For most girls, your sister is your built-in best friend. Mine is no exception. My sister and I shared a room growing up – my mom’s attempt to make us become close. I have so many memories of us staying up late, just sitting on each other’s beds and catching up on our day. We would spend our days making our Barbies go to fairy school, writing secret spy notes in our notebooks, turning our swing set into a spaceship, and writing a story about two sisters who had to save the world from evil teddy bears. We definitely had moments that weren’t happiness and sunshine; we fought. My sister has always been loud and opinionated. She taught me that silence was my greatest weapon. Oh, she would get red in the face when I didn’t react to her taunting words. But most of my memories of my sister were good. Most of my nightmares from childhood were of losing her. We stood up for each other. We shared each other’s clothes (mostly she mine). We would dance on our kitchen chairs to “You Belong With Me” by baby Taylor Swift on full volume. She wore the short skirts and I wore the t-shirts. My sister, though younger than me, always treated me like she was the oldest and she knew best. This probably didn’t hurt much because I was a soft spoken child who wasn’t the most up-to-speed on what was going on outside my little world. My sister was my world.
But then, suddenly, we aren’t kids anymore. Suddenly I’m waking up in the middle of the night to a text from my sister that she has self-harmed. Suddenly I’m crying in a work meeting because I’m afraid to lose her and I feel helpless. Suddenly I’m faced with the reality that my sister struggles with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. What happened to my childhood? That was kissed goodbye when my sister let me into her head a year ago.
I have learned a lot since this journey began. I’ve learned to listen, how to ask questions, and to pray. I’ve learned to love my sister even more for the individual, unique person God made her. I’ve learned how to love her to show her that she’s more than her mental instability. Mental illnesses are hard to navigate because there is a lot of stigma attached to it in our society. No two people are the same, so their experiences with mental health aren’t cut and dry. This makes people who struggle in this way hard to relate to and understand, often making the person feel alone. That being said, there are some real, tangible ways you can love and care for a friend or family member who struggles with their mental health.
- Ask questions about how you can help and what they’re going through. Be still and listen to what they have to say. My sister always appreciates someone trying to understand and care for her in a way that meets her specific needs. Sometimes what she needs doesn’t always line up with what we think would be helpful.
- Understand that they are going to be selfish about their own space. My sister doesn’t always want to talk right after something happens because she needs to be able to process things without a panic attack taking up all her brain space. We have to also understand that sometimes they have to cancel on plans because the stimulation wouldn’t be good for their health.
- Do make plans with them. They don’t need to be treated with gloves in this area. Yes, they will cancel when they need to, but they also need the motivation and encouragement to get out of bed and do something.
- Be conscious of personal space. It may comfort you to have someone hold your hand or give you a hug, but that might not always be helpful for someone who is going through a panic attack. Ask before touching every time. Different people react differently to touch in different situations.
- Don’t say “calm down.” Just don’t do it. When my sister is having a panic attack, it takes over her mind. If she could calm down, she would.
- Since you can’t really empathize, don’t try. None of that “I understand, this thing kind of similar happened to me…” They just want to hear, “That must suck. I’m sorry you have to go through that.”
- When someone who struggles with their mental health is having suicidal thoughts, their brain is overwhelmed with confusion, frenzy and hurt. This is often a symptom of depression. The person feels like it’s the only way to make it all stop. Talk calmly to them. Ask what they’re trying to escape from and why they feel like they have no choice. Ask calm, probing questions that make them realize they have a choice.
- Finally, if the person you’re loving on is a Christian, send them encouragement they need from Scripture. Take the time to think through what would encourage them. For my sister, verses about trust don’t comfort her, but ones about love and support do. These verses pull her out of her lonely thoughts.
When someone you love has a harder time doing daily life, it can be challenging. But I have learned how to love my sister through it. My sister is spunky and opinionated. She has a beautiful singing voice. She is creative. She expresses herself through her hair. She stands up for herself. She loves the beach. She is gorgeous inside and out. She has an anxiety disorder, bipolar depression, and is a recovering bulimic. She is still my best friend.