As anyone who has been watching The Good Place knows, the philosophical question underlying the subject of ethics is: what do we owe each other?
Generally, this means trying to be a good person. Treating others respectfully, taking responsibility for your actions, acknowledging other people’s feelings. But when you suffer from mental-health issues, what do you owe other people then?
I’ve suffered from mental-health issues for years. I’ve had depression since I was 10, survived an eating disorder and self-harm, and, after an abusive relationship, I suffered chronic panic attacks, as well as suicidal ideation, for several years.
After years of trying to hide my struggles, I’ve learnt not to apologise for my mental-health issues. Like any illness, I didn’t ask for depression. I do my best to handle it, which, for me, means a combination of antidepressants and therapy. I speak openly about my depression and treatment, determined to break down the stigma around mental health. However, I can also admit that my mental illness has, more than occasionally, made me a goddamn nightmare to be around.
I’ve ruined family holidays with panic attacks that literally left me running shoeless through London in the middle of the night, screaming at my bewildered brother and dad. I’ve spent weeks in bed, not speaking to anyone, leaving my friends and family feeling worried and helpless. My boyfriend still has to deal with me bottling up my anxieties and irritations because I still don’t fully believe I’m safe expressing myself to the men I love.
These things aren’t my fault; I didn’t ask for these problems. But it is my responsibility to deal with them – and I believe part of that is acknowledging the impact they have on the people around me and expressing gratitude for their continued support. It’s a belief that became particularly important to me when I lived in San Francisco.
To set the scene, my group of friends were well-versed in mental health and we ran the gamut of issues: social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, borderline personality disorder. Many of the women had survived eating disorders and sexual violence, and the rhetoric we shared was one of unconditional support: we insisted that no one should ever apologise for having mental-health issues – and we meant it.
I’ve ruined family holidays with panic attacks that literally left me running shoeless through London in the middle of the night, screaming at my bewildered brother and dad
But what went unsaid, and increasingly caused problems and resentments, was a lack of acknowledgement – that although mental-health issues are never your fault, they can affect the people around you.
When I was preparing to leave America, I struggled. I was terrified of returning home to the site of my abusive relationship, the place where my depression and eating disorders had been deliberately ignored for years. I needed support. I needed my friends.
But, in the weeks coming up to my move, they weren’t there. I knew that it was down to their depression and understood, viscerally. But I’d be lying if I said that repeatedly being stood up didn’t hurt, that I began to seriously doubt if they valued my friendship.
The day before I got on a plane, they promised to come help me with the last of my stuff and have a final goodbye. They never showed, never texted. Social-media posts later confirmed they had been struggling, but they never told me.
I loved these women, was awed by their strength, moved by their vulnerability. But I did wonder why they managed to tell Facebook what they were feeling and not me. I wondered why, as people with mental-health issues, we know how valuable our support systems are, but these are the people we often treat the worst and take for granted.
I don’t blame my friends for being in the thick of it and hope they’re doing well. But experiencing the ripple effects of their struggles made me realise how much my support system has done for me. Because of this, my mental-health self-care can and must be balanced with caring for the people around me. These things are inseparable – our relationships must be sustainable for them, as well as for me. And so I’m taking steps to ensure that it is.
These things are small. If I’ve been depressed and emotionally leaning on someone a lot, I make sure that we also get to do something fun and silly, so that our friendship doesn’t become a weighted, one-way street of emotional labour. This doesn’t have to be a big event – a PJ-clad binge-watching session of RuPaul’s Drag Race does wonders for the soul without requiring much effort. If my social anxiety is kicking in and I need to bail on nights out, I suggest a catch-up phone call later. If my anxiety has manifested in me being stressed or snappy, I explain myself, so they never think they’re the problem, and thank them for their patience. Because, just as I deserve the support, they deserve the thank you.
What do we owe each other? I used to think the answer varied hugely from person to person, but I’m not so sure any more. Maybe the answer is – and always has been – what we can give. This will vary hugely from person to person, but I’ve figured out that I can give more. It already feels better.