It was a clear, warm night last summer when I took a long walk around my neighborhood, phone to ear, and opened up to a friend about how I’d been feeling of late (“of late” being the prior 3 months, at a minimum!!). It was one of those perfect July evenings; the sidewalks were sprinkled with pairs on first dates and with families and dogs, all of them enjoying one of the very best months of weather we get in Minneapolis. Yet as I walked through the beautiful, ever-darkening cityscape around me, I felt… like absolute shit, to be honest.
It had been a hard summer. It’s not that I could point to any One Big Overriding Thing that was making life feel so awful. More so, it was that my mind was treating me like its very own personal punching bag. If my brain last summer had been a friend, or a boyfriend, any good human would have told me to LEAVE THAT PIECE OF GARBAGE BEHIND, STRAIGHT AWAY. But being that said piece of garbage was moonlighting as the dense mass of tissue stored inside my head, I wouldn’t have been able to heed that advice anyway.
That night my friend and I made our way through the familiar cadence of any phone call we share; I had her catch me up first, and I laughed and waited with baited breath as she relayed the intricacies of her life. My friend is an excellent storyteller, a person who weaves fascinating tales about dating escapades and work and her faux pas du jour. She makes the whole damn art of being a captivating, witty human look easy. After a while, she finished with her account and turned the conversation to me. “Tell me about YOU!! What’s new??” she asked with genuine interest. I was left with a choice, the same one I’d encountered all summer long: I could A) pretend everything was fine, gloss over the hard parts, attempt to weave my own tales (the route I tended to take), or B) be honest for once.
I chose the latter.
I told her the truth. I told her I’d been feeling horrible. I told her about the boxing gloves inside my head. I told her I felt lost and discontented and frustrated with a lot of the relationships in my life. I told her ALL OF THE THINGS. It was a rare moment of true vulnerability, and it felt…terrifying. It felt like I was being a burden. It also felt cathartic.
When I wrapped up my saga, when a silence finally ensued, she broke it by immediately launching into the “pep talk” (her words, not mine) portion of the conversation. She gave me a laundry list of Things I Have to Be Grateful For. For a good long while, she went round and round in circles, relaying back to me all the positive aspects of my life that were supposed to make me feel better. She was so well intentioned. I love her for trying. But honestly? Hearing those things? They only made me feel worse.
My friend tried to point out the proverbial blue sky. She didn’t realize that I could see it already. I could hear the birds chirping, I could smell the freshly cut grass of summer. The problem wasn’t whether my senses were attuned to those things; my brain just didn’t register them as being good enough.
I received my first mental health diagnosis at 10 years old—OCD, anxiety, and, later, depression (a winning trifecta, if you will)—and, as such, am intimately familiar with the nuances of living with mental illness. I’m familiar, too, with the wide array of responses people employ whenever I discuss any topic that falls under the Status of My Mental Health umbrella. There’s the response of trying to make me feel better by saying something like, “But how can you feel that way? You’re so *insert list of compliments plus things you have to be grateful for here*”. There’s the response of telling me about their coworker or their friend from high school or their sister’s boyfriend’s second cousin once removed who went through the exact same thing, “But hey, they’re doing okay now, so you’ll be fine, too.” There’s the response of trying to fix me, to point me in the direction of a diet/workout regimen/therapist/very useful podcast that helped them, so it will definitely help me, too.
Unfortunately, all of these responses have one thing in common: they’re usually not very comforting! All they really do is prove to you that somewhere along the way, while you were spilling your soul directly onto the table, they were thinking of a response. They were busy coming up with a counterpoint, rather than fully listening.
We humans—the imperfect, well-meaning specimens that we are—seem to have a proclivity to want to fix things. When a friend or a family member or a significant other comes to us and unloads the nuances of a struggle they’re experiencing (mental health-related or otherwise), it’s natural to want to ease the thing that’s ailing them. It’s instinctive to want to tie their troubling situation up into a proverbial bow. I GET it. If you are a good, decent human person (and I have a feeling you are!!), you do not want to watch your loved ones suffer. Obviously! This is a given! The thing is, though, that it doesn’t always work. We can’t always fix things, we can’t always fix people, especially not on the spot.
So when someone in your life gives you the absolute gift of unbridled vulnerability? When you ask them, “What’s new?” and they pause, take a deep breath, and trust you enough to divulge whatever the thing is that’s bothering them? That’s your opportunity to take a deep breath, too. It’s your chance to shut off the gears in your mind that start turning on autopilot, that begin searching for a solution. It’s your cue to empathize, to listen.
Now, I know (believe me, I know) that simply carrying a conversation can be hard enough as it is. Sometimes we’re not in the mood! Sometimes we say the wrong thing! Sometimes our introverted brains are screaming at us to end the exchange of words so we can GO HOME AND SIT ON OUR COUCH AND EAT SOME CHIPS DAMMIT. None of us will be perfect at this whole living-life-and-interacting-with-other-humans thing at all times. That’s okay.
All I ask is that the next time someone you love decides to open up to you, just try to listen. Try to simply be a warm presence with open ears. Try to slowwww your mind down when it starts instinctively thinking of a solution. If the loved one with whom you are speaking asks for your input, please, by all means, feel free to give it. If it seems like they are in real, true, distress (this is subjective, yes! But it’s also important and I would be amiss not to mention it!)? That might be a good time to give your input, too. But in all the other cases? All you need to do, hard though it may be, is hear what they have to say, tell them you understand where they’re coming from (if you do), or simply tell them it sucks (if you don’t).
“I’m so sorry. That sucks. I’m here for you.” is a good enough response sometimes.
All we need you to be is our friend. All we need you to do is listen. And, I don’t know, if you’ve got a cute puppy video in your back pocket, you can share that, too. Couldn’t hurt.