Don’t judge my story by the chapter you walked in on.
I used to, and still do wonder if there is ever an ideal time to meet people. Perhaps the beginning of the new school year, or after the clock strikes midnight and the calendar changes. Those are the times where we all seem to have clean slates, when we can convince ourselves that we’re carrying around a little less baggage, or that we’ve left it behind entirely. And while I did meet some of my closest college friends in the first few months of the semester, we didn’t begin to truly get to know one another until much later, when I began slowly peeling the layers off, coming out of my shell, whatever you want to call it. It was nerve-wracking and a little embarrassing, being aware of what I wanted and who I wanted to be, but clueless on how to articulate it. Even when I look back, not just to five years ago, but a decade or so, I struggle not to shudder at the way I acted around others. I ache to tell that young girl what she barely heard growing up: it’s OK. You’re OK. You’re doing the very best you can.
It’s something I’m having to remind myself of to this very day.
The transition of adulthood and finding my place has been a challenging, and a somewhat lonely endeavor. Community and quality time is not as organic as it used to be, where I’ve had to flex my confidence muscles and begin to do things without apology, without feeling like I had to explain or justify my choices. The feeling in itself has been freeing, but I’ve struggled with how to articulate my experience; more specifically, adjusting to my parents’ divorce and learning how to walk again after being emotionally paralyzed for a long time. I had no idea how to explain that to anybody in a way that communicated being strong and secure, while not sugarcoating the pain and grief that came along with it.
I try not to force the topic of my personal history, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to hide it either. This past summer I went on a few dates with a guy, and on one particular afternoon we were naturally talking about our backgrounds and upbringing. I kept it pretty surface level, given that we were in public and I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me at that point. But as the day went on I found my curtain-like defenses falling a bit, and didn’t see the harm of going slightly deeper since he had broached the subject. His response was basically to suck it up and get over it, and anyone who knows me is aware of how much I resent that kind of analogy. I hadn’t poured my heart out by any means, but I was a little put off by his lack of compassion. When communication became sporadic shortly afterward, I habitually blamed myself for what I’d said.
Cliches are abound that not everyone appreciates vulnerability, and therefore you shouldn’t depend on someone’s reaction to determine if something was worth sharing. I see the value in that, and can usually sense when a person is safe enough to confide in and when they’re not. But is it wise to approach every conversation as though you’re shielding yourself from rejection? Baring my soul to another person often feels like carrying a load of bricks, and no one should have to simultaneously avoid getting hit by one in the meantime. Giving a person that much responsibility creates a kind of us-versus-them mentality, where it seems like sharing one’s story has become more of a test of acceptance than a point of connection. Are we pursuing relationships because we genuinely want to know and be known,, or do we allow people into our lives as a means to an end, and perhaps even a distraction?
If the second part isn’t the case, then why do people reject those who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, fear, and overall darkness?
Why do we shame and blame those who’ve made decisions we might not agree with, particularly when that decision doesn’t affect us and/or we didn’t know them at the time?
Why are we so hell-bent on avoiding what is difficult, painful, or seemingly impossible?
Instead of allowing ourselves to wrestle and question these things, we say lower your expectations and call it done. It might dull the disappointment a bit, but it doesn’t change our desire for a particular outcome. That attitude can be harmful in the long run because it just enforces the isolating mindset of every person for themselves. Do what you want, because in the end that’s all you can control, and therefore all you have. The reality is that we were not created to be self-reliant, regardless if it’s in a spiritual or secular sense.
Pain is not a problem meant to be solved, but a natural life experience that should be embraced to the fullest degree. It seems like we confuse saving and being empathetic, blindingly believing that if we can’t fix a situation or rescue whomever is in need, then there’s no point in bringing it up. Whenever I’ve endured a particular difficult time, my friends always maintained that they cared for and supported me, but that there was no shame in seeking out professional help as well. Being vulnerable with them feels both freeing and healthy; there is a sense of honesty, but also a sense of limits. They listen, but they also remind me that God made me a strong woman, and that I will get through it come hell or high water.
It really comes down to showing compassion, and in a way where you’re being sensitive to the circumstances without acting like you know everything.
How to do this, is another concept in itself, and not entirely in black and white. Each one of us has a different love language, of giving and receiving, so what works for one may not be the same for the other. For instance, if I’ve been in the thick of something for a while, I eventually start to hate talking about it. There are times when all I want is to be held for a little bit, without getting bombarded with clichés or platitudes. A simple hug allows me to connect and feel close to a person without risking emotional exhaustion or wrongfully communicating my thoughts. When I’m on the other side, I’ve found that asking questions helps me to better understand what’s going on, as opposed to making assumptions. “What do you need right now?” “Do you want to talk about it?”
And I’m learning that it doesn’t have to involve one person breaking down while the other keeps their composure: the willingness to be sad or emotional and cry together speaks volumes, because it shows that it’s less about having answers as it is about wading through the process of being human. When someone approaches me in a vulnerable state, I choose to see it as a gift, a blessing, rather than something to run from. There is something beautiful about seeing a person through a valley, and witnessing how they’ve grown and evolved as they come out the other side. The relationship is stronger and deeper, and we become role models and examples for one another.
Yes, it’s tough, and it’s a risk, but I’m tired of bending over backwards to avoid it. I don’t want to be safe or comfortable anymore, because real life isn’t like that. People get depressed, addicted, and don’t always come from the prettiest backgrounds. The world is a mess and people are dying and we’re all scared out of our minds because we feel helpless. One could argue that embracing chaos means being oblivious to joy, and taking what we already have for granted. But how long does ignoring reality actually work? Does it have to involve choosing one extreme over the other?
There’s a big difference between a victim mentality and acknowledging reality, while still choosing to press forward. Setting appropriate boundaries allows for clear perspective, and making sure relationships stay in tact. Not being the only source of support does not equal rejection entirely; a few months before graduation, I had a bit of a breakdown and one of my closest friends kept encouraging me to try therapy again. He admitted that he was not equipped to help me fully sort through my thoughts and feelings, but was still willing to go to a session with me to make sure that I was comfortable. We definitely still talked about our lives, but we weren’t depending on one another either. I gained a lot more respect and admiration for him after that, and we still keep in touch.
Granted, I know little compared to psychologists or researchers, and I’m sure others out there are willing to debate (especially when it comes to what we can control versus what we can’t). That doesn’t change the fact that we’re all in need of grace, and I’d go so far as to say that we’re starving for those kinds of relationships right now. As I write this, I’m beginning to envision snap judgments (and often false ones at that) as a kind of resistance; we resist because we don’t want to care, or because we see something in that person or situation that we don’t want to face in our own lives.We’d rather not be reminded of the past, as opposed to using it for good by lending a helping hand or a listening ear.
For those who are tempted to run, I challenge you to pause and ask yourself why, especially if that person on the other side wants nothing more than to share their heart and their story. Before you label them as “too much” or “high maintenance”, put yourself in their shoes and think about what you would do if you were in their situation. Maybe they opened up because you happened to be on the subject and sensed that you could relate. Maybe they just need someone to simply be there instead of acting like a textbook with all the right answers. Hell, maybe they just need to be human.