Disclaimer: I once wrote a paper in my international trade class about the dangers of countries “dumping” large quantities of a product into another country’s market, which distorts that country’s market and undercuts prices. This post isn’t about that. You’re welcome.
When I was a primary care giver, one of the most profound feelings or emotions I experienced was isolation. I first remember feeling isolated when I was young, once I was old enough to realize that my family structure was different from that of my friends. I didn’t notice it when I was living through it (everything seemed normal as I had no perspective on the situation), but I became aware as I progressed through school that the life I was living was unique, that most kids don’t experience that kind of loss at such an early age. My stepmother sent me through a therapist when I was middle school, but I didn’t know how to use the sessions. I didn’t know what to say.
As my father declined, I spent less time around others, even around those who were my closest friends. I stopped enjoying activities like going to the bar to watch a game or a fight. Maybe I was experiencing the first signs of depression, but so many evenings I lied to my father and told him no one was doing anything because I wanted to spend the time with him. There were also plenty of evenings where I just went home because I was emotionally spent. I’d talk to my stepmother for a bit, and I was lucky to have both her and my sister, so incredibly lucky. In them, I had two people who understood the reality and the gravity of the situation I was living each and every day. I had people I could vent my frustration to, and I tried to offer that same service in return. It was the least I could do.
I shunned things like support groups because I didn’t want to talk about what was happening to me. To me, therapy is something that’s deeply personal, that should only involve two people: the patient and the mental health professional. I’ve since relented on that, having taken part in one support group session, or to put it more specifically, a, “caregiver gathering.” As I sat there and listened to people tell their stories and talk about conflicted feelings, I realized I’d been mistaken. I realized this was a resource I could have utilized when I was going through my Dad’s illness. These were people who were in the same situation I’d been in, who were open and willing to talk about it, and who seemed to be drawing some strength from it.
I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I didn’t want to think about getting a job because to me it was an admission of a life after my father. I knew deep down that life would go on once he passed, and that he’d want us all to live it with vigor and feeling, but all I could focus on was every day, every hour, every minute, every second we had left together. I knew that these memories would have to sustain me, as painful as they were, and I wanted to retain as many of them as I could. After all, if I played my cards right, I’d live many more decades without my father at my side. I wanted him with me in some form or another.
Family members offered to lend me their ear if I ever needed it, but I never took them up on it. To me, it just felt like I was dumping. The exchange was asymmetric, and I didn’t want to burden anyone with the pain and anguish I was experiencing. I felt guilty if I discussed it with someone who wasn’t helping me take care of my father, and I learned to keep things to myself. My current roommate and I have been friends since preschool, and I remember being on a beach in Florida when he asked me, “What can I do?”
“Just listen,” I responded.
In my last job, despite the difficult situations I witnessed, I was reluctant to talk about them at the end of the day with that roommate. After almost a year of living together, I decided it was time. I eased into telling him about my day, but I found myself holding things back; I’d rather spare someone else the pain. I still hold back in conversation, afraid of burdening someone else, afraid of saying too much. When conversations get too real at a party or social gathering, I’ll apologize for ruining the mood or killing the vibe.
Nothing isolates you from the people around you like individualized experiences others can’t understand. It can be something simple like a specialized job, or a story about people you don’t know or don’t have any vested interest in, or it can be a devastating loss or trauma that you can’t communicate to someone else, and maybe you stay silent because telling someone else about it would selfish. You’d rather hold it in and just try and swallow it, even though this tactic will never be effective. I value my therapist and our sessions because that’s when I can get into the deeper topics, feel free to let it all out, and I don’t have to worry about the repercussions. I get the feeling I’m not the worst person she’s heard that day.
People who live through these things only want to talk to people who’ve been through something similar, and I’m not sure how to rectify this. Support groups and communities definitely help, but when people offer advice for how to deal with something, and they themselves haven’t been through it, it can seem hollow or condescending. We tell these people, “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” as a defensive tactic, and the relationship is none the better for it.
And maybe that is the answer, to find people who’ve been through what we’ve been through so we can finally discuss what’s affecting us, and feel less alone in the process. As we begin to process and analyze our feelings with others of a similar mindset, maybe that’s when we start to feel less alone, and start to move on with our lives. Even if your life experiences have been different, the best way to be there for a close friend is to sit with them and grant them that safe space, where they can feel comfortable enough to let it all fly, without worrying that they’re going to crush you. Absorb everything like a sponge, and just let them speak. Let them talk it out, and try and keep the advice to a minimum. Thanks for reading.