Note: for the purposes of this post I’m using “neurotypical” in a more inclusive way than usual. Generally it’s used to contrast with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In this case I’m going to use it to refer to anyone without a diagnosis of a mental illness or disorder.
I have to admit something: I am not always a person who has a lot of sympathy for others. School comes easily to me, so when I hear someone say “I had to study for TEN HOURS for that test”, I have a hard time replying “That sounds horrible” instead of rolling my eyes and saying “Why the hell did you waste all that time? I didn’t study at all and I got an A.” I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach myself the empathy required to understand that I’m highly privileged in that regard. But the area that’s actually the MOST difficult for me to be sympathetic is one in which I am highly underprivileged: depression, sadness, and difficult life situations.
One would think that with all my colorful and varied experiences of depression and mental illness, I would be the perfect person to talk to when you’re having a rough day. I’ve been there. I understand. I get that feeling. When I’m talking to someone else with mental illness, I”m fairly good at this (except when I can recognize stupid behaviors that I’ve done in the past like emotional manipulation or passive aggression or compliment fishing). But this week I had a neurotypical friend who is generally very happy and who has had a fairly easy emotional life get hit with something really hard and I’ve been trying my absolute best to be there for him. And I’ve found that my patience dwindles a lot more quickly than I would have expected.
Because here’s the thing: I have spent the last four years of my life spending the vast majority of my days in the emotional state that this friend is in. For the most part I’ve kept quiet about it to him and the majority of those in my life. I’ve worked and worked and worked to even survive to where I am right now. For the most part, my friends have been kind, but they haven’t particularly wanted to hear about how I hate myself. Getting through a week of depression is every week for me. And so when someone says they don’t know how they’ll survive because they’ve spent four days hurting I just want to scream back “THIS IS MY LIFE EVERY FUCKING DAY. EXCUSE ME IF I DON’T ROLL OVER AND ASK WHAT I CAN DO TO FIX YOUR WEEK.” I realize that it makes no sense to compare suffering. Just because my base level of suffering is higher and I’ve learned to handle it doesn’t mean that what my friend is feeling is any less of a major life crisis for him.
But when you see someone have their privilege taken away and they’re landed in the same boat you’re in all the time, it’s hard to work yourself up over it. So for those of us who do not have privilege and who spend all of our lives battling in a way that’s invisible to the privileged, we might have to practice empathy in a new way. We are totally familiar with these experiences and feelings. But we have to have the empathy of remembering or imagining what it’s like to experience them for the first time, to get hit with that wave of depression and anxiety without knowing what it is or whether it will end and how to get through it. We have to remember that we’ve built up skills and resistances, that we have had an education in emotional regulation simply by existing with our mental illness, and that those around us don’t necessarily have that education.
Very rarely do I suggest that the un-privileged take a lot of time out of their day to practice empathy towards the privileged. But when the privileged get knocked off their pedestal, they’re left in a place that those of us who live down here have never experienced, a place that’s scary and lonely and neither privileged nor un-privileged. It is often an eye-opening experience for those people, and if we can bring ourselves to see that they’re experiencing something we don’t have to experience every day, we can help them take some good lessons from that experience. Hopefully it can help us create a situation in which the neurotypical is left with a greater understanding of what it’s like to have a mental illness, and the neurodiverse person is left feeling like they have been compassionate and kind, and gained a stronger friend or ally from the experience, as well as helped stop a cycle of oppression.
And for the neurotypical among us, let me just say that your behavior towards your neurodiverse peeps when you’re doing ok can have a big impact on how much empathy they’re willing to have when you’re in a rough spot. If you never give them the benefit of empathy or of listening to their experiences or of accepting that their experience of the world is radically different from yours, they’re not likely to try to do the same for you. If you tell them they should just change their attitude, or that nothing’s really wrong and it’ll all be ok, or that you just don’t get why they’re unhappy or how they can be so introverted because it makes no sense, they’re not likely to spend the time understanding the nuance of your problems. Empathy goes both ways.
All of that said, no matter what the situation, taking care of self comes first (ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS). You don’t have to practice empathy at the expense of your own mental health. If you’re having a low spoons day and your friend is breaking down about not getting a job, you get to beg out of being the shoulder they cry on because you never have to give out of what you don’t have. If the difficulties your friend is experiencing and word-vomiting everywhere are triggering to you? You get to tell them to tone it down or stop. Relationships are always about finding the balance between your own needs and the needs of the other.