Juliette Burton, Actress, Writer and Performer
Your best friend has just been diagnosed with a mental health problem. How do you react? How do you cope when someone you thought you knew suddenly becomes someone with a condition?
My friends found it really hard – almost impossible. And so did I.
When I was 14, studying hard at school and blessed with many friends, something in my already fragile mind broke. I was diagnosed as anorexic. I’d already been diagnosed with OCD and was soon labeled bipolar too. A torrent of other labels flowed over the years.
Many friends didn’t know how to react. My best friend at the time didn’t know how to cope. My new closest companion had become my illness. It was isolating and lonely for me and must’ve been confusing and terrifying for her. We lost touch.
The first time I was hospitalised, I lost touch with a lot of people. Some friends wrote to me, sending me cards and magazine cuttings. I appreciated every effort. But it is difficult. Any friend would hope desperately that this person you love being around will get treatment and then get better. But for me it wasn’t quite that simple.
I didn’t go back to that school after that. My life had taken a very unexpected turn down a very unpredictable route and I wouldn’t see many of them again for nearly a decade.
When I was 17 I was very unwell: all I needed was my illness and so I’d alienated myself from everyone around me. I longed to lose myself within my condition. It was an effective solution to the painful fear I felt every day. I didn’t know how to “do life” but I knew how to be anorexic. I was told I was a month away from dying. I didn’t care. And so I was sectioned.
In that clinic I had a psychosis: the most frightening experience of my life. Once the drugs had tamed it enough, two friends from my old school visited me. As 17 year old young men, they were brave enough to visit a girl who’d just been hallucinating daily for weeks, who’d nearly died from anorexia and who the last time they’d seen had been frighteningly thin. Those brave friends gave me my first taste of what could be – a world where I am not alone with my illness and I need never be again. I began to want to get better.
Sadly, I didn’t get better just like that. My mental health problems continued to morph from anorexia to compulsive overeating disorder to bulimia to agoraphobia to depression to OCD… and beyond.
But one of those friends never treated me any differently – however I looked or behaved. He didn’t see the size I was or the insanity of my behavior. He cared about whether I was happy, sad, scared or angry. He saw me, beneath the illness. In spite of my outward appearance he saw the scared little human I was inside.
Over the years I began to find my way towards an ongoing path of recovery. I’d receive emails and texts from him along the way. I’d still have up days and down days but hearing from him brought me back to me. He continued to give me strength to remember who I am beneath my illness.
This friend and I continue to grow up together. I was at his wedding and I grabbed the first opportunity to see him, his wife and their beautiful new baby son earlier this year. Whether he is grey haired or wrinkled, holding a baby or the hand of his wife, a teenager or a man, I will always see him, beneath his outward appearance and I will always care whether he is happy, sad, scared or angry. Because he has done the same for me.
And that’s the thing – whether you are a recognised sufferer of mental health problems or not, wherever you lie on that spectrum, we are all united. We’re not alone. Our appearances will change but those emotions will always feel the same, for all of us.
If you’re a young person with a friend who has a mental health problem and you don’t know how to cope, talk to someone. And when you want to be there for your friend but don’t know what to say, send them a text, an email, a tweet, DM them just to let them know you’re thinking of them. And try to see them underneath their illness.
I’d also recommend checking out the websites of the mental health charity Mind and the eating disorder charity B-Eat.
I went to a school reunion a few years ago. We’d all changed. Our lives had gone down different pathways. They are all wonderful people but we don’t know each other anymore. But that one true friend, he still knows me. He still sees me. He always has done.
Juliette performs at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh on December 10th 2013, at Swindon Arts Centre on January 28th 2014 and at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 4th and 5th February before touring in Australia in February, March and April. She returns to perform at Brighton Fringe in May 2014 and at Edinburgh Fringe 2014 with her new show ‘Look At Me’. For more details visit www.julietteburton.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @JulietteBurton