There’s something that doesn’t sit right with calling myself- or anyone for that matter- an “ally” to people who struggle with their mental health. To be an ally implies that, while one supports and is sensitive to a community, they themselves are not a member of that group. When it comes to mental health, I don’t think anyone can say that they haven’t struggled with it in some way. Mental health, like all health, is a spectrum that applies to everyone; there are times when people are more healthy and there are times when people are less healthy. Because we all experience mental health, we all have the ability to be an ally. This is not to say that we should ignore the unique struggles that exist for individuals who live with mental illnesses, nor the specific recognition and sensitivity that they deserve. Rather, being an ally to those who struggle with their mental health means being sensitive and listening to the individual and their needs instead of treating them as a member of a group labeled as “other.”
I would love to think of myself as being the perfect ally all the time, but I know that is not true. However, there was a time when I did think of myself as the perfect ally. I would say buzzwords like destigmatize and mindfulness. I could tell you that trauma comes in many forms. I even owned a poster that said, “Depression is an illness too.” I was outspoken, supportive, and “woke.” Like I said, I thought I was the perfect ally- that is, until I started dating my now wife. While I have learned and continue to learn many things from her, one of the most important things she has taught me is how to listen.
Lessons in Being an Ally
The first thing I had to l accept was that I didn’t “get it” and I wasn’t supposed to. I used to try so hard to turn my wife’s mental health into a concept that I could understand through my own experiences. For example, when my wife was expressing how she was feeling or telling me about traumatic events she experienced, I would respond with comparative phrases such as, “it’s kind of like,” or, “it’s similar to.” I would also get frustrated with her when she would tell me certain behaviors of mine, or phrases I used, would upset or induce anxiety in her because I could not understand why they affected her, and therefore I couldn’t accept that they indeed did. To me, these were just mundane things. It was only once that I accepted the fact that none of it needed to “make sense” for me to be able to respect her needs that was I able to start supporting her.
A big mistake I made in the beginning was that I wouldn’t treat my wife as a person, let alone my partner, when her trying to give her support. I would speak in taglines and say the things I was taught to say from TV shows and movies. My wife would often say to me, “I don’t need you to be a ‘good’ ally right now, I need you to be my ally.” Taking away the personal aspects of someone’s struggle is unhelpful, and even harmful, for several reasons. Firstly, no one is exactly the same as anyone else and therefore no one’s needs are exactly the same as anyone else’s. To better help my wife, I had to learn to cater to her specific needs and not to what I had assumed she might need based off of what other people’s needs were. Secondly, using taglines and not acknowledging the personal nature of mental health made my wife feel like she was an “other.” It gave the impression that by having a struggle, she was lumped together with everyone else who struggles (as if there are those that do struggle and those that don’t) and no longer possessed an identity beyond that. Lastly, it was specifically because of our relationship that my wife sought my help. I am not her therapist. I am not some influencer sharing a “love yourself” video. I am her life partner. We have a specific intimacy and comfortability with each other that cannot be replicated in other relationships. By saying what I thought she wanted to hear, I never actually said what she needed to hear.
The Power of Listening
Another important lesson I learned was where my limits are, such as when I could and could not be helpful or what I was and was not able to handle. There isn’t a cure to end all mental health struggles and I am not a mental health professional. It took a lot of time for me to understand that there wasn’t anything I could do other than listen. I also had to learn that I wasn’t always ready to help bear the weight that is on my wife’s shoulders. I have, and continue to have, my own struggles with mental health, and I needed to learn when to acknowledge that I was not always in a place to offer support.
The hardest thing I had to learn about being an ally is that there is always room for me to grow in my sensitivity towards others. I will never be done learning how to be an ally. Even now, each time I refine a listening skill or become attentive in a new way, I find myself thinking that I’ve learned it all. The truth is, not only can I improve the skills that I have already learned, but there are also so many more skills that I have yet to learn- and that is just to be an ally to my wife. What works for us will not be the exact same as what my friends and family need.
It’s Incumbent Upon Us
Being an ally may sound like it’s all about giving, but in all honesty, I have received a lot more than I have given. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t put in a lot of hard work. Rather, that in the process of learning how to help someone else, I have also learned so much about myself and how to better be the person I want to be. Being an ally to someone takes many forms and differs from situation to situation; figuring that out is hard work, but I still believe that being an ally is a duty that everyone has.
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