Recently a very close friend of mine told me that she had this constant paranoia that she was suffering from some kind of physical illness, that she was going to doctor after doctor just to make sure that nothing was wrong with her. Blood tests and full-body check-ups, test after test she did just so she could have peace of mind that she was in the clear.
As it turns out, the problem wasn’t physical – it was mental. It was this condition where she overthinks even the slightest abnormality like a change in sleep cycle to be something bigger than the fact that perhaps she drank an extra cup of coffee in the day. The doctors diagnosed it to be panic/anxiety disorder, and gave her medicine for her condition.
But no, this article isn’t about her condition or how she is coping with it – but more of how I, as her close friend, struggled with dealing with it as well. Mental conditions are not what we call ‘common’ – it’s not the common cold, it’s not a sore throat, it’s not something that we can just ‘give it a few days, it’ll pass’. It’s so difficult for mental conditions to be diagnosed because most sufferers are not even aware that they have it.
The difficulty here is: how do I tell her that I understand what she’s going through when I honestly don’t know? How do I tell her that it’ll pass when I don’t even know it will? How do I provide support but at the same time, remain honest?
The thing is, if one’s illness is physical, it can be seen. You can see that someone is coughing and ask them if they’re having a sore throat. But you cannot see what’s in their mind, and I think that’s what makes this so difficult. Most sufferers, even if they’re aware of their condition, wouldn’t want people to know about it. They want to be normal. They want to be okay. But most importantly: they want people to think they’re okay, even if they really aren’t.
In talking to her, I have realised some things. Firstly and most importantly, that it’s taken her so much courage to tell me about it, because this really isn’t something you would share in an everyday conversation. This is something to be admired; that she was aware, and she was willing to share it with me. Secondly, it would have been easy for me to brush it off and say “nah, you’re fine, stop worrying.” It would’ve been so easy for me to say that, but that would have shown that I did not appreciate the big step that she took in confiding in me. Thirdly, that she really, really trusted me. At least, I can say, enough to tell me about it.
Yes, it was difficult. In fact, it is difficult. It is difficult to decide what to say or what are the appropriate words to use – can I say “normal”? Would she construe it as her not being normal? Can I use the word happy? What if it reminds her of the fact that she’s not? – But ultimately, I think, it’s not what you say, it’s not how you say it. The point is that she told me because she needed to know I cared. And I do. Whatever I say, all that matters is that it came from the bottom of my heart. That was all I needed to do, and that was all she needed from me.