How Anne Thériault’s Friends Are Failing Her

Anne Thériault’s friends are doing their best, but Anne Thériault’s friends could do better.

I don’t remember how I started following Anne Thériault on Twitter; I must’ve thought she was a stand up comic and added her in a manic networking spree (I’m not a one to know “who’s who”). Turns out she’s not, to my knowledge, a comedic performer but a wildly popular mental health blogger, who opens up about the toll modern parenting takes on maternal sanity.

Now there are a few things in the mix for her, which is the case for all of us, but much of what she shares illuminates the experience of Maternal Alienation, which is a subject close to home for me and many of my hypnosis clients.

Maternal Alienation is distinct from the better known Postpartum Depression (PPD), which is more easily diagnosed in our age thanks to its correlation with measurable factors, like hormone levels and dopamine production. Maternal Alienation is just as real and just as dangerous to a woman’s well being, but its cause is cultural.

Minding a young child is hard work; they have loads of energy and little sense. To meet their needs a guardian must learn their cycles, and this means deeply attuning one’s attention to the most tedious of human affairs, without the aid of verbal communication in most cases. The rate at which one must interrupt her own thoughts to synchronize with the “thoughts” of a baby or toddler is comparable to military torture. Add sleep deprivation into the mix and we have a pretty fried human being on our hands. Not a great baseline for socialization.

So it’s not hard to guess why friends would fade out of the picture once the novelty of holding a newborn baby wears off. Mom is emotional, spacey, and can pretty much only talk about what’s on her mind: the tedious baby stuff. Being around baby is… kind of better as an idea. It’s okay once in a while, but eventually, even the friends who were SO excited to touch her belly and buy little onesies stop coming around. They might text, and they definitely “like” cute pics of the fam on Instagram, but their bodies are far from Mom’s body. Their eyes are far from her eyes.

So let’s get back to Anne, who recently kicked off a thread about social alienation with this Tweet:

Click to read full thread

To be clear I don’t actually know how Anne’s friends handled her transition to motherhood; they may have been great. The title of this piece is mostly clickbait/a gimmick to give the topic shape (shhhh!). Anne doesn’t specifically reference the role of motherhood here, and it’s fair to guess that the feelings she shares took their roots before her son was born, but we’d be a bit silly to address one without acknowledging the impact of the other.

Now the truth is we’re in a strange new territory here with the amount of responsibility being assumed by “modern” mothers. Until recently, folks were less mobile so families stayed closer, neighbors knew each other’s kids well enough to tune into them, and children had many “elders” from whom they could seek attention and receive instruction. Which is to say, the duty of socializing a new arrival was more broadly distributed, along with the exhaustion.

Now that’s a great picture, isn’t it, but we all know we won’t just zap back into this Rockwellian portrait of community, not to mention the gender-based stresses it had built into it.

But we can do better.

Anne’s original observation is that her well-intentioned friends don’t understand how offering to be there for her “whenever” doesn’t actually translate to comfort.

There’s an important lesson for us to learn here, and we need to deeply take it in. Despite the emotional truth in such a declaration, those declarations don’t actually help our friends when they are depressed — in fact that can make things worse — so if we really want to be helpful, we need to say something different.

Let’s try this.

If you have a friend who struggles with mental illness, don’t say “You can reach out any time.”

For one thing, it’s dishonest. Unconsciously your friend knows that this isn’t really true — no one has the bandwidth to be called upon as often as a person dealing with depression may need help. For another thing, it holds poor boundaries, which is bad news for any relationship. If you care about a relationship you will construct clear expectations to protect it from resentment building on either side.

Furthermore, saying you’re free whenever may feel like the most encouraging, generous thing to do, but really you’re giving your depressed or anxious friend one more way to feel like a fuck up: knowing that they can call you, yet feeling (for mysterious irrational non-reasons) that they can’t. Because making plans is already hard in our era of last minute revisions, and asking for someone’s company when you’re feeling like a downer is extra tough.

It’s important to understand that vague promises of availability are almost impossible for a depressed mind to grasp onto. A depressed mind will always respond to an opportunity of social comfort by imagining what way that opportunity might backfire, and then it stops imagining and just settles right there with that anxious impression. 

So here’s what you can do: offer a specific date. Just one at a time. Don’t sign up to be someone else’s armchair therapist — that honestly can do more harm than good. Just ask to plan on one afternoon, make it easy for them, e.g., pick a place to meet in their neighborhood.

When you offer a specific date, you give the depressed mind’s sense of future a little bit of shape. Then when it thinks of “The Future,” it doesn’t go on forever, a monotonous sea of grey fog; it goes as far as next Tuesday, when *pop* they imagine your smiling face. And so there’s a little less doom there, because you feel close. They can reach to you, through their imagining of time. 

That closeness may be non-literal, but it brings a real sense of connection to the body, which believes whatever the imagination shows it. And if this is the best we can do to adapt to a world where we’re deprived the essential comfort of having familiar bodies around us, then let’s do it. Let’s go back to making plans. Let’s go back to having something solid to look forward to.

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