do? They re-write the narrative. The tale I’m telling myself isn’t the only version of this romance. There has to be an incredibly delicate conflation of timing, life circumstances, desires and alchemy for a relationship to work and this obviously just wasn’t right. So each time my misfiring neurons try to convince me my failed amor is my fault – that my own inadequacies couldn’t somehow forge the emotional connection we needed – I’ll gently guide them back to a more rational path.

I’m in pain and I feel foolish. But it won’t last forever and I’ll stay open to meeting someone else, make myself vulnerable and risk getting hurt again if I have to. Because I’m human and it’s what we do.

 

Dealing with your depressed friend – the ten commandments

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1) Thou shalt not tell me to ‘cheer up’ unless thou is fond of a slap round the face with a wet haddock.

2) Unless actually possessing prior experience of depression, thou shalt not claim to ‘know how I feel’. Thou does not.

3) Thou shalt not fear picking up the phone to call me because thou ‘doesn’t know how to help’. Just staying in touch is more helpful than thou could ever know.

4) Even when I’m being a total nightmare, remember to tell me that thou still loves and values me. I need to hear it.

5) Thou shalt not compare my situation with a starving elephant baby in Mogadishu to try and elicit some ‘perspective’. The way I’m feeling right now I would give my left bum cheek to trade places with said elephant baby.

6) Thou shalt not pressurise me to socialise if I don’t feel up to it. As much as I’d love to meet thy new boyfriend, I doubt he’d dig my pyjama-clad-electrocuted-hair look when I lack the energy to even dress myself properly for the pub.

7) Don’t walk on eggshells around me. No really, don’t – I’m too tired to clean my kitchen properly and there’s all kinds of crap on the floor.

8) Thou shalt not tell me you can’t honestly feel bad all the time. You can – it’s called clinical depression.

9) If the words ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, or ‘mental’ should slip out in conversation thou shalt not dissolve in a puddle of embarrassment. I know I’m not insane – it’s OK.

10) Thou shalt not give up on me. There’s a non-depressed version of me still inside and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t get to spend some quality time with thou soon.

 

Love hurts – but so does mental illness

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“Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiii mi corazonnnnn…” crooned the wavering falsetto. As the radio gleefully crackled and spat in the corner of the cafe I grimaced and slid a handful of coins across the coffee-stained table. The year was 2007, the location Honduras, Central America and, once again, I had lost the bet.

The game of chance my little travelling gang had been enjoying so frequently was simple – how many seconds into a song  would the singer last before uttering the word ‘corazon’. Heart. In this instance it was approximately seven – and although my Spanish was limited, even I could pick up on the torrent of grief and woeful tale of spurned love that followed. Latin Americans don’t take affairs of the heart lightly.

Back in England it was business as usual, and songs on the radio took on a less desolate timbre. But when those sad melodies crept onto the airwaves there it was, time and time again, that same word once more. Heart. And every melancholy tune cataloguing the destruction of this essential organ seemed to be about one thing and one thing only – the woes of amour gone wrong. I felt like the world was on the edge of despair and it was all down to romance.

But it’s not just romantic catastrophes that can tear you in two and I was starting to deal with a whole new sub-set of pain – of the mental illness variety. But no-one was singing about that.

I haven’t had much opportunity to experience tragedies of the heart of late; thanks to my illness my love-life has been barren as the Kalahari. However having spent the last four to five years on-and-off very ill and debilitated, I’ve experienced a different kind of loss – that of a large chunk of my twenties. While my friends have all been out adventuring, building careers and humping anyone with a pulse I’ve watched a lot of things pass me by while sat at home in a fatigue fog. I mean, I knitted a LOT of hats, but there was always a sense of something lost that I couldn’t quite process. How do you mourn the loss of opportunities when you can’t touch, hear or see them? How do you grieve for something that hasn’t even happened – that isn’t tangible, solid, real?

At least in the aftermath of a tragedy or relationship break-down you can off-set some of the pain you feel against the good times once shared with the lover you’ve parted with, or the loved one that’s departed this world. Mental illness presents a double edged sword – it can cause you insurmountable grief for seemingly no reason.

I think it’s this lack of logic and sense driving the arrival of depression in people’s lives that can prevent them from appropriately grieving for what they’ve been through, and what they’ve lost. But grieve you should. As with any traumatic event in life, whether romantically tragic or not, I think you have to spend some time wading through misery in its aftermath – crying out the tears that are trapped in your body – to get to the other side.

If this means weeping into a Doritos packet while listening to Michael Bolton, then so be it. Shriek, rant and rail, sob, claw at the walls – do what you must to feel what you need to feel when depression has stormed in and out of your life.

