22 Mar When it is okay to let your friends down.
The storm that hit Liverpool a few weeks ago has left its mark.
The tree that fell across our road has been removed, but as I walk around my front garden today I see the lawn strewn with debris. In the flower beds small plants have been crushed or entangled in the mess.
In life when a storm hits our first priority is dealing with the crisis: the child in the sick bed, the diagnosis, or depression or divorce. Our attention is on the centre of the storm, the pivot in the middle on which the whole thing turns.
As the weather settles and we start to re-engage with life – even if it is a different life than we had before – we begin to notice the smaller explosions that have taken place. The myriad of people who were one ripple out from where the stone hit the water. We notice how they have been affected, pushed out, exhausted, upset.
The storm is never just about the point of catastrophe.
After I accepted my diagnosis of depression and anxiety and started the (very) slow path back to some kind of normality and healing, I began to notice I had left a trail of destruction in my wake. My crash-out, break down (whatever you want to call it) had not just affected me. This storm had impacted my relationships too.
Throughout my twenties I had valued being, and being seen to be, competent and capable above all else. I had three small children, a fledgling career, church responsibilities and a husband who worked all the hours. Add to this a good-girl, people pleasing mentality, someone who believes her worth is determined by how available and sacrificial they can be and you have a recipe for disaster.
I believed being there for my friends and offering help whenever it was needed was imperative to being a valued member of a community. As I listened to other people describe their pain I took on their burden and tried, in part at least, to carry it for them. I believed this was my responsibility. I had to be strong for everyone else. And when I wasn’t able to be I felt like a failure, guilty and useless.
This distorted thinking was one of the reasons I ended up ill.
Letting people down.
In the dark days and months in the depths of my battle with depression, with the gentle encouragement of my therapist, I made some necessary changes.
To get well I needed to prioritise myself, and for me this meant I would have to disappoint others. I couldn’t do what I had previously done. I had to stop. I let down friends who had relied on my support, people I loved and cared for deeply.
This was really hard to do and I didn’t take it lightly.
I felt my failure keenly. But I knew I had to remove myself from certain relationships to give myself the space to recover.
This hurt people.
I know this hurt people because they have since told me.
Now, coming out the other side of a long recovery and learning to live in a new, healthier way, these relationships need tending to.
It is not possible for me to fix all the broken places in these relationships. These friendships have had to be re-established, to be re-planted in healthier soil.
In many cases this has been a delight. Friendships that were wonky due to my over-responsibility are now thriving through equality and mutual vulnerability. This is a new experience for me: friendships that inhabit a spacious place where trust and honesty thrive, where we hold each other lightly and recognise and accept each other in both our weaknesses and our strengths.
Some friendships remain damaged. The actions I took were necessary because I was ill, but people were still hurt. Just because I had good reason doesn’t mean I didn’t cause anyone pain. These relationships have taken, and are still taking, a lot of gentle attention to repair.
And there are some relationships I have had to lay down. This has been very painful, but I am waiting and trusting that in time things might change, and learning to be okay if they don’t.
If you have had to remove yourself from certain friendships because they have had a negative impact on your mental health, please don’t feel guilty or ashamed. My crash happened because I believed I had to be strong and always be there for others, regardless of how I felt or what else was going on in my life. I ended up with extreme empathy fatigue. I ended up ill.
I have since learnt that what we want from relationships is not to be fixed or solved, and not for someone to feel our pain as strongly as we might feel it. What we want is someone to listen and someone to walk with. We want to know we are not alone.
Being vulnerable and revealing your pain and struggles may well be the firmest foundation for a healthy friendship.
Try not to spend too much time feeling like you have let everyone down. (I know this is hard). When you are stronger there will be time to invest again. As you heal you will find people to walk with you as you walk with them.
In my garden I have just spent ten minutes gently untangling stems and righting plants, and there is hours left of work still to do.
Restoration isn’t an overnight job. Some of these plants will need years to become strong again. I am still hopeful.
This year the damage might look bad, and the flowers and fruit I get this summer may well have been affected, but with enough care and attention they will survive. The sun will shine again and the garden will do its job. It will evolve, it will look beautiful again.