For as long as I can remember, my family, my super-close friends, my kinda close friends, my not-so-close friends, and sometimes total strangers have come to me with their problems. I’m the one my friends go to when they are having relationship problems. They constantly tell me that I’m like a “big sister” to them. One of them said, “You just have a listener’s face; it makes people want to vomit their feelings at you.” If I go to a drugstore and stand in the shampoo aisle long enough, it’s all but inevitable that some elderly lady will come up to me and ask me for assistance and then end up telling me about her life. When I took a 50-hour Greyhound from Iowa City to San Francisco, I sat next to a woman who was fleeing her abusive husband; I listened fitfully and tearfully to her story of how she sold her possessions and bought a bus ticket to Sacramento. Sometimes when I sign on to Gchat I get this fearful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see which of my friends are online, and the horrible, heartless, calculating troll heart inside my regular heart takes over and starts thumping real fast, telling my brain, “Sign off before he/she starts talking about how depressed he/she is and how everything is awful and there is only despair to be felt!”
In the past several months, I’ve spent hours on the phone and on chat and in person talking to my friends who are depressed. I’ve spent nights talking people out of suicide. I recently went on the National Suicide Hotline website, not because I was feeling suicidal, but I had been the confidant to so many people’s suicidal thoughts that I started to feel like I needed some support in order to support others. At first, it seemed indulgent to feel this way, like I was trivializing other people’s real problems and somehow making it all about ME—how exhausting it was for ME to be everyone’s confidant, how awful it was for ME to always have to be around people who were deeply, deeply depressed—but after the fifth night of sleeping three hours because I had stayed up until two in the morning persuading someone not to hurt themselves and to see that they had a lot to live for, and then getting off the phone, crying into my pillow until I was dry heaving, and turning on my computer and finishing an essay that I had neglected all day to work on, I realized that I wasn’t making it about me enough, that I needed to make things more about ME, because the ME that my friends relied on when they were feeling desperate, the ME that my friends believed to be strong or cheerful or resilient, was getting weaker and darker and more fragile with each passing second that I was neglecting to look out for myself.
How do we take care of ourselves when other people need us to take care of them? How do we create space and time to nurture and love ourselves without feeling like we are abandoning the ones we love, people who rely on us and need our support? I haven’t totally figured it out yet, but perhaps these next few tips can at least get us all on the right track.
It’s OK to not be OK.
When I was a teenager, I felt like the adults in my life were constantly telling me that I was really lucky and that my problems were trivial and in like 20 years I would see how good I had it. I hated hearing that, because who wants to wait 20 years to be able to say MY PROBLEMS WERE AND ARE STILL REAL. Let’s just get this over with now: YOUR PROBLEMS ARE REAL. It doesn’t matter if someone says to you, “You don’t seem like the kind of person who gets depressed,” because there is no “kind of person” who gets depressed. There isn’t a category of people who have sole proprietary rights to depression.
Not being OK can look a million different ways. There are some very visible warning signs of not being OK, but there are also lots of ways in which a person’s pain can seem invisible. My friends who are cutters, my friends who are public criers, my friends who write poetry about their blood and guts, my friends who abuse alcohol and drugs on a regular basis—their pain has always been so, so visible. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that your pain isn’t legit if you’re the one who is listening to your friend’s sad poetry, or the one who holds your friend’s hair back when she pukes. Pain can be dramatic and sharp and obvious, but it can also be muted and nuanced and inconspicuous.
In college, I had a “spot” that I would go to every single night to cry. No one knew about it. One night, when I was feeling particularly sad, my good friend told me, “This is really weird. You’re normally so cheerful. I never thought I would see you in a bad mood.” I realized that I hadn’t been honest with her. I had been tightly controlling how much of me I allowed her to see, and as a result, my problems were invisible to her.
Make your own needs visible to others. Tell someone you’re not OK.
My little brother has really severe OCD, and two years ago, when his illness was really spiraling out of control, we would talk every night before bed. One time, I had my door open and I was crying on my bed when my brother came in to talk to me about his OCD stuff. I wanted to pull myself together so I could help him, but I was too sad and too weak. I thought maybe he would be freaked out by my crying, but to my total surprise he came up and asked if I was all right. Instead of saying “I’m fine” like I usually did, I said, “I’m not OK. My boyfriend broke up with me and my heart is broken and I feel like I can’t live.”
And you know what? My baby brother, who was born on Christmas nine years after I was born on Christmas, who used to snuggle with me in my little twin bed when I was in high school and he was in elementary school, whom I taught to say “Can I have a drink, please?” instead of “Thirsty, please,” who used to pee into jars that I had to hold between my legs in the car on long road trips, whom I have taken care of since he was born, whom, prior to that moment, I had never even once considered confiding in, helped me. He talked to me about my relationship and gave me advice and listened to me and told me, “I wouldn’t grovel and beg someone to take me back, because, uh, I have too much self-respect, and no one is really worth that,” which turned out to be the most calming thing anyone could have said to me at that exact moment in my life.
Don’t underestimate the people in your life—sometimes that younger sibling, that friend who always seems so needy, may very well surprise you and be there for you in all the ways that you have been there for them. Which brings me to…