friends don’t make the best medicine

i recently got another letter from someone who said that she found me somewhat intimidating. i hear this all the time. constantly. probably the number one way that someone would describe me if asked is to say, “ciara xyerra? well, she’s really intimidating.” i’m not offended by this. i don’t think it’s meant in an insulting way. but i am just a little bit confused. i have a hard time understanding what exactly is so intimidating about me.

i talked the issue over with a friend recently, & she may have shed some light on the problem. she explained that i have a tendency to state my viewpoints in a really confident manner. in fact, i am sometimes so confident that it seems like i am unwilling to listen to differing perspectives. she said that i tend to portray my opinions as truth & i seem unlikely to brook dissent. i realized that she’s right–this probably is how i come off. i AM really confident about what i think & feel, as a general rule, & i’ve never seen the point in acting any less sure of myself than i actually feel. i think this is the product of reading one too many articles about how women are conditioned to express insecurity in their opinions, lest they appear to be bitchy, hostile ballbusters. i was like, “fuck that noise! i know i’m not a bitchy, hostile ballbreaker, so i’ll be as confident as i want to be & anyone who has an issue with it is obviously sexist!”

which, you know…i think there’s a lot of validity to that idea. i think sometimes even other women aren’t that comfortable with a really confident, forthright woman, for whatever reason. insecurity, jealousy, who knows? i’m not a licensed psychologist or anything.

but i am sorry if it sometimes appears that i don’t care about other people’s opinions or perspectives. i am definitely interested in other people’s ideas. i think i am pretty smart & well-read & rational & all the other good things that help a person form opinions on various issues, but i am also big on dialectical learning, which is basically a fancy way of saying “learning from other people”. i am coming to terms with the fact that, emotionally, i am kind of a weird person. i can’t stand extremes of emotion, either positive or negative. i kind of go way out of my way to avoid situations that are going to make me really sad or really angry or really happy. i don’t like to complain, but i also don’t like to express a lot of sincere enthusiasm. & i have trained myself to almost never cry or raise my voice. i am kind of like a vulcan. i definitely have a lot of emotions, thanks to my struggles with depression, but my coping mechanism is to filter my emotions through a prism of utilitarian rationality. i ask myself questions like, “where does this emotion come from? is it useful for me to feel this right now? how can this emotional energy be better spent?” i guess most people don’t do this.

i totally acknowledge that it is therefore helpful for me to talk to more “regular people” & keep in touch with how they see the world & respond to it.

but i also often wish that more people dealt with their feelings the way i do.

i was reading a zine about anxiety issues the other day. it was a big compilation, all kinds of different kinds of writing & art by all kinds of different people struggling with anxiety disorders of various stripes. but a common theme in the zine was this idea that people need to be taught how to deal with a friend who is having some anxiety. one guy was offering tips like, “ask me questions, but don’t let on if you feel impatient or frustrated because that will just make things worse.” i can vouch for the fact that a friend or loved one acting impatient & frustrated by my anxiety struggle does tend to ratchet up the anxiety (save for the times when it pisses me off so much that my anxiety disappears). but so what? that’s MY problem, not my friend/loved one’s. yeah, it would be awesome if they didn’t huff & puff & act like i’m inconveniencing them when i already feel like crap, but let’s face facts. someone having an anxiety attack all over you when you’re just trying to hang out or get out the door or live your life can be really frustrating, & sometimes it’s hard to hide that feeling. & sometimes it’s not such a great idea to hide the feeling because sometimes people use their mental health issues to control the people around them, & acting like you’re totally okay with being their untrained & unpaid mental health professional will only make them seek you out as a “safe person” the next time they’re freaking out.

i think people generally have an obligation to give what they can & no more. everyone has an obligation to be polite & have good manners, but no one should be expected to do more than that. this means, when someone is having an anxiety attack & i can’t handle being around it, i need to find a polite way to extricate myself from the situation. something like, “it seems like you’re having a rough time & i’m thinking you could use some alone time.” or, “it seems like you’re struggling to make this hang-out work, & maybe it’s doing more harm than good, so let’s re-schedule. call me when you feel better.” this is a lot better than waiting until you’re pushed to the limit & then screaming, “get your shit together, you gibbering maniac!” you know?

