Seen and Heard

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

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31 thoughts on “Seen and Heard”

  1. This. x1000.

    (Man, my comments on your blog suck. But your posts do not.)

    OK, a little more: people often want to skip the part of radical acceptance where they go “yeah, this sucks” (or rather, people want to force others past that stage), and straight to smiling in the middle of a shitstorm. But it doesn’t work that way. If we’re not allowed to feel and speak (and have heard!) all the sucktastictude, we never really get to feel the sort-of, mixed-up, ambivalent-but-real joy either. And I want my joy, damnit. So I’m going to tell you about the shit. And the joy. And the everything else. Often all at once.

    …yeah, my comment’s still not worthy of your post. Ah well.

    1. You crack me up! Yes, the smiling into the shitstorm…people are in a hurry for that part.

      Also, seems to me (and I think this may be more of an issue for native English speakers) that holding many feelings at once is very difficult for most people. Either you are happy OR sad when in fact I am often both.

      1. Yes! Because I can (and do) hate and love an experience, feel fear and joy, anger and acceptance. I’m not single-dimensional. I refuse to pick which of my multitude of emotions to honor, because they’re all real, and they all deserve to be voiced and to be heard.

        1. Exactly. I contain multitudes, to be very poetic about a very messy experience. Where did we get the idea that emotions were like a mathematical equation? They don’t have to make sense, they aren’t rational. They just ARE.

          As always? It is good to be HEARD and also, good to HEAR. Thank you.

      2. My thanks to Arwyn for directing me here…

        Thank you for this post! I have no idea what it would be like to have a child with a mood disorder. I do know what it is like for family and friends to be utterly dismissive of what is going on with your child. I am lucky in that I DO have people that understand, that get it, and have helped us immensely. I hope everyone could have the same…

        1. So agree. Long before I had Carter, I would look on, stunned, at funerals as people said things like, “Maybe it was for the best,” about people who died as children or young adults. For the best? In what universe? Raw grief is painful to witness; let’s pile guilt on top so they’ll all be quiet!

          I couldn’t be more thankful to have finally found people who can hear, and thankful that you have that, too.

      3. Mama, you are a rock star.

        I NEVER know what to say in situations like that. Shit like “everything happens for a reason” etc. doesn’t make me feel better so I wouldn’t say it to someone else. And if I ever do? Throat punch me.

        1. No, YOU are a rock star. OK, we’ll both be rock stars.

          And yes, it’s that discomfort that leads people to say those stupid things. Big emotions are painful to witness, but the plain old witnessing is all that is required. There’s no “feeling better” in that place, so trying to force it only makes things worse.

      4. You are probably familiar with the concept of the “enlightened witness” in recovery programs for abuse survivors, or children of alcoholics/addicts? That what many of us need, what is often the thing that MUST happen before healing can begin is for someone to say, “that was horrible. that shouldn’t have happened to you. you did not deserve that.”

        I think that is a comparable thing. Someone needs to acknowledge that a situation is hard, sometimes unbearable, so we can find the strength to inhale and take another step.

        Yes, “heard” is an emotional state. I agree.

        1. Yes, I think you’re very right. Acknowledge first; everything else has to come after that. It’s like forgiveness; people have to be free to feel their anger and hurt first. I hate how some churches hit people over hit people over the head by telling them to forgive before they’re ready. It doesn’t work like that.

      5. In his book “How to be an adult in relationships,” David Richo talks about mindful listening. In most conversations I think people have a hard time listening mindfully because they keep mentally imposing a layer of their own need over what they hear from you. They are not OK, they desperately want to be OK, so there fore they need YOU to be OK. When you’re telling them you’re not OK either, they feel anxious and like they need to fix something or pretend something’s not there. Just so they can keep on living the illusion that they’re OK.

        The thing I’ve found about other parents with SN kids (the ones that aren’t in denial) is that they’ve accepted that they’re broken. They’ve accepted that they’re not OK. Once they get to the process of redefining their “normal” they have a lot more room to accept YOUR problems and YOUR brokenness. They know that NOTHING they tell you is going to make it OK and so they can just listen instead. They won’t try to fix what can’t be fixed.

        My cousin was my first best listener. Her youngest son, now a teen, has PDDNoS. Where he is today is miles from where he was when first diagnosed, and that is so much due to his mom’s involvement and constant intervention from the time he was very young. She was the person I could talk to about what was happening with my daughter. She didn’t try to fix things – if I asked her for advice she would share her experience, but she would always qualify with “but that’s what happened for us, it might not be the same for you.” She still is my sounding board IRL, the one person I know outside of the internet who understands what life is like when your child is special.

        The sad thing is that the people who really need to read this post probably won’t get it.

        1. You’re right. We know how to live with brokenness. We learn these terrible lessons about acceptance that many people never have to learn. And it’s awful and it hurts like fire, but after that, we are less afraid because we know that big pain is survivable. It sucks, but we will live through it.

          Those are the people (people like your cousin) who I want to be with when things go to hell. I want people who can just sit their asses down and be in it with me, no judgment, no attempts to fix, no pity or sympathy or anything. Their own pain may be present, too, but without an attempt to change things. Simple be-withingness. A great gift, that.

      6. Ahhhhh . . .

        To be seen and heard.

        That’s all anyone wants in this world, I think. Once the basic necessities are addressed, I mean. You want someone to really see and hear you.

        I know that’s what I want.


      7. admittedly I’m a little emotional today, but this. this. this.

        the past year has been an enormous shitstorm; the year leading up to it an only slightly smaller shitstorm. through it all, the people who have just heard me – held me in silence – will forever be close to my heart.

        1. It amazes me, how something so (seemingly) small is such a tremendous gift. But it is. It’s huge.

          I’m so glad to hear that some people gave that gift to you!

      8. There is something amazing that happens when someone is able to show you that they hear you. There are certain people I go to when I am struggling because I know that they won’t give advice, tell me it is all going to be fine, or brush it off as me over reacting. They will respond with love and empathy. I am glad that you were able to find those people. HUGS.

      9. Pingback: Acknowledgement « The OCD Chronicles

        1. Thank you! Yes, it’s such a simple thing, but many (most?) people don’t know how to do it. I hope you have some people in your life who know how to be with you and hear your pain without imposing anything on you. I hope that for everyone.

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