Friday, December 20, 2013

Don't Go It Alone: Using The Buddy System To Deal With Depressive Episodes And Other Mental Crises

A few days ago, a friend of mine was going through a very severe depressive episode. He was caught within a cycle of negative thinking and couldn't see a way out. After a few minutes of talking, I convinced him to call the suicide hotline. He was not suicidal, but the hotline helped him calm down and figure out how to approach the problems that were challenging and frustrating him at the time.

I had a situation where the roles were reversed. It was the spring of last year, past midnight, and I was trying to sleep. My roommates were still doing work and I was becoming increasingly agitated by their noise. Having Asperger's, I am more sensitive to noise than others, and can react severely to it. I got out of bed and yelled at them about the noise. When they argued the noise wasn't as large a deal as I was making it out to be, I became angry and started to hit myself, smacking my forehead with the palm of my hand. My roommates did not respond to this, perhaps not knowing how to. Upset, I went onto Facebook and found a friend of mine online and told her what had happened. She was only a few rooms down, so I went out and met her in the hallway. We talked for God knows how long, me mostly talking and her listening and offering a kind word here and there. In the end, she offered to let me stay in her room for the night, an offer I accepted.

I don't know what would have happened had she not been there.

When in the middle of an episode of mental illness, it can be very difficult to pull oneself out of it on one's own--how can a distressed mind heal itself when its only tool is that same distressed mind? To do this, another person, sometimes multiple people, is necessary.

Look among your friends for those you feel you can trust with your mental illness and whom you believe can, if necessary, guide you through taking care of yourself when you are in a severe mental episode and are not able to yourself. With these people you can set up a buddy system, where one person helps the other in a time of crisis. They can help talk you through the crisis, give you advice which you may not be able to think of yourself, and look at the situations which are distressing you in a more distanced and objective manner than you are able to at the time.

To do this, however, they need to know what to expect, and what they can do to help. Explain to them what may happen when you are in a crisis, and what is often helpful to do when you are in that crisis. You don't need them to be a therapist, you don't need them to be a doctor. You just need someone who can keep their cool and walk you through what you need to do to get better. You need to do this when you are in a state of clarity, as you'll be relying on them when you're not.

Here are a few additional pieces of advice for using the Buddy System during an episode:
  • Know thyself. Know what works for you when you are having an episode, but which you may struggle to do yourself while in the episode. Share this with your buddy. For example, if breathing exercises can help you when you are having an anxiety attack, make sure your buddy knows to give this advice when you are having an anxiety attack, as you may not be in the right state of mind to give yourself that advice. If you take prescribed medication during an episode, make sure they know so they can remind you if you forget (as has happened to me). That said, there are a lot of more generic pieces of advice that can help many (BUT NOT ALL) people, and to look into those can be helpful as well. For example, advice to call a Suicide or Crisis hotline is generally helpful.
  • Make sure they know the difference between helping you and indulging you. When in the middle of an episode, it can be very difficult to get out of a pattern of constant negative thinking, ruminating over whatever it is that is distressing you and by ruminating, reinforcing the negative thoughts. We may look for someone to share this with, and while it may seem like allowing us to let off steam, often times it is really another way for us to reinforce our own negative sense of self, prolonging and intensifying the episode. Your buddy needs to know what this looks like, and break that cycle using the methods that work for you.
  • Often times, the best buddies to help in a crisis are those who have also gone through similar episodes in the past, as they are best able to understand what you are going through and what you may need. 
  • If possible, have multiple buddies. Not every buddy will be available at all times, so the more you have, the more likely one will be there to help you.
  • Understand that even when they are available, they may not be able to help you. They may themselves be not in the right state of mind, may be having a bad day, and sometimes may make mistakes. They are only human, just as you are.
In the middle of the episode, it can seem like there's no way out. That's what makes the support of loved ones so vital. We may not be able to see a way out, but they can, and they want nothing more than to show it to you. Don't be afraid to trust them. Mental illness may be suffered in isolation, but it is healed with the support and company of others.

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