How To Respond Badly

Sharing problems is hard to do. Our society values being “drama-free” over dealing maturely when drama–as it inevitably does–happens. We’re supposed to fix it ourselves, or just ignore it. Because that’s what you do, right? (If I ever meet whomever made up the stupid rules of society, we are going to have Words.) As a result, we somehow manage to avoid talking about how to respond helpfully to someone with capital ‘B’ Bad News. We’re self-indulgent creatures, after all, and we’ll do all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid staring a situation in the face and recognizing that it’s just rotten. It’s less bad than you think it is! It’s fixable! You’re going to be fine!

No.

Some things are terrible, and all you can do is sit with them and look at how horrible they are. People hurt and die and damage each other for no discernible reason.
It’s just true.
It just happens.
Want to make it hurt less? When someone tells you something rough in their life, don’t do any of these:

Explain how you totally don’t have that problem.

Please, take a few seconds to picture this conversation for me:

Jane: I just got hit by a car! Can you come to the ER so I can have someone there to listen and hold my hand and make sure everything goes okay?

Jeff: Oh, that sucks! I totally look both ways when I cross the street, and I had a near miss last week with this awful driver, but Sally pulled me out of the way. In fact, I’ve never been seriously injured. I never want to be in that much pain or dealing with doctors, and I’ve heard that getting bones set is just miserable!

This is unlikely to the point of hilarity, right?

Right?

A lot of human interaction is trying to relate to each other, and when you simply cannot understand why someone has to deal with That Awful Thing that makes no sense, it’s quite easy to shift gears from sympathy to “but that’s never happened to me!”.

I catch myself in it all the time. One second I’m agreeing how awful it is when professors play favorites, and then suddenly I’m talking about the way my sociology professor always learns everyone’s names. That is the conversational equivalent of ignoring the bleeding person in front of you while you make sure you haven’t broken a nail.

Make an only-slightly-related joke to diffuse tension!

Disclaimer: this could actually, maybe, possibly work for people with a radically different sense of humor and conversational skills than me. I just haven’t met anyone like that. Ever. So factor that into your strategic deployment of humorous non-sequitors. 

When I’ve geared myself up to disclose something, it’s an emotional experience. I often practice before, write down important things, talk it over with trusted friends, and then stress, stress, stress. Sometimes that last step is so overwhelming it inhibits me entirely. So when I say something that makes me feel like I’ve been tangled up in knots, it’s a big deal.  Trying to rearrange my face into a pleasant laugh is so far down on the list of appealing activities it’s spending time with the penguins of Antarctica.

Give me advice I didn’t ask for.

I have to pause here, dear readers and tell you about one very well meaning acquaintance, who, upon hearing me off-hand mention that I was recovering from anorexic tendencies, looked very distraught. They stopped in their tracks and said, with a deadly serious expression, “That’s really bad! You should really try to eat more!” 

Luckily, they caught me on a very good day, and I burst into hysterical laughter instead of uncontrolled sarcasm. Eating more! As a solution to starving myself? Could it be?!

We’d all like to think we’re offering The Best Advice You’ve Never Heard Before. It’s going to fix every problem and cure cancer. Nope! By the time you’ve nerved yourself up to share something that leaves you vulnerable, you’ve probably…you know…thought about fixing it some.

We live in an individualistic society, and being strong and independent is valued. (If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they didn’t want to seek help for a medical or psychological condition because they were going to figure it out/push through it….I’d have really saggy pants.) Commit some variation of this phrase to memory:

That sounds [synonym for bad]! I’m really sorry. Do you want to talk more about it, or be distracted, or are you looking for suggestions for dealing with it?

The subtext: I heard you, I care about you, and I care so much that I’m going to do exactly what you think would be most helpful. And if that advice is completely new or original and you just cannot stand to let it go unsaid, begin here:

I think I might have an idea that could help. Do you want advice?

And then, if they say no, please, please, for the love of cheesecake and chocolate, please keep it to yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about your friend who hurts and needs you to listen to them and their needs. Your need to say some words is trumped by their need to be heard.

