The Importance of Being Empathic - The Minefield of Sharing your Mental Health Story With Friends.

by Sarah Myles

It is human nature to try to identify with people in order to bring them, and ourselves, comfort. Walk into any child health clinic on baby weigh-in day, and you will overhear countless groups of women comparing birth stories. They are not trying to compete or out-do each other, they are trying to empathise by sharing. “You have experienced something traumatic and important – I would like to make you feel better by sharing my story so you are not alone, and neither am I.” Lovely.

Now, if you haven’t experienced childbirth, you probably wouldn’t try to join in that conversation, because you have no frame of reference - just as I have never suffered from diabetes and so have no way of knowing what hypoglycaemia feels like. I can listen to you when you need to talk about it. I can understand and appreciate that it feels bad, just as most men understand that childbirth hurts, but I have no first-hand experience because I do not have diabetes.

I do, however, have a diagnosed mental illness, which I have been trying to be more open about as a part of my attempt to combat – in my own tiny way – mental health stigma. Talking about it, raising awareness, encouraging understanding – all these things that are supposed to make our society better and more tolerant. There’s one thing which makes me not want to talk about it though, and that, ironically, is the natural attempt to empathise.

And for the record, I always feel really bad about that.

For example, the subject will come up in conversation, and I will describe one of my symptoms. For the sake of argument, we’ll say OCD. I’ll describe how it takes me a couple of hours to do my bedtime routine because I have to check the children, doors, windows, cats, plugs and cooker a certain number of times and in a certain order. I’ll describe how long it takes me to leave the house. I’ll describe the million hand-washes a day and how looking in the mirror over the sink each time makes me want to literally rip my own face off. I’ll describe the skin-picking, the shoes, the trousers, the coats,  the glasses of juice all over the house, the pavement phobia, the constant correction of placement of things, and that one local play park in particular gives me massive panic attacks for no apparent reason.

Then the other person nods and says “I think everybody’s got a bit of that. Sometimes I spend the whole day worrying that I didn’t lock the car…”

Deep breath.

I feel many conflicting things about this conversation. First of all, gratitude that someone cares enough to try and make me feel better by telling me that, basically, I’m not an alien from space whose behaviour is so bizarre that I should be expelled from society immediately. How wonderful it is that this person just wants to make me feel a sense of belonging. That is their intention, and I love them for it.

But (and this is the bit I feel bad about), the experience I am describing here (among others) left me unable to function. Maybe I just didn't describe it very well. I have spent hundreds of hours with many qualified mental health professionals being diagnosed and treated, and hundreds of hours more working my socks off to improve my condition. To hear that “we all have a bit of that” means I’m even more of a failure than before – because apparently, everyone else has it and copes with it just fine - except for me!

I can appreciate that not everybody is ready to be open about their mental health, and many people do, in fact, suffer from OCD to varying degrees. It is quite possible that the other person is in fact able to empathise, but is not able to go into details. But if your experience is truly similar to mine, then I highly recommend seeking medical help, as there is honestly a much better quality of life to be had.

Then, there are aspects of my mental illness that I simply don’t discuss with anyone outside my mental health team, because even after all this time, I’m just not ready. The darker, more disturbing aspects. Clearly, my mental health team use these bits of information in my diagnosis and treatment, so can we just agree that they know more about it than you do, and trust their professional judgement? Thanks.

This is what puts me off having these conversations. I do keep trying, but it all gets too complicated, and I end up being incredibly grateful to the other person, while simultaneously getting cross and frustrated. And none of it is actually their fault, because they only want to make me feel better about the edited information I am willing to provide.

Finally, after that whole process has died down, I’m left with one lingering thought:

It must be really, really hard to be my friend.

Sarah Myles


Your mental health is only one part of who you are and you seem wonderful and anyone should be very glad to have you as a friend. Thank you so much for sharing this - it made me want to laugh and cry all at the same time - and yes, having suffered my own mental health battles - I know just what you mean about the empathy of others!

Thank you for your kind comments, Liz. It's reassuring to know that these blog posts resonate with people :)

Sarah Myles

Yes, I can certainly concur that it is just so complicated. Your blogs are pretty good.

Thank you.

Sarah Myles

I am your friend, and will always be your friend through hell or high water. Hx canada pharmaceuticals online buy viagra usa canadian medications online canada pharmaceuticals online buy viagra usa canadian medications online

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