Then when the time is right you can move on. And perhaps write a song about how lost love isn’t the only thing that can rip your life apart and shatter your corazon.

 

When the friend ship sinks

little-friends

Poor health can shine a really harsh spotlight on relationships, and if you’re like me, you may not always like what you see.

Friendships are the tricky ones. For romantic partners, an illness is make or break time – your relationship will either get stronger or you’ll part ways. Family…well let’s face it, they have to put up with you, whether they want to or not. There’s nothing like sickness to make you appreciate your family. Friendships are more complicated – being in need certainly highlights who the good ones are, but with some people you may notice everything goes, sort of, quiet. It’s not like they’ve specifically done anything wrong, but they just become somewhat absent.

If your spouse took a step back when you were going through a tough time, you’d be forced to confront the issue and ask yourself some difficult questions about your relationship. With friendships you don’t always have the same element of responsibility towards each other, or as tightly entwined an emotional bond, so you can simply end up in a bit of a grey area when they temporarily disappear from your life, with a question mark hanging over your relationship.

Is doing nothing actually any better than doing something unhelpful? When you’re unwell and struggling in life, and your mates are aware of this, the silence you hear when they’re not checking in to see if you’re alright, is painfully magnified. I’ve had a few un-returned phone calls and texts lately and I suspect the emotional sting I’ve felt wouldn’t have been nearly as painful had I been on sturdier ground. Reaching out when you’re vulnerable is by no means easy – when the person you’re trying to connect with doesn’t offer a helping hand it just ends up compounding the pain and loneliness you might already have been feeling.

Is it the worst thing to be forced to recognise which friendships won’t stand the test of time? Should you really be investing your time in anyone who won’t be around when things become difficult?

I don’t think it ever stops hurting when people disappoint you – and unfortunately people are likely to let you down at various points throughout life, whether they mean to or not, because they’re human. The only thing you really need to ask yourself is whether a friendship is really one worth fighting for, or is it time to let go – without bitterness or anger – and move on.

One strange by-product of living with depression I’ve discovered is a new-found ability to let things go. I hate goodbyes. I can’t stand the thought of anything that used to be part of my life fading away into nothing. I literally have emotional problems switching mobile phone providers. Yet mental illness has illuminated all that is transient, unfortunate and at times tragic in the world as well as giving me an acute awareness of mortality – in a funny way this seems to make it easier to accept sadness in my own life.

Suffering is part of being. People aren’t always what you need them to be. As I’ve meandered through depression it hasn’t just felt like I’ve lost part of myself, but that some of the people that once defined this previous self have disappeared into the background too.

‘In life we never lose friends, we only learn who the true one are’ – or so the saying goes. And when the shape of your very reality has irrevocably changed it’s always best to face the future surrounded by people you love, trust and can rely on no matter what. It’s just surprising how much it hurts when you realise that some of the very souls you pictured yourself growing old with won’t be a part of this group.

Shadow dwellers

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‘Ah that’s rough mate,’ Dave scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. ‘My brother-in-law went through that last year…he’s still struggling, you know.’

‘I honestly had no idea, wish you’d told me, Kit-Kat…’

When Katie had to tell her friends and family she’d been diagnosed with depression, she had no idea that she was joining a secret club.

All those absences at work, the dizzy spells and the gradual, more or less complete withdrawal from a once jam-packed social life – she’d had to say something. I mean, people would figure it out for themselves eventually, and they’d talk. People always talk.

And talk they did. When Katie finally summoned enough courage to speak up about the dark cloud that had crept across her brain, she was bowled over by the number of people who told her they’d been through something similar, or knew someone that had. It seemed that the whole planet was sick, and by falling ill she had somehow gained an all-access pass into a world that nobody discusses. A hidden community living in the shadows of their own sorrow and shame.

‘I have depression’. Three small words that were so hard to say. Yet they opened a huge door. A door to an ever-expanding room crammed with family, friends and acquaintances clamouring to talk to her about their experiences of mental illness.

People she knew. Or at least thought she knew.

First cousin Marta had dropped round for a cup of tea, and a chat. Depression doesn’t mean the end of the world, she’d said softly, as Katie gazed vacantly at her designer glasses. She could get better; lots of people go through it. Marta had.

Then Katya from work, Ben from school, Mrs Roper’s daughter, and even one of her closest friends, Elisa. They had all been hiding something.

And now Dave had a story. The number just kept growing.

