One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Has my brain health affected my friendships?
I ran across an article the other day about how ADHD (and other brain illnesses and disorders) affect a person’s ability to make and sustain friendships. The article brought up a lot of good points and it got me thinking…have I ever lost a friendship or not made a real connection because of my brain? Is there a correlation between friendship and mental health?
If I’m being honest, and very much in hindsight, I have been dealing with many of my brain illnesses and disorders since the very beginning. I have likely never had a friendship that was not touched, in some way, by one or all of them. In elementary, Jr High, and high school, I became aware of a desire to fit in and not to fit in with just anyone…to fit in with the “cool” kids. I longed for it; wanted it so bad sometimes that it hurt. For some inexplicable reason, my thirst to be one of the “popular” crowd led me to be hyper-aware of what I wore, what my hair was like…even if my school supplies were cool enough…and it left me always on the outside. I wasn’t not their friend, but I didn’t quite make the cut, either.
You see, I was a weird kid. I learned quickly how to reel in my personality, but I couldn’t always do that (because it is literally who I am as a person) and it was sometimes hard for me to gauge when my antics would be well received. As a teenager, I did make some close friends but even in my friend group, I was aware of the fact that I was the weird one and that I was the one who got on everyone else’s nerves. Around most of them, I always felt self-conscious and nervous; always afraid that I would wake up one day and have no friends at all. Except one person that accepted me 100 percent for who I was. She taught me my first real lesson in friendship.
The year I met my best friend, I was 12 and had just started the 7th grade. I was going through a tough place in life. My mom and dad had a custody battle the summer before. It was a battle in which my dad won and I, in retaliation, had cut off my long hair. Unfortunately, I was less Josie Bissett (did I just show my age??) and more Dennis the Menace. I, ladies and gentlemen, started the 7th grade looking like a little boy. It was awful on the old self-esteem. I digress, I met her through my sister. It took us about a year or so, we started to get to know each other and she didn’t run away.
She didn’t roll her eyes when I said something random or weird or chuckle patronizingly when I made an off-colored joke or got too loud or crazy. Even when I was weird in public, she just laughed along with me and never batted an eye. For the first time in my life, I had a real and true friend. She would remain my best friend all through Jr High, high school, and all of our adult lives. I love her dearly for what she has given me in this life and I will until my last breath.
At long last: My people enter the scene
The start of adulthood was more of the same for me; struggling to fit in with people who didn’t like me for who I was and who were constantly criticizing me and trying to fit me into their boxes. They teased me about how I wore my hair, the clothes and shoes that I wore, even the kind of music that I listened to. I was constantly trying to just fit in; not rock the boat. Then something fateful happened. My roommate and I worked together, but we were also not getting along well, so I decided to get a job at my local Olive Garden. I lived right next door and it seemed like not having a commute would fit into my busy, college schedule.
What I didn’t know is that I would meet a group of people who treated me like family. They enjoyed my sense of humor and they didn’t care at all about how I dressed or what my hair looked like. We spent time together. We talked about real things. We cut up and we laughed and we let ourselves enjoy life and each other. The more they accepted me, the more confident I became. The more confident I became, the more I let my real, true self shine through. A decade and a half later and my core group of friends, the ones that I talk to every day, are people that I met at the Olive Garden. They have been a lifeline to me and they have been there for me through thick and thin. They are a gift.
This was an important time for me. The time when I could just be me and I wasn’t trying to live up to anyone’s expectations was short-lived in the grand scheme of things. However, I would never again try to reel in my personality in a friendship again. I am still extremely slow to show people who I really am, but not because I’m worried about what they will think of me; because I am remiss to give people the ability or the permission to hurt me. It’s a defense mechanism and, when used correctly, it can serve me well.
That is not to say that my core friend group hasn’t seen some changes over the years. Seven years ago, I was subjected to a betrayal of the highest order by one of those people. I loved her with all of my heart and certainly never saw it coming. All of the years later and I still grieve the loss of her and our friendship, but the wounds were too deep to salvage any meaningful relationship, so I had to let her go. I even feel pity for her sometimes; she is a person who can’t seem to outrun her darkest demons.
