You’re probably going to say the wrong thing before you find the right one. What matters is that you try.
Itwasn’t one of those days. Nothing was any more wrong than usual. I’d been feeling stressed, but stress was routine. I’d been hearing voices, but my head had been noisy for years. I felt like I was drowning, but I believed most people were walking around with seawater in their lungs.
So I was furious at myself when, sitting at the kitchen table of my friend/sometimes-boyfriend, I suddenly started crying — “for no reason,” I told him.
That wasn’t true. But I didn’t yet have a name for the driving force behind the breakdown. I was still a couple of years from being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. At the time, it was just that freak part of me that spontaneously interpreted reality as an existential terror.
I fled the room. Partly because the Gen X feminist side of my Xennial brain was mortified that I was crying in front of a man, but mostly because I understood that this kind of meltdown made people feel helpless. What can you say to a person who’s unraveling? To someone who’s “going through something”? What do you say to someone whose psychological symptoms are cresting in ways they struggle to explain and may well not understand? How do you communicate through the invisible, hard-to-define walls that mental illness builds up?
My friend followed me into the bedroom and sat down beside me on the futon.
He didn’t hug me. He wasn’t a hugger, and if he’d become one in the moment, it would have seemed condescending somehow — a way of saying, I realize this is such a dire situation that only stereotypical “good man” behavior will work.
He sat beside me, close enough to share body warmth but not touching me, just watching his fish swim in the aquarium in front of us, until my breathing leveled out. Then he said, “If I could punch the whole world in the face, I would.” Then we went back to the kitchen and got drunk.
No words could’ve put the world, or me, right again, but the ones he chose undercut the isolation of a hard moment. Which made them perfect.
Ifthe mentally ill person you’d like to better communicate with is anything like me, they would sometimes love to discuss the “weird” facets of their condition, and see themselves reflected in your eyes more as a fellow student of human behavior than as a victim.
If they’re like me, they’d appreciate someone to laugh with over the screwy, fluky, motley hallucinations and delusions their illness is capable of producing. Because some mental illnesses can sometimes be… funny.
If they’re like me, they’d appreciate, on rare occasions, being able to cry or even freak out in front of a loved one who feels no need to break out the psychological duct tape or “give them their space” or provide anything except company.
But those are hefty ifs. Some people certainly don’t care to joke about their disorder. Some find their symptoms too overwhelming to ever slide them under a microscope for recreation. When some people flee the room to have a cry, it means: Stay away. It means they desperately need privacy in which to spiral, and would only feel humiliated if you witnessed it.
There’s very little I can tell you about how to talk to someone with a mental illness because the spectrum of mental illness is so wide. Mental illness is a rainbow. Its bands are the colors of sludge, acid, Las Vegas on New Year’s, light bulbs bursting on, hippogriffs, cat vomit, the blur the world becomes when you’re spinning too fast, ice, hail, hurricanes, prairie nothingness, plain nothingness, and gray — lots of gray.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to knowing what works for the individual in question. Landing on the right approach is a matter of learning their preferences, asking point-blank questions, and, most likely, stumbling through the wrong approach first. The only pieces of advice I can offer with any confidence are these:
When we’re having a “moment,” or when the subject of our issues arises, don’t treat us like strangers — and don’t try to be someone you’re not. We’re us. You’re you. Conversations that acknowledge both steady truths can be encouraging.
Try and understand us, not as types or diagnoses but as individuals, to get the gist of our individual comfort zones. “If I could punch the whole world in the face, I would,” was the right thing for my friend to say to me because it let me know he saw me beyond the scope of that one storm. He’d paid enough attention to know there was not a tidy singular problem; if something needed punching to avenge my tears, that thing was existence itself. And he knew me well enough to know I didn’t want to be coddled.
If you’re unsure whether your questions, offers to help, or company through a crisis are welcome, ask. When it’s hard to know what to say, try, “It’s hard to know what to say.” Be willing to sound dumb. It shows you care enough that you don’t want your differences in the moment to become a divide. And enough to admit when you’re out of your depth without surrendering.
But above all else: TALK to us
When we say something about our condition or an aspect of it plays out in front of you, please don’t retreat into the nonresponses of averted gazes, throat clearing, or a change of subject. If we say something, then you say something — please. If it’s the right thing: Cheers. And if it’s the wrong thing: Hey, you’re talking to “wrong thing” experts here. Most of us are not looking for the eloquence of some monologuing superhero. We’re looking for someone brave enough to let us know we’re not alone.