As he sank back into the moth-eaten sofa and recounted how Stuart had resorted to taking antidepressants for his panic attacks, Katie felt numb. All these people, all this suffering. And she’d had no idea. If Stuart had been in a car pile-up, or been through cancer, she’d have known about it. She’d have sent flowers. Or maybe just a card, flowers are pretty girly…

As if feeling as though all the colour has been sucked out of your world wasn’t horrific enough, how awful to have to go it alone. The injustice of it all rose up inside; a searing, rage-fuelled flame.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Dammit. She furiously wiped a solitary tear from the corner of her right eye.

Dave looked uncomfortable, shifting his trainer-clad feet back and forth nervously.

‘Uhh…’ He thought quickly. ‘Do you want me to go?’

Katie shook her head. She didn’t dare tell Dave that a few tears didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s nothing like telling a friend that just a month ago you entertained the idea of dragging a cold, sharp blade over your skin just so you could feel something, to stop a conversation in its tracks. Dave was such a dear friend. But he couldn’t realistically understand what she had been through over the last year, and she felt alone sitting right next to him. The people she loved the most couldn’t really help her.

It was the ones harbouring this secret membership card who would have really been able to reach Katie, like Raymond the bipolar florist, on Melrose Street, who she barely knew. Or her old primary school teacher Mr Parsons, whose elixir of choice for numbing his pain was a very particular, very potent brand of whiskey.

Katie and Dave brewed another pot of tea, and talked some more about Stuart, and how he’d felt too ashamed to share his problems with anyone. Tea’s good for talking about this kind of thing. The sun laughed through the window, as if nothing was wrong in the world.

It had been about ten months since Katie had her first panic attack. She’d felt so terrified and alone, not knowing where to turn or get help. As if she was the only person in the world to be feeling like that. She remembered the impotent frustration like it was yesterday, feeling as if she was screaming at the top of her lungs in a crowded restaurant where no-one so much as looks up from their chardonnay.

Katie learned about the perils of drugs, sex and crime at school. There was a hell of a lot of talk about the importance of exams. But no-one warned of what could happen if she stopped looking after her mind, or forgot what happiness looked like.

She wondered who would be next. Who was already part of her club, she just didn’t know it yet. Perhaps Mrs Beaumont from next door, always so cheery in the mornings? Too cheery for 8am, maybe. Or what about Karl Erikson from her writers’ group, with the smile that never quite managed to reach his eyes.

Katie wondered who was to join her ever-growing brigade of sufferers, and why they had to wait so long to step out of the shadows and realise they weren’t alone. Dave leaned over and poured her another cup of tea.

Are you calling me crazy?

crazy-cartoon-moose

A cast iron shroud encircles the way we’re meant to talk about depression. Words like ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ always garner such controversy in relation to mental illness because, obviously, this kind of sickness shouldn’t be equated with a loss of sanity. Depression isn’t tantamount to madness.

I vividly recall the uncomfortable silence and look of horror on a friend’s face after she once uttered the words ‘are you mental?!’, before realising that actually, maybe I was, a little bit. She’d been responding to something completely benign – like turning down free cheese – and around anyone else it would have been funny, but thanks to my illness things got awkward. It wasn’t the first or last time someone was overly sensitive and careful with the language used in my presence.

But is it so terrible? I quite frequently feel like I’m on the edge of my sanity, a little crazy, sometimes completely crackers, in fact. When my world becomes surreal and odd thoughts begin to circumnavigate my mind the best word I could use to sum up how I’m feeling would be ‘mad’. Mental comes a close second.

For me it’s just a very loose interpretation of a word – you can use basic logic to crush any lingering doubts concerning the state of your sanity. Everyone knows that a ‘mad’ person doesn’t actually know that they’re ‘mad’. This is a formula I have frequently used to remind myself I haven’t lost my mind when a panic attack has left me feeling as if I’m having a stroke and stepping into an unreal abyss at the same time.

I know that I’m technically sane. But when the excess adrenaline coursing through my veins leaves me feeling like I’m barely hanging onto the most tattered threads of reality, I really don’t mind being referred to as bonkers, nuts or round the bend, in fact I embrace it. At the moment they’re words I’d happily use to describe my behaviour on a daily basis – in everything from having an irrational argument with a family member to putting my handbag in the fridge.

If leaving your door keys in with the sprouts isn’t the work of a lunatic, I don’t know what is.

How not to be a dick to your loved ones

angry

It’s amazing how much energy I expend these days in the simple act of trying not to be an utter penis to the people I love.

You wouldn’t think it would be too difficult to be nice to people. Unfortunately I spend so much time locked inside my own head that sometimes it’s a genuine herculean effort. And I’m exhausted, which doesn’t help.

