There’s a joke going around the Internet. It goes a little something like this: Don’t forget to check on your strong friend so that they can lie to you about how they’re doing.
I laugh, because there’s a lot of truth there. I don’t know if other people would consider me their “strong” friend (I have short stubby T-Rex arms and cry at touching commercials), but I do know that being asked how I’m doing is one of my least favorite things.
It probably doesn’t help that it’s often spat out conversationally. Like a synonym for “hello” turned pointlessly into a question. One that no one really wants you to answer. And that most will walk away from you if you respond to this not-actually-intended-as -a-question with more than a single word.
Even when it’s asked sincerely, by folks who want to know the answer, I typically don’t enjoy the process. If I’m struggling, I don’t like to wallow in it and I don’t like pity. And if I’m having an excellent day, I don’t want to gloat. I’ll instead interpret it as someone asking me what I’m up to. Asking me to share some random detail from my life at the moment, as it is. Rather than provide them an evaluation.
It’s funny because this has definitely changed for me. I can remember wanting to talk to people more about my problems. To tell them when I was struggling.
There was a time when my problems could be solved by knowing that other people cared enough to talk to me. (Because back then, that was usually the hidden problem every time, even if I didn’t realize it.)
And then somewhere along the way, it changed. I got better at solving that particular problem in my own head. I found ways that this wasn’t the problem anymore.
And instead of that being the end of my problems, I realized I had other ones. Ones that are not easily solved by talking it through — whether with a friend or some kind of professional.
I could talk through them pretty well on my own, usually by writing. But I’d typically reach an impasse at some point. A sticking point. A place where I had to leap off into the unknown. And it was always going to be up to me whether I could gather the courage to leap or not.
Even in therapy, that would be what my counselor would be doing. Leading me to that point and waiting patiently as I either decided to jump or not. Into the challenge of changing things or accepting them even though it’s difficult.
Whatever the situation demands.
Don’t get me wrong. I definitely still talk to people. But I talk to very few people about my actual problems. And it’s not because I don’t trust people. Or I’m afraid to lean on others. Or anything at all like that.
But because what’s left for me to figure out is not something anyone else can help me with.
I’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit. And what is left is the grunt work. Uncharted country that no one else can guide me through. That I have to hack my way through on my own.
Recently, what with the pandemic and my father dying, I’ve stopped pretending I’m okay. Because I reached that point where I couldn’t anymore. And where I, frankly, didn’t care if other people knew that I was struggling. Because other people’s opinions and how they could manifest were completely overshadowed by what the moment demanded of me on a personal level — emotionally and even physically.
When you reach that point, that point where you can’t pretend you’re okay anymore, there’s really no other option. I think that point is personal, individual to different folks.
When you address it as a concept, I’ve found that some people don’t really understand what you’re talking about. That’s because they never pretend they’re okay when they’re not. They always wear their feelings on the surface. And they cry for help easily when they feel unsteady.
But for others of us, it’s not a natural tendency. Instead, our instinct is to work on our own terms. Without other people threading in, possibly knocking us off balance with their well-meaning help.
Anyway, a remarkable thing happened when I reached that point. As expected, the cavalry didn’t swoop in. I was not miraculously saved by legions of concerned friends. Instead, my darkness was sufficient to knock others off balance themselves.
And I continued to take care of myself alone, on my own terms. Alone but surrounded by a light that wanted to help but knew it would be unable. That it was my darkness to deal with. My problem to solve.
There is a point where other people can give you company but not the solution. And that’s something that everyone — the person suffering and everyone who wants to help — has to accept.