I am not good at making friends.
I used to be, in school. I would approach a kid I didn’t know, make a quirky comment about life, and if I had pegged them correctly as someone I would want to be friends with – that is, if they were different from the crowd in some interesting way – they would realize I was weird too and we would get along great from there. That was easy, in the protective haze of school, where the stakes of messing up a social interaction were relatively low, at least where I grew up.
A few years later, however, we are all tossed out onto the streets of the Real World where no one arranges mandatory assemblies every semester that are aimed at helping you make friends. Then, if you want to rebuild or augment your social circle, you have to do it yourself.
Like, by approaching people.
People who could be anybody.
People who may not have anything meaningful in common with you, like your high school friends did because if nothing else you were all in high school together. They were your war buddies. But now the war is over.
And finding something in common with a perfect stranger is only the first step in the friendship building process. What happens if you really do make a connection with someone? In the Real World, you have to meet them at a time when you’re both free, at a place like a coffee shop where you have to pay money to be there, and that you have to physically go to. Getting to know someone requires setting up Logistics, which are often difficult to follow through with the first time, let alone on a regular basis in order to keep the friendship alive.
It’s especially difficult if, like me, you suffer from a mental illness like depression that doesn’t listen when you tell it that you’re getting tea with a potential new friend in twenty minutes, so right now is a really bad time to spontaneously feel like nothing I could ever do will make me happy, ever.
And that’s not even the hardest part.
The hardest part for me is that once I’ve established a friendly relationship with someone, it’s expected that I will keep up regular interactions. Even if they’re not frequent interactions, it’s still really hard for me to commit to anything continually. Here’s how it usually goes: My new friend invites me to something every so often, and almost every time I have to turn them down with some excuse about being busy because really, I’m lying in bed crying, which is something I do most days. After a few weeks or months, guilt begins to eat away at me because I never invite them to do anything. I think, Have they picked up on the absence of my motivation to be their friend? Do they only continue to attempt to see me out of pity, because they’ve figured out how depressed I am?
I could tell my new friend the truth about my diseases, of course, which might clear everything up, but I don’t know what they know about bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, which makes divulging anything tricky. Most people don’t know much about it if they don’t suffer from it or love someone who suffers from it. I don’t touch that can of worms until I know a person really well (or unless I know they’ve also battled disability or any form of different-from-the-crowd-ness, in which case we’re in the same boat and I feel safe telling them about my disease). Before taking off my mask I have to know that my new friend won’t be judgemental of my condition, or afraid of me.
And so I end up losing new friends quickly, because my follow-through is for shit.
It has been recommended to me that I turn to a pet for comfort. However, I live in a pretty small second-floor apartment where an animal (specifically my dream Welsh corgi puppy, Pumpkin), wouldn’t be able to run around, or poop conveniently. Plus, I hear those things need regular feeding, and I don’t have the money or the memory capabilities to make that happen.
In short, all of the disadvantages in my life that would affect a critter like Pumpkin – small living space, no money, lots of stairs (have you ever seen a baby corgi try to climb stairs? It’s adorably sad) – are a result of my bipolar and personality disorders limiting my lifestyle, and personally, I won’t take a living thing under my care until I can be sure my diseases won’t affect it as well. (Whether people who have heritable mental illnesses like I do can conscionably have kids has been a raging debate for a very long time, and my opinion on it belongs in a separate blog post.)
In short: I steer clear of most living things, for everyone’s benefit.
Enter: the soft, comforting, nonjudgmental embrace of a very much not-alive stuffed animal.
I didn’t know I had an affinity for such creatures until a few months ago, when I was having a depressive adventure in Safeway, and a blue elephant smiled at me like the pickle in that Regina Spektor song. I knew immediately it was going to become my new friend.
I brought El home with me (El is short for both “Elephant” and “Eleven” – I’d been watching Stranger Things at the time), and over the next few months I collected another half dozen or so stuffed animals that smiled at me in various drug stores. It’s astounding to me how easily I project personalities and feelings onto their cottony faces; knowing they’re in the room makes me feel like another living presence is close to me. It may sound ridiculous, childish even, but it works.
So what’s the benefit of having a stuffed friend, and why do I think it has a special effect when paired with mental illness? I’ve compiled five reasons.
1. For those days when you need therapy, but can’t get to a therapist. This is true across all domains of psychological disease: therapists, psychiatrists, and case workers are often nearly impossible to get a hold of between appointments. They’re in high demand, they can’t always answer their phones, and they’re too expensive for most people to see every time they have an episode, or just a bad day. Stuffed animals, on the other hand, are always there for you to talk to and hug for as long as you need. They never stop smiling, and unlike a therapist, they don’t charge
2. Most mental illnesses (with the exception, perhaps, of bipolar mania) make it incredibly difficult to stay in touch with friends and family. Picking up the phone becomes impossible, let alone asking for help from the person on the other end. It’s easy for friends to drift away when you’re frequently opting out of social opportunities, and explaining why you prefer to stay home involves communicating such complicated personal details that those relationships frequently slide away in silence. But a stuffed animal will always be with you, and will never ask questions. It will never judge you for lying in bed all day, and you’ll never have to apologize to it for preferring to stay at home.
3. A common self-contradicting and infuriating symptom of depression is needing to isolate from the restless and exhausting world, yet feeling lonely doing so. Animals tend to instinctively isolate in order to protect themselves and heal. To this end, a depressed person can stay in hiding for weeks or months, or in the worst cases, years. Even though this need to be alone can win out over loneliness when it comes to deciding a person’s actions, feelings of loneliness often still persist. However, there is compromise in, you guessed it: stuffed animals. Just having a physical presence around, but not talking, when you need to be alone is endlessly comforting. A plushie can be a friend without interfering with your healing.
4. Insomnia goes hand in hand with psychiatric disorders. An adult with a mental illness (schizophrenia, ADHD, etc. as well as mood disorders like depression) is more than four times as likely to have a sleep disorder than a mentally healthy adult, and insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders to strike.(http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Sleep-and-mental-health) This means that for several hours every night, many mentally ill people suffer alone while most of their resources – family, friends, and doctors alike – are sleeping. Stuffed animals can be an invaluable source of comfort at this time, providing an inexhaustible ear or just a simple friendly smile during one of the most difficult times of the night.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to a plushie, or believe they’re only meant to be played with by children, your viewpoint is understandable. I don’t think a stuffie is a suitable permanent substitute for human contact, nor should it be used as one. If your mental illness has features of psychosis – that is, if you’re prone to delusions and/or hallucinations – it might be healthier for you to avoid seeking out imaginary friends. But if, like many mentally ill people, you’re wanting for friendly contact or an ear to bend, no one is going to be able to do or not do for you exactly what you need as well as a friend you create yourself.