This Life: Don’t scare them away

Alex Williams’s ability to converse and make friends has benefited hugely from a new willingness to listen

A nurse in a private clinic once told me I caused my own loneliness. At the time, I thought this was unfair. It was down to other people to speak to me and I had more than enough to deal with in completing a recovery programme for my anorexia.

Eight years later I realise what she meant. And for the first time I am being proactive in trying to meet people and change my approach to making friends.

Social contact is hard when you have mental health issues and have been in the psychiatric system for a long time. In addition, I am diagnosed with borderline personality disorder where the common experience is of intense relationships that can’t be sustained, leaving feelings of being hurt. People with this diagnosis tend to see people as all good or all bad and reveal too much about themselves early on and then regret it.

Deciding what to disclose to others is a big issue for me. I have spent time in a therapeutic community that caused me to reveal too much even after my time there ended. For example, I once started a job and my line manager offered to talk to me about any personal problems. She thought we could discuss things over a cup of tea and I would feel better. Instead, I revealed more than I should have done, talking to her about self-harm, trips to accident and emergency and problems with food.

The talks did little to improve my wellbeing as she was clearly out of her depth and revealing so much of my past might have jeopardised my employment.

I found it safer to stick with those I met in treatment. We mainly talked about our mental health and, at times, became competitive over what help we could get and how self-destructive we could be. But all we had in common was a psychiatric diagnosis and we were all too lost in our own issues for a friendship.

As my health improved, I still wanted the company of “someone like me” and maintained e-mail contact with some of those who were in recovery. Sometimes, I think I have caused offence when a friend doesn’t reply quickly. They are amazing people and we have been through a lot together but I also needed to make friends outside psychiatry.

So I joined a local church and an assertiveness class. I am now learning to hold back information when meeting someone new and discuss strategies with my support worker and community psychiatric nurse. For example, they tell me not to mention my self-harm since it scares people. You don’t owe anyone an explanation in life and at first you can say as little as you want about yourself and instead ask questions about the people you are talking to. This shows an interest and breaks the ice.

I also have to be realistic. A new friendship used to feel like being in love, but now I do not feel rejected if it doesn’t work out. I have learned not to dismiss small talk and to listen carefully to others. So far they appear to have accepted me. Taking the risk has paid off.

Alex Williams is a volunteer and mental health service user

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