What We Wish We Would Have Known about Anxiety & Depression in Friendships
What We Wish We Would Have Known about Anxiety & Depression in Friendships
A Game Plan for Keeping Your Friendships in Shape
We shook hands and sat across from each other at a wobbly metal table outside of Starbucks. Natalie picked up a straw wrapper left by a previous table occupant and began folding it in and out of her fingers.
Just a few weeks earlier, I (Casey) had met Natalie’s mom via a phone call and she insisted that the two of us would be great friends. I was still fundraising to begin my job with Cru at USC. My main role would be to minister to and disciple young women in sororities. Natalie was in the middle of her sophomore year, juggling life as a member of a sorority and a student who was trying to complete both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Occupational Therapy in a total of five years.
The conversation was easy as Natalie shared bits about her current reality. I could read a general sense of stress and exhaustion when she described her scattered sleep, Red Bull-fueled days and abundant social and academic calendar. But as a USC graduate myself, this was par for the course as a student as far as I was concerned.
Natalie was the type of student every organization, ministry, and group loved to have around: she could talk to anyone, loved to say yes and served selflessly! So, we ended up teaming up together in ministry to the sororities, on mission trips and eventually as roommates during Natalie’s final year of school.
And this is when all the pieces came together...or apart.
Natalie was - and had been - sinking into a deep depression and experiencing overwhelming anxiety. And now that I could see the restless nights, the heightened stress and the desperate desires for an escape from our shared apartment, I knew this was not just your “ordinary” college experience. She was drowning. And I had no idea how to help.
Don’t think that means I didn’t try though.
I did my best to coach her through, coming up with a game plan for habits she needed to change, topics she should pray about and Scriptures she should study.
“At the beginning of symptoms your boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, family and friends may look for answers or reasons for your problems other than mental health difficulties, hoping that the symptoms are caused by some other physical problems, a spiritual problem or external stressors that can easily be removed.”
I wouldn’t read this quote in the Thrive Workbook until years later, but when I finally did, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had tried to “fix” my friend.
Unfortunately, the more I tried to rehabilitate my sweet friend, the more unhealthy we both became, quickly morphing into a codependent friendship. It was messy, heartbreaking, frustrating and agonizing for both of us. But it was all we knew how to do in a community that was still so silent about the realities of anxiety and depression.
While we may not ever have a career in the big leagues, we come to you ten years later as two humble coaches - Natalie as a friend who continues to personally tackle the challenges of anxiety and depression and Casey as a supporting player. Here are four plays we would encourage keeping in your playbook if you're in the process of figuring out your mental health journey or how to support a friend through theirs:
#1 - ANNOUNCE YOUR INJURY
I’ve learned that restoration often comes once we're willing to acknowledge the areas in our lives that need some TLC. During my years at USC, there was an incredible silence surrounding the topic of mental health. Additionally, perfection was applauded by professors, classmates, friends, and mentors. It felt like my only play was to keep performing, to keep pretending I was ok. Casey became one of the only friends who was aware of what was truly going on and I found myself relying upon her as my only listening ear and emotional support. To experience a healthy friendship, it was crucial for us to acknowledge the unhealthiness of this reality, the silence that we faced and the resulting codependency that was quickly pulling us further into isolation. By recognizing this isolation, I was also taking the first step towards health and wellness by accepting the need for healthy boundaries, a supportive team, and self-care behaviors that would lead to a flourishing friendship.
It took me a while to accept that what Natalie was experiencing couldn’t be solved with a quick solution or encouragement to push through the pain. But it took me even longer to admit that I was making it worse. When Natalie and I first became friends, we were both going through challenging life situations. In a nutshell, we were both nursing some internal injuries. Then, when Natalie started opening up more with me about her anxiety and depression, I was struck by the difficulty of holding this “secret.” People - even within the Church - just weren’t talking about this yet. And I didn’t feel like it was my story to tell. So, I held this complicated, emotional weight for a long time, afraid of the consequences of betraying her trust. But the longer I held on, the deeper I was driven into isolation, confusion and even bouts of depression myself. My job involved pouring into college students, but most days, I simply felt like I had nothing to give. My heart and mind were too wounded and weary. There was no single conversation that changed everything for us, but rather a series of difficult, emotional and often frustrating conversations that eventually led us both into a place of acknowledging the current reality: we were both hurting. As we slowly and steadily put words to the unhealthiness of our situation and our friendship, it set us onto the path towards recovery.