when i’m the one having the anxiety, i try to say something like, “i’m having a really rough time pulling it together right now, so i think we should probably try to hang out again sometime soon. for now, i just need a little personal time.”

what about people who really need someone to be there when they are struggling? there was a story in the zine about someone walking through the snow & ice to their zine library shift. suddenly they had some kind of panic attack & froze up. they could not physically force themselves to walk. & it was really cold. they needed to either go to the library or go home to avoid physically freezing to death. but they couldn’t. so they texted a bunch of friends until someone was able to come out & find them & take them to a coffeeshop & talk them through whatever was going on.

i can’t say this is anything i have ever experienced…save for a few occasions on which i used my mental health to manipulate someone into spending time with me. presenting yourself as having a mental health emergency & a friend’s presence as a mental health need is a pretty tricky little scam. who can say no to a struggling friend, right? who wants their frozen body on their conscience?

i think, nine times out of ten, that shit is baloney. this person couldn’t walk, not even to preserve their life…but they could text? something doesn’t add up. & they were able to walk once there was a friend there, ready & willing to listen to whatever their sob story happened to be that day? maybe i am just a jaded motherfucker from having one too many friends manipulate me into being their unpaid therapists while they had panic attacks & quasi-suicidal breakdowns in front of me. maybe i just don’t believe it anymore. maybe i take my personal philosophy of not inflicting my mental health on anyone that isn’t paid to listen to me a couple of steps too far. maybe i ask too much of others. but at the end of the day, if you can’t lift those feet & stay alive for the sake of yourself, if you don’t care enough about yourself to do that…why should i care? i need to keep me alive, you know?

i was talking with jessika rae about this & i said, “sometimes, ironically, i think i might actually be kind of a shitty ally to people with mental health issues.” she said, “me too…but i think i’m okay with that. i mean, if the alternative is enabling abusive behavior…”

there’s just such a fine line between co-signing nonsense like “friends make the best medicine” & co-signing actual emotional abuse. i’ve been burned too many times. i don’t know if i’m willing to take the risk anymore.

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

14 thoughts on “friends don’t make the best medicine

  1. I have been thinking about some of the things you mention here myself recently. Firstly, the ‘having confidence about what you’re saying/believe’ thing. I recently came under a bit of heat for allegedly talking on behalf of others when I thought I was just expressing an opinion. I really couldn’t understand what the problem was, not because I’m arrogant and think I’m right all the time about everything, but because, as far as I’m concerned, ideas only evolve or develop if people are willing to throw them down and let others pick over them, in conversation. But there seems to be a increasing (or maybe it was always like this and I’ve only just noticed) trend in radical/underground communities and subcultures to take a really super-conciliatory stance on pretty much any issue, as if the best way to get along together is not necessarily even to agree with one another or agree to disagree but to not have opinions – at least expressed opinions – at all. So when someone does try to express their position on something they’ll just as often be shouted down as met with a reasoned response. Why is it? Is it just because people are intimidated when other people try to think outside the box, especially if they have the temerity to do it out loud, in public? I mean, I know in capitalism we’re all meant to be private individuals going about our affairs without interference from or interfering with other people, but isn’t it weird that supposedly radical communites take pretty much the same line? On the one hand, I appreciate that it partly stems from a real and necessary desire to open up a space where everyone is respected and has a way of raining their voice and all that, but, noble as that sentiment is, it doesn’t seem to necessarily lead to brilliant ideas. A lot of the time all it leads to is mediocrity, but for some people that seems to be preferable to rocking the boat.

    Secondly, on being an ally to people with mental illness, I totally agree with what you wrote at the end of this post, and am glad you wrote it. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for a long time and can recognise many instances of emotional abuse/manipulation in my history, both from myself to others and vice versa. It’s taken a really long time to realise that if anyone’s going to get my shit together it’s me, and my quality of life has improved immensely since doing so. I mean, obviously it’s taken a lot of practice and I’m not ‘there’ (wherever that is) yet, but I think I’m pretty good at recognising when people are trying to suck me into ‘supporting’ them when they just want an emotional crutch that they should really learn to forster in themselves. I can’t say that I never pull that shit on anyone else anymore, but hopefully I recognise when I’m doing it, and stop myself. It is strange though how ideas sort of permeate radical communities without challenge, and sooner than you know it everyone’s calling themselves an ally or supporter for this and that without having really thought it through from every angle. Or perhaps it’s not strange at all, given the aforementioned difficulties with actually posing challenging ideas to said communites. If I get one more facebook update from someone alerting their 600 ‘friends’ that they’re not feeling safe and need cookies I’ll, I don’t know, un-friend them. Anyway, I’ve cluttered your comments box enough now.

