I read a blog post written by someone who was very disturbed by a comment she received on one of her posts. She moderates her comments and never posted the one in question but she wanted feedback on if she handled the situation the right way. The commenter told her that he was going through a rough time and that he was considering taking his life. She was understandably freaked out and while she considered emailing him directly, she ultimately chose to ignore it altogether. The situation bothered her so much that she even considered not blogging anymore. What I found interesting is that of all the comments people left in response to her dilemma, only one person suggested that she had missed an opportunity to reach out to the man and to suggest that he seek professional help. All of the other comments echoed the same thought that she was right to protect herself from a possibly unhinged stranger.
Now, I’m not one to judge her choice to ignore the man’s comment. I haven’t exactly reacted lovingly to strangers myself when caught off guard (you can read all about it here). What her reaction brought up in me was the years I spent being intolerant of other people’s suffering. I still struggle with it because often my first reaction when someone is in pain is to ask what is this going to require of me? I’m a lot better at showing up than I used to be but it’s not my first instinct.
One of my biggest regrets from my drinking days was being completely intolerant of other peoples’ pain. I couldn’t just sit with a friend and hold her hand while she cried. I missed out on cultivating deep friendships because I either turned away from friends in their moment of need or I tried to solve their problems for them.
Lisa at Sober Identity wrote a great post on why we tend to veil the truth. She talks about how we can’t be comfortable with other people knowing us if we’re not comfortable with our own truths. Not only did I avoid my own truth while I was drinking, I wasn’t comfortable with anyone else’s.
I had to try to fix your problems because I was tied to the outcome. If you failed because you didn’t take my advice, then it meant that all the pain and suffering I had endured in my life was for nothing. Something good had to come from my years of struggling and that something was my ability to fix you. If you didn’t take my advice, I washed my hands of you because clearly you didn’t really want my help. And if you did take my advice, I was terrified because who the hell am I to be giving advice? I was barely holding on myself (not that I’d ever let you see that). I’d distance myself so that I didn’t have to see my counsel fail you. If by chance things worked out for you, I’d take the credit because it was clearly my experience and wisdom that helped you turn the corner. Whew! That was a close one.
It was important for me to appear knowledgeable and I knew just enough psychobabble to convince you that I had my shit together. If your problem fell outside my areas of expertise, well then, you were on your own. I’d pull away from you until you resolved your crisis and I could safely be in your presence without risking my fragile emotional well being. I’ve been hurt by people like you too many times before.
I didn’t know how to accept friendship either. Sitting with someone through their pain and distancing yourself from them because you can’t tolerate it can look the same to someone with an addicted mind. I know because I often couldn’t tell the difference. I can look back now and see when someone was letting me work through my thoughts and feelings without trying to offer solutions but at the time, I resented them for it. Clearly they didn’t love me enough to try to fix my life. Yet, if they offered advice, I most certainly wouldn’t take it because I needed them to be wrong. I needed to be different, an individual, alien. No one could share my pain because I was unique. It was exhausting to want to be connected to people but feel constantly compelled to put up the armor that kept me separate.
I have a friend that I’m not close with anymore, mainly because I turned away from him when he was suffering. He endured an unimaginable loss followed by a deep depression and suicide attempt. I felt helpless to do anything for him so I did nothing. The pain I felt over his suffering was so agonizing to me that I couldn’t bear to be with him. I felt unusually pained by his situation because it brought up so many of my own fears and demons. I couldn’t sit with not being able to fix him and I couldn’t sit with the feelings that his circumstances brought up in me so I walked away from our friendship. It’s one of my biggest regrets.
Now days, I try not to offer advice as much as share something that happened to me that might be relatable. I don’t hold on to the outcome because I have enough respect for my friends to trust that they know what’s best for them. If I’m asked directly, I might give my opinion but I don’t try to fix anyone or anything. Trying to take away someone’s pain robs them of the gifts that suffering can bring. An unavoidable truth is that we can’t wholeheartedly appreciate love, understanding, gratitude and connection unless we’ve experienced the dark side. Mostly, I just try to show up. Sometimes, a friend just needs me to say I see you.
I love this video below of two young men trying to make homeless people smile. They’re not trying to save the world. They’re not even trying to change anyone’s life. They’re showing what it looks like to connect to someone in need with a banana, a t-shirt, a bottle of water and a hand shake. They’re saying I see you.