#2 - STAY IN BOUNDS
When the thought of boundaries came to mind, I always pictured strict regulations and harsh punishment. It was during the process of rebuilding and restoring my friendship with Casey that I finally started to realize that boundaries are both healthy and necessary to properly care for ourselves and others. I learned to say no to ministry opportunities without the feeling of spiritual guilt or shame, to make sleep a priority even when I hadn’t finished all of my work, and to develop daily self-care habits (healthy sleep, eating, exercise). Most importantly, I learned that my wellbeing couldn't be dependent upon one or two people. Casey could not be my friend, therapist, spiritual mentor, roommate, and doctor. That's not how God designed friendships to work. By establishing healthy boundaries within our friendship, I was able to break the silence, seek the necessary care, and create room for us to learn what it was like to just be friends. And let me tell you, setting boundaries isn’t easy and can be rather painful at times. But I will also tell you, it’s worth it!
If you’re a people-pleaser like me, you understand the rigor of learning the power of the word “no.” This was probably the most difficult part of our journey, because, for us, it felt like we were quitting the team. In other words, we needed some time of separating, drawing new boundaries and building new strength for ourselves and hopefully, our friendship in the future. And the reality is, establishing healthy boundaries probably can’t be done without hurting some feelings, because deep down, none of us like being told “no.” It feels like rejection and rejection stings. But ultimately, I think we can both now say that it truly saved us individually, and also our friendship.
“When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their aloneness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them.”
― Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No
#3 - RECRUIT THE BEST PLAYERS
The feeling of isolation gradually began to dissipate when I took a step of faith and invited others into my corner. I began to seek help from a therapist and psychiatrist, started taking medication, and even opened up to safe family members and friends about what was truly going on inside. By creating a diverse team of support, I was no longer depending upon a friend, family member, spouse or significant other to be my “rescuer” or “savior.” Instead, I was creating opportunities to experience the blessing of a healthy, balanced support network.
Once Natalie had the opportunity to share her experiences with more people, our experience shifted. It wasn’t an overnight fix or an immediate restoration of our friendship, but it was another step in the right direction. But Natalie wasn’t the only one who needed a team - I needed one too! As I continued to support Natalie and sort through my difficulties, we both realized how important it was for both sides to have support. That’s part of what made us so excited about what Grace Alliance was doing when we first connected with them - they were providing care, guidance, and encouragement for both the individual experiencing anxiety, depression and other challenges as well as their family and friends. If you are supporting someone through anxiety, depression or other life challenges, you need a team for yourself! You will only be able to care for your friend, spouse or loved one as well as you care for yourself.
#4 - REDEFINE VICTORY
It would be unrealistic to pretend that all relationships and friendships end in restoration, as many can be filled with challenging matters, such as abuse. While reparation may always seem like the ultimate win, there are some situations when victory may mean separation. Please seek wise counsel and professional support if you are in a harmful situation!
Lasting change doesn't happen overnight, and because the restoration process comes with setbacks and trials, it’s important to acknowledge that healthy relationships require commitment from both sides. If you are the only one putting in the effort to acknowledge the current reality, establish healthy boundaries and build a support team, it will be difficult to experience health in your friendship. At this point, it will be important for you to seek out counsel from trusted friends, family and even professionals about what the best next play may be. The most crucial victory is to ensure that you are healthy and safe!
As Natalie and I take a look back at all that has happened in our friendship, we are amazed at God’s faithfulness to work both through His divine healing and also through the hard work and dedication He strengthened us to endure. He is a God of renewal and refreshment, and He set the ultimate example of relationship restoration when He sent His only Son to save us and repair our broken relationship with Him.
Our experience and friendship have come full circle as we now find ourselves as players on many different teams throughout the world through our work with the Grace Alliance. Daily, we have the opportunity to provide practical support and encouragement to others walking through their life stressors and relational struggles that often come with anxiety, depression and other life setbacks.
What are your best plays for pursuing health in your friendships and relationships? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Casey Pruet & Natalie Franks / The Grace Alliance
*For more information about this topic, check out the chapter “Healthy Relationships” in our Thrive Workbook. Thrive is an in-depth, self-directed whole-health guide proven to reduce depression, anxiety, etc., improve daily life and renew your life in Christ.