  2. Raining their voice? I mean raising, of course.

    Since I’m here again, I should say that I would be really excited if you wrote a zine about self care, as you mentioned elsewhere.

  3. this person couldn’t walk, not even to preserve their life…but they could text? something doesn’t add up.

    I don’t know, man, someone could use the same logic to say that someone obviously isn’t disabled because they can hang out with friends, so they can hold down a job. Or say that because I can concentrate well enough to read a book, I’m just lying if I say ADHD gets in the way of driving. Not all situations require the same type of emotional/cognitive input, it could very well be harder for someone to walk than for someone to text. (But then, nobody’s ever called me to come meet them in the freezing cold because they were having a freak-out. It’s one of the perks of being unreliable.)

    I mean, I agree with you that sometimes people use their mental health issues to manipulate others, but I think the quoted text is sort of a shitty (and inaccurate) thing to say. IMHO.

    1. I really agree with this comment. I want to add that while I love your statement about knowing and setting one’s own boundaries for supporting friends, to me that also means extending oneself out to whatever point those boundaries allow. I don’t think that respecting and setting boundaries for support need be mutually exclusive with people asking their friends for support. And I think if more people stepped up to offer what support they could, fewer people would be called on to go beyond their limit by people who aren’t sure where else to turn.

    2. i get what you’re getting at. i just don’t agree. for one thing, there is a world of difference between hanging out with a friend & holding down a job. for another thing, i think there is an important distinction between that & what i actually wrote here.

      for one thing, i’m not saying that this person is lying. i’m not them, i don’t know what their deal was. but i am saying that it sounds questionable to me, & if one of my friends texted me & said, “i am standing in the ice & snow & can’t move unless you come find me & take me to a coffeeshop,” i would feel manipulated. maybe this is a product of me having previously been manipulated by friends with mental health issues. maybe it’s a product of me knowing i have manipulated my friends with my own mental health issues. but i really hope that the friends i have now wouldn’t put me in that kind of a position. i am unfamiliar with any mental health conditions that suddenly rob a person of the ability to walk unless they have a friend standing next to them.

      i think it’s great when friends choose to support one another through hard times. i think it sucks when the person having hard times thrusts responsibility for their physical well-being on to the shoulders of a friend, just because they are a friend. i’m a big advocate of personal responsibility. i am responsible for my own health & safety.

      maybe the friend in this story didn’t feel manipulated…but i felt manipulated reading the story. the subtext seemed to be, “i was having a hard time & i needed my friend to ensure my basic survival. this is what friends do for each other.” um, no. that’s not what i’m signing on for as a friend. i am happy to help how i can, but i first require a good faith effort on the part of my friend to take care of themselves first. in the absence of that, there’s no trust.

      1. Well, I guess that in my mind, it’s perfectly reasonable to say “no” if someone asks you to come out in the cold to talk them through a freak-out. I don’t see it as an obligation, and maybe (probably) that’s because I’ve never been in a situation where anyone’s asked me to do that. It takes two people to enable, and if someone is constantly enabling another person, I think they’re just as much to blame if they don’t like the situation or feel manipulated, and maybe they should set their friend straight. (And ideally, the person with the mental health issues should be aware of which of their friends would be okay with coming out to talk with them, and which would not. So that you’d never have to be called, but someone who is okay with it–and there are people who would be okay with this–could be.)

        i am unfamiliar with any mental health conditions that suddenly rob a person of the ability to walk unless they have a friend standing next to them.

        Anxiety? That’s not the way my anxiety manifested, but for others, it certainly might be.

        And also, maybe the person in the story WAS doing everything they could on their own to control their anxiety. Maybe they were doing therapy, on meds, practicing meditation/mindfulness, and it STILL wasn’t enough to get them to push through the snow. What happens when you reach the limits of what self-care can do? What if it was either call a friend, or call the emergency room? Again, it’s not the friend’s responsibility to make sure the anxiety-stricken person is okay, but it’s possible that the situation was a lot more dire than you paint it here.

