This is a guest post I wrote not too long ago for Erin. I wanted to reprint it here and make sure you all read it.
Why? Two reasons. First, because I’m preparing another guest post for someone else and I need to buy myself a little time. Second, and more important, is this: you may not know it, but I am creating an army here. Yes, an army. Obviously. You may or may not have been aware that you have been drafted.
Someday? You will meet a family in pain, a parent who is struggling, a person who hurts. You may have that blank moment where you think, “Oh, no! What am I supposed to say? I know nothing about this!” and then, you might be tempted to fall back on a platitude.
This is me, doing an end-run around platitudes and urging you to see and hear the people who come to you with their hurting and their sadness and their confusion.
* * * * *
When I look back across the writing I’ve done in the past eight years, there are several themes, and a prominent one (maybe the most prominent) is this: I have not felt heard.
I am declaring (Now! Today! Aren’t you glad you’re here to witness this event?) that heard is a feeling.
When Carter was a baby and I told people (any people: the pediatrician, family members, people at church) that he cried so much I was sure there was something wrong, those people said, “All babies cry,” or, “He seems fine right now!”
When Carter was a toddler and began to have violent tantrums during when he smashed his face into the floor until he raised huge bruises on his forehead and bloodied his nose, people chucked and said, “It’s the red hair; it came with a temper!”
When Carter started having panic attacks every morning before school, his teacher said, “Stop that right this minute and go sit down! There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
When Carter began to hurt himself and threaten suicide and I told people I was in agony from watching my child suffer, they said, “Life never gives you more than you can handle!”
When Carter tried to jump out of our car when we were driving 65 mph in rush hour traffic and I decided to quit my job and focus all of my energy on helping him get stable (or, as I like to think of it, saving his life), people said, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”
When I poured my heart out, overwhelmed by pain and grief, people said, “You need to have a positive attitude!”
I didn’t really understand until about a year ago what it was I needed. I tried to stop talking about it; I wanted to obey the social conventions that tell us to smile politely and say that everything is fine. Yes, fine, thank you. Just fine. I wanted to cultivate a positive attitude, to be the person who could handle the long crisis my life had become with grace, style, and finesse.
I was at war inside myself, caught in a swirl of terror and rage, almost panicked by my inability to help Carter feel, if not happy, then at least safe. I was feeling all of those things like they were a storm inside my chest but my mind repeated over and over the things I had heard: It’s not a big deal. You’re overreacting. He’s fine. Smile. Show people what they want to see: a positive attitude, strength, grace.
The end result of all my striving for a positive attitude? A new layer of guilt.
And then, like magic (but slowly, so it only seems like magic in my memory), some people came into our lives. New doctors and a psychologist; an online community; a support group for parents of children with mood disorders.
For the first time, people looked at me and said, “That must be hard.” They told me, “It sounds very painful.” They acknowledged my feelings. They heard me. They didn’t minimize me or my feelings by giving advice or pitying me. They simply bore witness.
And then, with no effort on my part, without punishment or self-flogging or guilt, I found that I began to develop a positive attitude.
I learned to laugh again.
I learned to enjoy Carter. I was able to be fully present in the joyful moments as well as in the crises.
We began to resemble a family again. A family with significant challenges; a family that is more chaotic and difficult than most, in some ways limited, but a family. Now, we live with the difficulties and manage the crises, but they don’t define us most of the time.
I watch Carter, see how urgently he, too, needs all of his feelings acknowledged. His panic before school resurfaces often and if someone says to him, “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” he only screams louder. When I say, “You’re really scared about going to school,” he is often able to pull it together just enough to try using his calming skills.
Fundamental to human nature is this: we want to be seen and heard. We want to be acknowledged. Feelings are feelings; they aren’t rational, but they are real.
I’m so grateful to the people who first heard my pain. They helped me to become a much better mother to Carter. They helped me feel less alone, more hopeful, and stronger.
My life is difficult. I’m afraid for the future and when Carter is hurting, I hurt, too. But we’re not invisible anymore. That makes all the difference