Mental illness and relationships: the third wheel.

Mental illnesses can often be a third wheel in relationships.
Their presence is like an elephant in the room.

It is hard to look after yourself when struggling with a mental illness, sometimes showering seems like too hard a task, let alone seeing friends and putting on your ‘happy face’.
Society conditions us to feel the need to be on our best form with friends. No one wants to hang around with someone who is depressed, as they feel it brings a damper on the mood. Therefore it is hard for people struggling with depression to socialise as they cannot just be, they have to be the best version of themselves. That pretend happy go lucky version. This masquerade that many people with depression feel that they have to wear is draining, exhausting. Many feel that friends wouldn’t want to hang out with them if they were having a depressive episode, which is probably partly true as people generally prefer to be in a good mood and have fun, and so when the sufferer can’t put on a good front they have to cancel on plans. In some ways this is to protect themselves from having to make effort to put on a good front, which at that time they just cannot manage. But in other ways they are protecting their friends from the darkest parts of themselves, perhaps to spare them worry or sadness. No person wants to see their friend utterly unhappy, a mere shell of the person they thought they knew. Some friends run when faced with the prospect of having a friend who is mentally ill. They don’t understand, and people generally avoid what they cannot comprehend. Or they may be too hurt watching the person suffer, or may be selfish and want to only focus on the good things in life.
Many people with mental illness find it difficult to commit to plans as they don’t know how they are going to be feeling each day. Some days are harder than others to continue living. And for friends, this lack of commitment and cancellation of plans can seem tedious and flaky. As if the person doesn’t want to see them, and so after a while they stop inviting them to things. This can be painful for the person suffering because they cannot control their illness, yet it seems to ruin their friendships. And after a while, when they are no longer asked to hang out it can make them feel unwanted and unworthy. This thinking is of course the disordered thoughts, but it doesn’t take away the sheer realness of the pain of their deteriorating friendships due to their illness.
In my experience, it is hard to sustain strong friendships in the wake of a mental illness. But through talking about what you’re going through with your friends you can help them to understand what you’re struggling with. Although they may not understand, it is important to try and talk to them, else they’re left in the dark. Communication is key in these situations as otherwise, to an outsider, the behaviour of someone with depression can be selfish. And it is. It is a selfish illness. But the illness isn’t the person. The person themselves aren’t selfish, it is the illness. It is vital that people suffering remember to protect themselves first. Of course that doesn’t mean hiding away from everyone for all hours of the day. You have to find the balance between protecting yourself and challenging yourself. But it is not your fault you are ill, and you need to look after yourself before you can look after anyone else. I suppose that is another sore point in friendships. Because you can’t always give your friends the support and time they need when you’re battling your own demons. You should not feel ashamed or guilty for any of your behaviour. It is extremely difficult for healthy minded people to begin to comprehend the idea of depression, the idea of the emptiness and the exhaustion. If they understood they would most likely act in a different way towards you. But humans cannot always practice compassion and sympathy, they get frustrated and angry and confused. And that is something we have to accept when battling mental illness. The journey you are partaking in alongside your friends has an extra passenger, the illness. And though you have your own identity individual to your illness, it can be hard to separate the two sometimes. The illness can devour you and the person your friends once knew.
You should never feel like you have to apologise for being ill. It is out of your control. The way you behave can be governed by your illness. That doesn’t excuse abusive or nasty behaviour, but it does take into account behaviour such as cancelling on plans because you feel too low. I think something that many mentally ill people struggle with is putting themselves first. The idea that your life could be worth something. But is is perfectly ok to put yourself first. Because you cannot live freely until you have got rid of your demons, and only you know your limits-how much you can challenge yourself.