      2. I think the whole concept of “support” and how nebulously it’s defined is something we really need to be more skeptical about. So many times “support” is what someone says they are asking for, but what they really want is to be enabled. Rescuing someone may be supportive, but when it’s presented as an example of what a person with a mental illness needs, than that is really unhealthy. It means that this community and this friendship is enabling a person by helping them not develop any coping skills beyond leaning on their friends.

  4. At the risk of sounding like a total fangirl, I’ve always found your “intimidating” presence both inspiring and empowering (on pander, the train wreck that is wemakezines, etc.) I appreciate that you keep it critical, call out bullshit, and accept that not everyone finds it warm and fuzzy. Not that I’m worried you’ll change your ways, but do know that a lot of us appreciate your opinions & insight. Basically, I’m happy to know there are other professional haters in the world, and I love that you convey all of this with a sense of humor (and a healthy dose of crabbiness).

  5. Speaking as someone who doesn’t have a lot of mental health problems (but has a hard time asking friends for help in general), I think the frozen-in-ice story needs more context. I guess there are some people who take advantage of the sympathy of others…. but many others who are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to seem too needy of a friend. Honestly, I like it when my friends turn to me for help because I like knowing people consider me a reliable friend, and I hope they wouldn’t hesitate to text me from dire straits.

    In the case of our frozen friend here, it’s possible he/she had a lot of mental health stuff going on and really didn’t know how to reach out to friends until subconsciously putting herself/himself into a desperate situation where he/she felt they had no choice. Which I think is ok. As long as things aren’t one-sided in a friendship, I think it’s absolutely ok to expect your best buds to bail you out once in awhile. But there has to be that understanding that friendship is reciprocal.

    Also, I definitely do the polite-female-hedging thing when it comes to my opinions, and I admire that you don’t.

  6. this is in response to erica. this blogging format won’t let me reply directly to your last comment.

    i was thinking about this more last night, & i hit on the same idea that you did: what if it’s a choice between calling a friend & calling the ER? (or, since the only issue seemed to be getting out of the cold, a cab.)

    unless you have a friend who has specifically offered their constant availability regardless of snow or sleet, i come down on the side of calling the ER or a cab. it is very true that there are people that would have no issue heading out into the snow & darkness to help out a friend. but this is my blog, where i was writing about how I personally would not do that, nor would I personally ask a friend to do that for me. if i was out on a stroll & suddenly found that my mental health was compromising my physical safety, i would call a cab to get me to a safe place (such as my home), or i would call 911. & if i wound up in an ER somewhere, that is when i would call whoever is closest to me (jared, i suppose) & let them know where i am & see how they wanted to handle the situation.

    i think this is what i’m getting at. what happens when you reach the limits of your ability to do self-care? my opinion is that is is NOT actually then the responsibility of your friends to pick up the slack. i mean, if they want to pitch in, that’s cool. i’m not advocating that anyone throw their bodies in the path of friends that want to be helpful. but when self-care opportunities have been exhausted, you find a way to get the extra help you need, & i am just saying that i think it is abusive, manipulative, & fucked up to EXPECT that extra help to come to friends. to feel ENTITLED to your friends’ helpfulness & good cheer. bottom line: the world doesn’t owe you anything. so in my mind, any helpfulness from friends is gravy, but to make sure i’ve got my bases covered, i handle my own shit as much as possible. for me, that means a weekly session with a therapist, lots of very intentional alone time, healthy eating, plenty of sleep, jumping through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to ensure my disability income, etc. someone else’s bases may be different–& there are certainly circumstances in which someone has an idea of what could be helpful self-care, but for some reason it’s not accessible (such as a new mom whose lack of sleep is impacting her mental health, but can’t very well leave the baby unattended to go take a nap).

    i don’t expect perfection from anyone (including myself). i just want a good faith effort.

    1. think this is what i’m getting at. what happens when you reach the limits of your ability to do self-care? my opinion is that is is NOT actually then the responsibility of your friends to pick up the slack. i mean, if they want to pitch in, that’s cool.

      I just want to high light this, dude, because yes yes. I think it’s inherently problematic to even say that you should call friends, well, ever, when there’s a serious mental health crisis. Friends aren’t professionals. Friends aren’t objective. Friends aren’t your sponsor. Your average civilian buddy is not going to have the skills necessary to get you out of that bad place and help your develop the coping skills to stay out of that bad place.

