How to have a difficult conversation

Here’s something you don’t expect to happen, when you begin to come to terms with mental illness: you’ll start to see it everywhere. Every friend who complains of sleeplessness, every sibling whose mood-swings are seemingly random, every co-worker whose over-reactions are dramatic and time-consuming.

If you point out someone’s symptoms for any non-psychological disease, the results can be myriad, but unless you’re saying something truly appalling I’ve found most people are delighted to talk about whatever’s the matter. You seem to have a bit of a cold, for example, is a classically British conversation-starter and generally results in one or both parties trading home remedies and/or recommendations for over-the-counter medication like it’s some weird version of a book club.

You haven’t tried DayNurse? Darling, you simply must!

Recently, I’ve tried just coming out and saying it. That’s partly what this blog is, my attempt to alleviate some of my social anxiety by making it very clear what is the matter with me. If I had any other chronic health condition, there are certain things it would excuse. No one expects a diabetic to come on a tour of Cadbury’s, so why should they expect someone with an anxiety disorder to go to the hell-hole that is Oxford Street?

I expected to make people feel uncomfortable, but I think maybe the era of ‘we-don’t-talk-about-Aunty-Tea’s-episodes‘ might be coming to an end, at least in Britain. Most people I’ve spoken to about it are not just sympathetic, but empathetic. They’ve made it clear that while they might not understand exactly what’s happening to me, they know what it feels like to be betrayed by your own thoughts.

There’s this great Brene Brown video about empathy on YouTube that I often send people to when they say they don’t know how to talk about mental health. In it, one character confesses something awful and sad to another. ‘I had a miscarriage,’ she says, and a third character pops their head down and shouts out: ‘At least you know you can have kids!’

Empathy, as the video says, pretty much never begins with the words ‘at least’.

If someone is trying to open up to you about something really difficult, here’s the formula. Listen, until they’re done, and if you don’t know what to say, say: ‘I don’t even know what to say to that’. Don’t pretend you understand because a second cousin had something similar in the 90’s. Then, tell them the key phrase:

‘I’m so glad you felt like you could tell me.’

If you have the resources (emotional, financial, spiritual, whatever it might be) you can add: ‘I’m here if you need anything.’

Some people never hear that, and that thought makes me so sad, so if you’re out there and feel alone: I’m here, if you need anything.

If, in your journey, you start seeing symptoms of mental illness in the people around you, that’s ok. It might be that you’re just trying to find a way to connect with them, that you’re the kind of person who projects onto other people as a way of getting to know them. It might be that you know that person really well, and you know what they’re going through is out of the ordinary for them. It might be neither, and you’re just getting good at spotting the warning signs.

Here’s the thing: unless you’re a qualified professional, you have no right to a) diagnose someone with a mental illness b) ‘out’ someone as mentally unwell, if they haven’t told you about it.

What you can do is be as open and honest as you feel able to be, and hope that they feel like they can talk to you.

If they do come to you and ask for advice, just be a little careful. For some people, you saying ‘you might be depressed’ will be confirmation of their worst fears and deepest insecurities. For others, it might be a huge weight off their shoulders, letting them know that what they’ve been feeling isn’t some personality flaw.

Take the conversation slowly. Listen more than you speak. Offer resources, if you have any that helped you, and try to honour the vulnerability that comes with a difficult conversation.

I’d recommend brewing a cup of tea.

To everyone who’s opened up to me since I’ve started this journey (including one awesome lady who high-fived me and yelled WHOO, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION!):

I can see how hard it’s been. I’m so glad you’re beginning to feel better, and that you felt you could tell me. Let me know how you’re getting on – I’ll be sending you some psychic strength.

And with love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! Let me know your experiences of having difficult conversations, and how you’ve handled it.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

 

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