I got incredibly sick after that. I don’t mean physically ill; my brain stopped working right. Any control that I had painstakingly managed to gain in my 32 years was gone. I was hit with a trauma so deep that my brain took over. It knew that I would not be able to handle what was happening to me, so it just shut down. I dissociated for 2 full weeks and when I came out of that, I was spiraling out of control.
Most of my friends and family have moved out of state over the years, but I grasped for the friends that I had left locally. I was drowning and I needed a life raft. They seemed to be nowhere to be found.
To be fair, I was not a perfect friend. Because of my litany of illnesses and disorders, I sometimes behave in a way that would make it seem as if I don’t care. I miss birthday parties and baby showers. I sometimes flake out on plans at the last minute and I forget to return phone calls and text messages. But, when the chips are down and it really counts, I am all in. I love my friends. I am loyal to them. Once I let you in, I will love you and be loyal to you until forever…or until you finally treat me bad enough that I can no longer ignore it. I’m working on that last part.
I digress. I went back and forth with these friends of mine, more than once. My illness and the end of our friendship stretched on for years. I was increasingly unwell and the sicker I got, the more vicious they got. They clubbed me over the head with my behaviors over and over. They told me I was toxic and negative (I was negative…my life had just blown up in my face) and that I was a bad friend. I was in such a poor place, mentally, that I started to believe them. I started to see all of my faults, magnified by one million. Through their eyes, I started to see a version of me that I had never considered before. Was I a bad friend? Was I an all-around shitty person?
The good news is, I finally came to my senses. Without their help, I started to climb out of 4 or 5 years of depression. I started working on myself and trying to find the woman that I lost along the way. I started therapy again and got back on medication to get physiologically balanced. I started to get angry, too. It is hard to see just how sick you are when you are in it. When I started to come out of it, I realized how wrong they had been; how cruel. My anger still did not move me to end the friendship. Until one day I woke up to pictures of one of their weddings. All of our friends were there, it was a big affair. I hadn’t even been invited. It broke my heart.
I was strong enough, at that point, that I decided then and there that it would be the last time they hurt me. They were mean girls and I no longer have the room or patience for people like that in my life. I quietly cut ties and moved on with my life and I am happier for it. I still miss them. I loved them dearly, but I did what seemed right for all of us. They were tired of having to deal with a mentally ill person and I am tired of dealing with people who aren’t empathetic and understanding to people who are clearly suffering.
*jumps down off of my soapbox*
My final conclusion
I guess the answer to my question from the beginning is, yes, my brain illnesses and disorders have very much affected my ability to make and keep friends. Of course friendship and mental health have a bearing on each other. It has caused me to try to shove myself into boxes that I have never even come close to fitting in. It has caused me to, at times, be an absent friend. But it has also given me intense love, respect, and loyalty to my friends. So, yeah. I’ve lost friends because of my mental illnesses. There are probably people who decided not to ever become friends with me because they weren’t feeling my vibe. At the end of the day, though, those weren’t my people and I’m okay with them not being in my life.
When the dust settled, I was left with the truest people I have ever known. I’ve even gotten by some of my trust issues and carefully made new and meaningful friendships. They are all ridiculously kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and talented people and I am grateful that they stick by me even when sticking by me isn’t very much fun.
In conclusion, I leave you with this. Be yourself, always. The people who are for you are out there and you will find each other, but never try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Be who you are, unabashedly, and people will love you for it. Also remember, it is okay to walk away from a friendship that no longer positively serves your life. You deserve kindness, patience, love, and understanding, especially during your darkest times. If the people in your life can’t give you those things, then cut them loose. Let them go. They are not your people. So like what you like, wear what feels comfortable, listen to whatever music moves your spirit, and feel safe in the fact that your clan is out there and they are waiting for you with open arms.
Love, light, and keep fighting the good fight.💜💜
Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.