      We’re not just setting people up to be manipulated. We’re setting people up to receive really crappy mental health treatment, while insisting that it’s really the best mental health treatment. It’s like some Jenny McCarthy shit.

  7. also, on the topic of boundaries & enabling…i agree that it generally takes two people to enable. however, with all this rhetoric on the importance of support floating around, absent of any context of accountability, with only vague lip service given to the idea of boundaries, a person may be enabling without realizing that they’re doing it, or that it’s okay to walk away from the situation.

    cait is very correct in her statement that many, many people don’t ask their friends for help for fear of being burdensome. but many, many people who ARE asked for help disrespect their own boundaries or fail to consider their own boundaries because they have been conditioned to believe in the importance of “being there for a friend”. i mean, when you break it down, is it really all that challenging to go collect your buddy off a street corner & take them out for coffee? they’re your friend, right? you care about them, you want them to be okay, you like hanging out with them anyway…why NOT help them when they’re asking for help?

    & this is where shit gets complicated. i mean, kyla had some nice shit to say about the importance of people making boundaries & extending themselves as much as possible within their own limits. but seriously, try putting that shit in practice & it’s way more difficult than it seems like it will be on paper. try getting through the day after a friend calls at 3am saying that they’re going to kill themselves, & you’re the one that has to try to do something–talk them out of it, convince them to cal a hotline, something. & you feel like shit, physically & mentally, the next day, but part of it is guilt: “did i do enough? what if they hurt themselves anyway? what if i hadn’t answered? is it going to be weird the next time i see them?” & part of it is anger, “why did they call ME? don’t they know i have a big day today? my whole day is ruined now. & if they’re totally happy & fine the next time i see them, i am going to be pissed.” & then guilt for feeling the anger. & so on. & so on. & all kinds of other complicated emotions too. i takes a toll, & few people seem to recognize that until they’re smack dab in the middle of something that they can’t handle.

    & then the support spokes starts radiating. the person supporting the friend needs support to deal with their complicated feelings. & then their support person needs to reach out to someone. & somewhere along the way, someone starts gossiping about what’s going on. etc etc etc.

    i’m not advocating that anyone keep their mental health issues some cloistered deep dark secret. but there is a pretty serious strain running through mental health communities that insists that mental illness is something that cannot be helped, will never change, & maybe you shouldn’t even TRY to change it, because it could be a gift, or just a perfectly rational response to a fucked up oppressive world. that anyone who doesn’t support you in your mental health struggle in exactly the way that you see fit (& this is constantly open for revision) is oppressing you. that if you’re really radical enough, you will be able to cope with your issues using nothing more than a bicycle, a little bach’s rescue remedy, & your tight-knit perfect community of buds that you can call up anytime you’re feeling a little down at 3am. that they will be there for you, & know what you need, & if they don’t, they’re oppressing you. that you no longer have to adhere to basic social expectations or protocols because your mental health makes that too difficult. that anyone who does expect basic etiquette standards from your magical crazy mind is actually oppressing you & is an enemy. that no one can truly understand how you feel, but EVERYONE should try. that you just feel your big crazy powerful feelings & are not under any obligation to really own or attempt to understand your feelings. that getting help from mental health professionals is giving up, & that friends calling the cops to come take you to mental health intake, even when you are locked in the bathroom with a butcher knife, is the ultimate breach of trust. such forth & so on.

    1. Okay, I agree with everything you’ve written in this post and the last non-nested one, although I think you’re saying something a little different than what you were saying in the OP. (My reaction was mostly to “you can do ___ but you can’t do ___?” But I might have put a different spin on it than what you were intending.) And you certainly know how much I hate the “speshul dangerous gifts!!!11!!” bullshit. I guess I’ve managed to avoid this stuff IRL, being so completely non-punk and/or anarchist.

      The real solution is to make sure that everyone has access to mental health resources and reduce the stigma about tapping into these resources. It doesn’t do much good to say that someone should rely on a therapist or meds instead of friends if they can’t access these things. And if someone can’t pay for therapy, they would probably also not be able to pay for a cab or ambulance ride… although again, that’s not the friend’s fault.

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