How do you tell your best mates that you’d rather cut your ears off with a spoon than spend the evening with them? Not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because you just need some time alone.

Currently I’m resting up at my parents’ house for a while, as the white-knuckle fear and soaring adrenaline edge of my moods seems to have given way to complete and utter exhaustion. I got so over-tired I stopped being able to sleep or eat, which for someone who can usually happily inhale all ten slices of a large Dominos pizza in one sitting, means serious trouble. I needed looking after.

After a few sleeping pill aided nights of rest I feel less like I’m stumbling through Dante’s seventh circle of hell, but as far as functioning like a normal human being goes, I’m not up to much. In the immortal words of Bernard Black; I can feel bits of my brain falling away like a wet cake.

So I find myself in the unfortunate position of trying to be grateful for the avalanche of love and kindness bestowed upon me by my lovely parents – who cut a holiday short to look after me – while battling searing rage and frustration at my situation, and frazzled, sleep-deprived nerve endings. Translation? I’m being a big ol’ bitch to those that care about me the most.

And as for my friends, I’m in touch with a select few over the phone and am keeping the rest at a distance with a metaphorical ten-mile pole. Because, the way I am at the moment, the only way to not be a dick to my loved ones, is to stay away from them.

Hopefully given time and further rest I’ll be less grizzly bear and more fluffy bunny. Until then, I’m staying in my box.

My depression demolition team

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Depression can be very isolating. Soaring stress levels can severely impede what you can do on a daily basis and trying to keep up with social niceties is exhausting, then there’s the reclusive nature of the illness. Why go out and meet people when you can completely withdraw and spend the evening at home weeping in front of an endless conveyor belt of Mad Men episodes?

Depressed people are no picnic to be around and there have been times I certainly wouldn’t hang out with me.

Because of this the pool of people I spend time with has slowly but steadily shrunk over the last few years, leaving a very select few friends and family members splashing about in the shallows with me. Since I stopped being ‘fun’, my wider circle of acquaintances has drifted away to the point that these days the most intimate window into their lives I have is through Facebook.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to be forcibly reminded who your real friends are. I’ve got some pretty good ones. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my carefree and frivolous partying days – having a big network of mates can be ridiculously fun. But they’re not the ones who will sit on the phone with you at 3am when you can’t sleep, or take you to the doctors when you’re too anxious to go alone.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to spotlight a few of the people in my life that are helping me through this relentlessly awful time, and some of the incredible things they’ve done for me over recent years. My loved ones have become a fearsome force of destruction when it comes to battling my depression; picking me up every time I fall and refusing to let me to give up. Without them I doubt I’d still be standing today.

First there’s my parents. Pushing 60 and not without their own troubles, they’ve been my rock throughout this ordeal. They’ve taken me in and looked after me when I couldn’t cope by myself and put up with numerous tantrums when frustration made me lash out at those I love the most. I know they’d do anything for me, that this journey has been horrific on them too, and they’re my main motivation for getting better.

D, my best mate from school, although having no way of conceiving what depression is like – being the most joyful, positive and energetic person I’ve ever met – has never stopped trying to understand what I’m going through. She’s made it very clear that there’s no time limit after which she’ll cease putting up with my hysterics, and is the first to correct me when I question why she’d still want to spend time with someone who has become so tired and boring. I’d be lost without her.

W, my best mate from University, is a flaming ball of positive energy. When I’m about to fall down the well, she rugby tackles me back into reality and forces me to think positive. She once travelled all the way from London to my parents’ home to drag me back to the city on a train because she knew I couldn’t do it alone.

My brother M. He seems to have stolen all the wisdom genes in our family, for there’s no-one else who can shift me from completely panicked to calm, in the space of a phone call, like he can. He takes no prisoners in his approach to dealing with my illness and knows exactly when to call me out on my crap, but I trust him implicitly.

Lastly, there’s my friend A, a qualified psychologist who I know, at times, has found it difficult not to overstep the boundary between friend and therapist, but time and again has provided much needed advice and support with infinite grace and compassion. Despite having to spend most of her day dealing with other people’s problems, she always has time for me.

When I start to feel jealous of my 20-something peers whose colossal social spheres seem to involve nothing but having the time of their lives (damn you, Facebook, DAMN YOU) I only have to think about my little pocket of loved ones. I only need to remind myself how truly privileged I am to have these people in my life, and to hope that one day I can show them the same unfailing loyalty, love and respect they’ve shown me.

And then I remind myself to switch off Facebook.