The Friend Manual: Part I

Part II
Part III
Part IV 

I am a friend to some lovely brilliant people with mental illness. I also have my own experiences with persistent brainfail, and some really wonderful friends who show up and give me hugs, talk me through the worst nights, and know that when I say I’m not doing so well and need space…I really need space right then and there.

I also have acquaintances who cannot do this. For them, when I want to say “I am incapable of normal interaction right now, please come back later.”, what actually comes out of my mouth is “Oh man, I have a really bad headache.” I am sure that these people, who have always meant well–and include Don’t You Know That’s Bad For You Person and Sometimes I Forget To Eat Too Person–would be shocked, shocked to hear that they’ve said tactless things. After all, that’s how it works–you don’t realize.

Don’t want to be that person?
Have a friend with mental illness?
(Chances are, you probably do.)
Want to make your friend feel like a valued part of society that you care for? If the answer to this is no, artist Ologies has this for you.
With that idea in mind, I’ve put together some basic  ideas for being the best human being you can for someone who’s just told you they have Disorder X.

A Most Important Caveat: It may be that your friend has no interest in discussing anything past the original disclosure. Please make sure to continually check that they are comfortable answering questions….and emphasize that they can tell you to stop at any time, or refuse to answer personal questions they are uncomfortable with. When I feel that I cannot leave or postpone conversations once they’ve begun, I will do anything to prevent them from starting in the first place. Safe spaces aren’t safe when they don’t have an exit.

1. Words Matter More Than Anything
So they found the words to tell you how they feel? Pay attention. Words are the best way we know to get others inside our heads, and the words they use to describe their experience are the most important tools they are giving you. She feels fragile? That’s not the same as depressed. So he is feeling depressed? That is not called feeling sad. I feel most understood and valued and listened-to when I hear someone work within the bounds of how I’ve described my feelings.

You said you were feeling like you had no momentum. Do you still feel like that? Will you feel better if I take you out to dinner and we catch a movie? Or would that make you feel like you have to pretend to be enjoying yourself?

2. Do. Not. Assume.

I know that one of the most basic human instincts is to relate to one another by shared experience. Do not try this.

So, you had that one friend with bipolar disorder that one time back at that one place? Cool story, bro. I can assure you that I am not that friend. In this particular example, there’s the problem that there’s two expressions of bipolar disorder. Didn’t know that? That’s cool. You don’t have to. All you have to know is that I am Me, and that Me is not the same as That Other Person With Disorder X.

3. You Don’t Have to Be Their Therapist

You know them so well, and if you could only get them to consider… No.

Stop right there.

I get it, and you do have a special frame of refernce, but Stop It. Now. Make like a pumpkin and squash that feeling.

4. No, Really, Please Don’t Try to Be A Therapist

If you’re my friend, we have a give-and-take. Sometimes I listen to you talk about that one time you tried to explain an Important Thing to your mom/boyfriend/girlfriend/professor and they Just Didn’t Get It, and sometimes you listen to me grouch about my stressful day at work. We trade off on this, and if we didn’t, I would be a bad friend, and it would be totally fine if you called me on it, or just decided to find the right kind of friends.

This is not how therapy works. Therapists and counselors and psychologists get paid the fancy money to do things like get mad when their clients don’t do their homework and ask really personal questions, and as a result, their clients can expect that they will be given attention, that their problems will be the focus, and that if they don’t seem to be getting the right kind of help, they can fire the therapist. The friendships are far more complex, and as a result, you don’t get to fire your friends, and you don’t have to pay them.

5. I Mean It. You Aren’t A Therapist.

Really, if there’s anything you take away from all these words, let this be it. It will be painful, uncomfortable, and probably downright annoying. You aren’t qualified, and I’d rather have my friend.

What you can do is offer to find local counseling centers. Take me to my appointments if I can’t get there, or give really big hugs when I leave them and I still feel bad. There are therapists out there, and lots of them. Possession of a dusty degree in psychology or that one textbook from freshman year Intro Psych does not somehow negate your Friend Identity. Even if you were a therapist, you should never ever try to treat your friends. So really. Don’t do that.

I started this post, and suddenly I was sitting around with two thousand words on my computer. Part II will be coming soon–in the meantime, leave me suggestions for things I have left out or could have said better!