Another illness that seems to be third wheeling friendships is an eating disorder. Eating around other people may prove difficult. For people with bulimia or types of binge eating disorder it can be hard to eat around others because they prefer to eat in private, and eat large amounts. It is hard to binge infront of someone else, exposing yourself and your illness, and so they may refrain from eating around friends. This can cut into the social aspect of sharing a meal because no one wants to eat alone at a dinner table for two, and so they dispose of the idea altogether. A big part of friendships are about making memories, and this can often involve food such as meals out, and so it impacts their relationship. That bag of popcorn that you would have shared in the cinema, that slice of cake that you could’ve eaten on their birthday, that pizza you could’ve shared at a sleepover. They are all sacrificed to the eating disorder. This constant hassle surrounding food often is frustrating for the friend. It is again an elephant in the room.
I myself find that eating impacts my friendships a substantial amount. I prefer to eat in the safety of my own home, and find meals out distressing, and this can put pressure on my friendships. Especially when I am hanging out with someone one to one. It is easier to hide the avoidance of food when you’re in a group with a simple ‘I’m not hungry’, or ‘I’ve already eaten’. They feel more comfortable eating because there are other people eating, and so you haven’t completely sabotaged their meal. Still, you sit there wondering what would have happened if you joined in and ate.
Eating disorders are often deceptive. The hiding of binge food, binging and purging in secret, lying about the food you ate. This deception leaves a heavy weight on the shoulders of your friendship.

In regards to romantic relationships I suppose the same applies as with friendships. The key difference between friendships and romantic relationships is the sexual part, a different kind of love. For people with low self esteem connected to their mental illnesses e.g depression, anxiety, eating disorders, it can be hard to accept this love. Many may feel like they are not worthy of being loved, and wonder how anyone could ever be attracted to them. Their self doubt and hate interferes with their ability to form a healthy relationship. Also, they may struggle with body image, which can prove a big hurdle in a romantic relationship. Their sex life may be restricted by their negative body image, or perhaps body dysmorphia. They may be afraid to be naked for fear their partner would not be satisfied with how they look, or for fear that they’ll think them fat. I know I personally struggle with my body image, and avoid relationships for I worry that my partner would prefer to be with someone else because I’m not good enough. The way I look, my personality, everything about me is not good enough for myself, let alone someone else. These feelings can be common with many healthy minded people also, it is not irrespective of them. However, they will not struggle with the intrusive thoughts to such an extent as someone with a mental illness. For a sufferer of an eating disorder for example, the negative feelings towards their body are heightened, they’re extreme compared to that of a healthy minded individual. The impact of their thoughts and feelings have a stronger hold over them, often negatively influencing their lives. Low self esteem is common with young people especially nowadays, yet it is incomparable to that of the low self esteem relating to mental illnesses. Too often we normalise these feelings that sufferers experience, sometimes belittling their problems as ‘everyone struggles with disliking what they look like’. But this is wrong. This takes away the inordinate struggles that many mentally ill people suffer with.

The suffering friendships and relationships are fuelled by the misunderstanding of what someone with a mental illness is fighting. It is too hard to expect a healthy minded person to completely understand your struggles, yet through communication there can be light shed on the subject, strengthening your relationship. The act of trying to explain your struggles to a friend or partner can demonstrate the desire to fix what is broken within your relationship, and sometimes this is enough to sustain your relationships. I encourage people to communicate to their loved ones, although it may be difficult, because even if they don’t understand, at least you gave it your all. The fact that you are fighting for your relationship in the wake of your illness shows your strength, and if that is not enough for someone then they are not worth bothering with. You get to choose the people you surround yourself with in this world. You get to choose your friends and partners. So surround yourself with people who are willing to understand, willing to grow, willing to wait. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, and make you feel like your old self again. Because as cliche as it sounds, life is too short to be around people who bring you down, who won’t try to understand, who won’t wait.

Advertisements

That seemingly never-ending battle between our mental health and the media: The seeking of self love amidst a society encouraging self hate.

