Sometimes, when people don’t show up, it’s not because they’re inconsiderate—it’s because they’re ill.
It’s a Saturday afternoon around 1pm. I just woke up. I roll over, grab my phone, and immediately start toggling between apps. I ignore the 12 texts: one from a friend I’m supposed to be at a clothing swap with right now, a string from two others inviting me to brunch, and another few from someone who wants to know if we’re still going dancing that night.
I know it’ll seem rude, but I can’t bring myself to respond to any of them yet. This is going to be a day I spend trying hard not to panic, meaning all of my energy has already been spoken for. I have nothing extra to spare for dancing or brunch gossip, and certainly not for picking through the hand-me-downs of Toronto’s varied eccentrics. I’ll write them back later: Omg I’m so sorry! I have a deadline and got caught up. Or Ughhhh I feel like shit and can’t make it, sorry! Or maybe I won’t write. Maybe I won’t have the capacity to do the volleying back and forth, the managing of their emotions and responses to my absence. I can barely manage my own, to be honest.
Behavior like this—flakiness—is often identified as a dealbreaker, a hallmark of a “toxic” friend. Because we have so many modes available to us these days to make last-minute cancellations, it’s easier to flake than ever before. Many a thinkpiece and listicle has been issued on the matter, characterizing flakers as clutter that can be easily weeded out as you Kondo your social life, or as overtly abusive narcissists who prioritize only themselves. Many people do just that: If people can’t be counted on to show up, they stop asking.
Frequently, the people who speak the language of self-care and therapy are the most likely to recommend getting rid of so-called flakers. They want to set up healthy, “mindful,” positive lives, and if those around them don’t behave in a way that’s seen to be in keeping with that, they’re let go. But sometimes, they’re cutting off this “toxic” friend without seeing the whole picture.
When we banish a friend for their repeated lack of follow-through, we fail to link so-called “flakiness” with the common reasons behind it: depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses. Ask just about anyone with a mental illness and they will tell you it’s sometimes impossible to leave the house, let alone muster the energy for an extended social interaction. I have anxiety and depression, and when I “flake,” it’s usually because I woke up with my heart pounding, running a laundry list of all the things I have to worry about: Student loans. The horrible thing I may or may not have said at the bar the night before. The horrible thing I definitely said 10 years ago. That piece I’m late turning in, which will make my editor hate me and fire me, even though I’m a freelancer and don’t technically work there. Cooking up potential ways for your life to blow up on repeat is exhausting and leaves no time or space for anything else.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we should always work to keep friendships alive with people who never show up for us and consistently make us feel awful, or that everyone who flakes is in the depths of despair and therefore not culpable for their misdeeds. It’s hurtful when it feels like you’re the only one reaching out and trying to keep a friendship together and the other person constantly bails on you. Flaking is still rude, regardless of the cause.
But before we make a hasty decision to end a friendship over a lack of dependability, we should check in to see why it’s happening. We need to communicate better on both sides: If you’re someone who wants to strangle a person who keeps bailing, instead, gently approach them and say, “I’ve been noticing you haven’t been up for hanging out lately, is everything okay?” If they insist they’re fine and you’re close to them and it smells like bullshit, push it. You be the one who shows up. See if there’s a time you can just come over and hang out, bring some wine or tea, and make the space safe enough to open up. On the flip side, those of us who have depression or anxiety or other illnesses should try to tell our friends, when we’re feeling well enough to address it, that we struggle and that it’s not always going to be possible for us to follow through. Yes, it’s scary, but if we can’t speak honestly to a person, why are we friends with them? Then, when we need to, we should tell them that it’s because we’re not feeling well, and that we still love them.
That level of honesty is, frankly, why I still have so many close friends despite my sometimes rampant unreliability. It wasn’t always easy to open up, especially when I first began to talk about having anxiety and depression. I got a lot of doubt. “But you don’t seem depressed!” people said. Or “I would never have known if you didn’t tell me.” I’m generally an extroverted person who makes friends quickly, so it was confusing for people. I would explain that I don’t seem depressed because when I’m losing my mind, I deliberately don’t see anyone.
There’s still a deep stigma surrounding mental illness, and I feel shame for suffering through it. Sometimes I don’t show up because I’m unable; other times it’s a coping mechanism that will protect me from the worry associated with being seen as a downer. The only illnesses granted legitimacy are still those that are visible or contagious, and that’s why many of us who struggle with mental health sometimes keep it to ourselves, even at the risk of being branded inconsiderate. There just isn’t room to be honest about this kind of suffering. When people bail because they have the flu, it’s accepted because they might infect everyone else. When an illness is unseen, though, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Try bailing because you’re vomiting. The vibe is very much yes okay this is a reasonable thing get well soon. But I’ve tried to back out of things because of impending breakdown before and the tone is can u not do this right now pls just come out you’ll feel better. It’s not that we should have carte blanche and never be expected to be true to our word, but a little forgiveness every so often couldn’t hurt, either.
Now, though, because of open and honest communication on both sides, my loved ones know what’s going on if I can’t keep our plans. They know that instead of getting mad at me for canceling, I need them to say “It’s okay. I love you anyway. I’ll check in soon and we’ll find a better time.” They know it’s nothing personal, and that’s the best care they could possibly give me.
Sarah Ratchford is a contributor to The Establishment.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.