So I see all these transformation pictures on instagram and on the internet. Generally showing a person having lost weight between the two photos. The ones I see of girls online show women who have perhaps struggled with their weight, but are not necessarily always overweight,‘transform’ into a slim and toned woman, often with no signs of cellulite or stretch marks, and little body fat. These pictures make me, and probably many others, feel the need to ‘transform’ ourselves. We read their captions of how this change in their weight made them feel happier and more energetic, and we crave what they had. We crave the need to validate our happiness through our size and body. It is this unhealthy craving that spurs on generations of young women to dislike their bodies, and to think that being anything but ‘perfect’ is not acceptable. There is the need to fulfil this body stereotype in our own lives, we feel the need to be slim and toned and rid ourselves of body fat, because we see successful and beautiful women revelling in their weight loss success. We see the pride they take in the day to day ‘care’ of their bodies, the gruelling workouts and elimination of multiple food groups, and we envy their drive and success. Meanwhile, the majority of women who try to diet end up failing and falling into a cycle of overeating and dieting due to the strain they are putting their bodies under. They don’t understand that they need to give their body what it craves, they need to fuel it properly. The diet and exercise plans we see online are not sustainable. Diets consisting of limited calories only lead to disordered eating in the long term, along with a constant longing for a proper meal in order to silence the constant thoughts about food. This is disordered behaviour. We should be encouraging healthy eating without eliminating food groups, and we should be encouraging exercise without promoting only the aesthetics surrounding working out or playing sport. Sport and exercise alone can help to boost your self confidence and thereby your self image while releasing dopamine, a hormone that generates feelings of happiness.
I realise that some people who are overweight use online forums such as instagram to motivate themselves alongside others, i.e. slimming world. And yes, this form of dieting may work temporarily. But would you want to live your life counting syns? Obsessing over every morsel of food? For people looking to lose weight to become healthier and reduce the long term risks of being overweight, I would encourage healthy eating without relying on diet cultures such as slimming world, because the dependence on the structure of slimming world would distort your eating patterns when you no longer need to lose weight. A person who had lost weight by slimming world could easily fall back into old habits and gain back the weight, as many do, once they no longer need to abide by the rules. And so the reality of eating normally and regularly after their diet can become distorted. This is because diet cultures restrict our eating, they brand foods as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. They don’t encourage eating to satisfy your cravings or to fuel your mind and body, because perhaps if they did we wouldn’t feel the need to overeat, when presented with a tub of ice cream for example. We would be satisfied with the one scoop because we know that we could have more if we wanted it, be it later in the day or tomorrow. There would be no off limit foods and so our mindset surrounding food would be less ‘all or nothing’. We would eat to satisfy our hunger, and put the fork down when we were full, with the knowledge that we can eat when we are next hungry once again, instead of having to deprive ourselves due to our calorie intake.
The transformation photos that I repeatedly see can be frustrating because it makes me feel like I need to change my body. Having struggled with eating problems for half of my life I am no stranger to the triggers of my disordered habits, nor am I oblivious to our society manifesting self hatred towards our bodies in order to buy into diet culture, or slimming teas and products. I have always wanted to be in a slim and toned body, and maybe it is the healthier part of me which stops me losing weight as I have no immediate need to, unless for aesthetics whereby I would claim to lose weight for myself, but in reality I would be doing it for the validation of society. But I often worry that maybe it’s the lazy part of me that no longer possesses the determination to lose the weight. The part of me which uses my eating disorder as an excuse to not losing weight. What an epic failure of a former anorexic my mind tells me. But the healthy part of me says this thinking is wrong. No, I don’t believe it is actually laziness. I think that the healthy part of me subconsciously doesn’t want to lose weight, despite my ever burning desire to do so. I believe that your body knows what weight it needs to settle at so that you can function healthily and enjoy life. I believe that you should ignore those transformation pictures telling you that you’ll be happier if you’re slimmer because that’s not necessarily true. Of course, that person could have become happier during the period of which he/she lost weight, but that isn’t a direct cause of the weight loss itself. That would confirm the lies that society tells us about weight relating to happiness. And in truth, the number on the scale does not determine your worth, your happiness. Believe me, I have been on death’s doorstep, dangerously underweight and starved and I still did not find happiness there. And now, many pounds heavier I would still not say I have found happiness. Because it is my mind that tells me I’m not good enough, not worth anything, it is not what my body looks like. That, unfortunately, is again an indirect link to eating problems and disorders. There is nothing wrong with how our healthy bodies may look, or how they may look different on everyone, it is our mind which is in the wrong. It is our mind which deforms our view on life, our self worth and our happiness. If you want to find happiness then try and work on your mindset, talk about how you feel, listen to others, challenge your thoughts. Once you change the way you view the world you will see how beautiful the human body is because of its flaws and imperfections. How beautiful it is because it looks different on every individual. A healthy body is a beautiful body no matter its shape or size or whether it has cellulite or not. We NEED body fat to keep us warm when it gets cold out, we NEED stomach fat (as women) to nurture our baby in the womb when pregnant, and we NEED food to give us the energy to walk across hills, and swim across oceans. Because maybe weight loss will give you a temporary feeling of joy, a temporary feeling of achievement, but you won’t be able to compare those fleeting feelings to the ones you experience when you’re truly content. Revolving your life around food, around weight, around looks, never ends well. It is a dark hole that sucks you in, controlling your life and your relationships. Even in less extreme cases where weight loss doesn’t result in eating struggles or disordered thinking, it can still affect your life in a negative way, like stop you from going out to a restaurant with your friends because you’re on a plant based no carb paleo diet.
I encourage healthy lives, healthy weights and healthy bodies. But I do not encourage unhealthy lives disguised by the success of weight loss or fitness, many eating disorders can be masked with fitness inspired pages or figure competitors. And I do not encourage body discrimination because all healthy bodies are not shaped the same way. Some healthy bodies may carry more fat around their legs and thighs whilst having a flat stomach, while others carry their fat around their stomach. Some bodies have more cellulite than others, some have stretch marks and some have scars. But they are all worthy of self love and acceptance. It is hard to try and accept yourself when you’re flooded with images of size 00 models, with big boobs and tiny waists. But these instagram influencers or models are not representative of the whole of society. And though it may feel like everyone around you, like your friends and co-workers, are all thinner and more attractive than you, know that you are probably viewing yourself negatively, and your low self esteem is reflecting on your perception of yourself by comparing yourself to other people. Comparisons are never healthy, whether it is to do with body size or successes and achievements. Everyone is different, everyone finds different people attractive, and everyone is going through different struggles and phases of their lives. So try not to compare yourself to others because, as I was once told, there is always going to be someone prettier or thinner or sexier than you and you just have to accept that. As also there is going to be someone uglier, or fatter than you. That’s life, there’s no need for comparisons if they’re only going to make ourselves feel worse about ourselves, instead we should cherish our differences and learn to love ourselves regardless. It is easy to say all these things, but it is harder to put them into practice. It is by no means easy to go against everything we have been taught by society about needing to look a certain way in order to be accepted by others. But the more we challenge these thoughts as a group, as a unit, instead of being alone in the fight, then the more we will realise it is perfectly ok to accept yourself for who you are at this very moment, instead of thinking about what you could change about yourself.
So here are a few mantras I’ve picked that you can remind yourself of if you forget that it is ok to find it difficult to begin the journey to self love.

I can choose positive thoughts.- I understand the power of my self talk and choose to select thoughts that are uplifting and positive.
I am confident in my decisions-I am the creator of my own destiny. I stand behind the things I do and say.
I surround myself with loving people-I can choose the people I allow into my life. I choose to surround myself with people who love and adore me.
I am strong-I am tougher and braver than I look.
I am worthy of love-I am worthy of being loved and cherished by others. My worth is untarnished by my imperfections or the way others see me.
Body, thank you for carrying me.
Appearance does not dictate health- I can be healthy at any size.
It’s ok for me to trust the wisdom of my own body- if it’s hungry, feed it.
I am capable.
Follow your fears, embrace them head on.
I am not my thoughts or emotions.
I have the power to create change.