Talking About Things That Hurt…

I think that for the most part, people mean well.  Even with blinding avoidance of some topics, I don’t think malice is behind what seems like apathy, or even repulsion.  My guess is that it’s more a matter of just not knowing how to approach some topics, especially if that topic is linked to some sort of instability or potential ‘trigger’ for harm.  In my life, that applies to anything related to my hospitalizations for being suicidal, or having attempted suicide (though I never really wanted to die…I just didn’t know how to get out of the pain associated with eating disorders).  It’s just not something that is covered in “Social Conversation 101”, and add a church background that repels any sort of mental pain as some type of spiritual weakness, and the doors and mouths are shut when the exact opposite is needed.

I love that I grew up in a church that was a great social and spiritual setting. The kids’ and high school programs were a lot of fun, and the place where most of my friends hung out.  I have deep gratitude for being raised in a church, and while I haven’t been to any particular building for many years (related to my job for a lot of that time, and otherwise my health limitations), my belief in God and Christianity are strong.  I’m not ‘rigid’, as is often associated with evangelicalism.  When I was growing up, the beliefs I learned were just how it was.  I then spent time as an adult reading through the Bible on my own, and found so much less judgement and hostility towards ‘non-believers’…that those who hurt are who the Bible is meant to attract, as well as give guidance to those who do believe. It’s not meant to be  a ‘weapon’ of pompous piety.  I was embarrassed at the narrow-minded acceptance parameters that I’d grown up with, and I also felt that I understood being on the ‘wrong’ side of what was acceptable.  My high school and  post-high school years were an intense period of  general unrest, eating disorders, and suicidal depression that never happened unless I wasn’t eating properly. During those years, suicide was something that came up more than once… yet I couldn’t really discuss it with anybody who knew me very well.  My parents found out I was mentioning some dark topics, and then chastised me for ever talking about such a thing; I had nothing to be all that upset about, why did I want to make THEM look bad?  All about them.  So I didn’t talk anymore. Until I got away from home.

I had worked at a wonderful church camp during the summers before my senior year in high school, freshman year of college, and half of the following summer. I’d met some incredibly caring people, and I’d disclosed a bit about the depths of despair I’d felt with the eating disorders and accompanying depression with a select few of them.  I did talk about suicide with one of them, that I remember, during a semester break when I was working at a missions conference that she attended at the University of Illinois, where I went to school.  She was also quite young at the time  (though older than I was, so I was sure she knew just about everything, being in her 20s !), and she was a major source of encouragement.  When someone is in the midst of not knowing if they even want to live, it’s not that helpful to tell them they’re not doing something ‘right’, and she didn’t do that. She did focus my thinking towards the lies in my head, and more on my/our Christian belief system.   I adore this friend to this day, and while  it  wasn’t her ‘job’ to be my counselor, she did the best she could.  Now, many years past those miserable early adulthood years, I do agree that focusing more on being what Christ wants of me, and less on the superficial things like weight  and human perception (at least how it was then) is very much what I want to do, and needed to do back then.  But as a scared, malnourished, ashamed, and depressed eighteen year old, I didn’t really get it.  But at least she talked to me at all… I didn’t feel safe talking to about %99.9 of people I knew (or didn’t know, such as therapists).  And she listened, which was ‘enough’ to help me hang on.  She gave me her time.

Sometimes,  just having something to hang on to is ‘enough’ to get through another day, and maybe that next day isn’t so bad, so it’s easier to see making it through the day after that.  I don’t think it’s a sin to have ‘negative’ emotions. I think that there can be sinful choices in how they’re handled sometimes, and I also think that there are times when people are so deep in the weeds that they need someone to look to while they try and climb back to tended ground.  I also don’t think that mental illness is a sin or sign of spiritual weakness.  It’s an illness,  and those who suffer from it (and it is suffering) are seen as being spiritually weak  in many church settings.  That is SO sad.

I can only imagine Jesus looking down at those who are hurting emotionally, and wanting those who claim to know Him to reach over and encourage and gently nudge the ones in pain so they  keep adding days to their lives until the oppressive clouds lift, and they  see daylight again.  I don’t see Jesus adding shame and judgement to someone who is already struggling to see that the next breath is worth taking.

There is a time and place for instructional discipleship, and a time and place for compassionate encouragement.  But silence in the middle of a rotating thunderstorm just doesn’t make sense.  It’s that silence that can be the last opportunity to reach out to someone who is spiraling out of control, and into a place of absolute helplessness and hopelessness, and ultimately suffocating darkness.  Even ‘just’ asking if someone wants to talk, and ‘just’ sitting with them can be enough to let them know that they matter enough to keep taking up space on the planet.  Nobody has to know all of the answers.  And it’s possible to have more questions than answers and still be a temporary rock in the middle of pain that feels like it’s going to last forever.  Being so afraid of doing something wrong that nothing is done is sometimes beyond useless. To someone who hurts, being glossed over by those who know them is worse than having something not be ‘perfectly’ helpful.  Perception in the middle of pain is often very ego-centric and inaccurate.  But a kind word in a gentle tone can ease so much.

There is nothing wrong with saying “I really don’t know how to help you, but I am so afraid for how much pain I see you in.  What can I do? I am here for you. You matter to me.”.   Having human limitations isn’t going to cause irreparable damage to someone. But apathy and inaction might.  I don’t think that anybody is ever the ’cause’ for someone else taking their own life.  If someone is resolute in their decision to at least try and end their life, they will do so. But when there are signs that something is wrong, I do believe that at least offering some human compassion and understanding can’t hurt.  And, no matter what, I’d rather know I at least tried.

 

 

Friends Who Cross the Line: Suicidal vs. Drama Junkie

I had a coworker one time who initially seemed to be a ‘normal’ everyday person and LVN (licensed vocational nurse).  I got to know her family, and we worked well together.  She was supportive of me when I had been going through some of the eating disorder stuff.  For several years, the friendship was close and the boundaries weren’t dysfunctional.  We were friends- not mutual ‘therapists’.

Then she started going through some things that I was in no way equipped to deal with. It’s one thing to be supportive, but it’s quite another to be asked to participate in the chaos.  I’d visited her in the hospital when she decided she was going to have an eating disorder and was being tube fed (she had never had a history of eating disorders until her late 30s- possible, but not the usual age for first onset).  I encouraged her during ‘recovery’.  There was an awful lot of work she put into having an eating disorder that was unlike anybody else I’d ever seen in my years of eating disorder treatment; I probably saw a few dozen ED patients during those times…’P’ made it her life’s work.  Not something that was controlling her thoughts. It’s hard to explain- but it was different.  She recovered when she got tired of Slim Fast.  She sort of stablized out, and resumed her life as a nurse, mom, and wife.

Then one day, she called me and asked if she could come over to my apartment.  I told her it was fine, though I was rather preoccupied taking care of a nine day old baby- he’d been adopted by a coworker at my then current place of employment, and I was the designated babysitter while she was working. I wanted to be fully attentive to him, as well as knowing that his mom would be calling to see how he was doing. Because he was adopted she didn’t have the maternity leave of several weeks.  Anyway, ‘P’ came over. She walked in and asked me if I’d tell her kids that she loved them; she was going to kill herself.  I was instantly livid.

I’d dealt with suicidal coworkers and patients before.  Professionally, I knew the resources that were available, and who I needed to contact.  On a friendship level, I was outraged that she even thought that what she was asking was OK.  I had a newborn in my arms, and a crazy person in my living room.  There was no question whose best interest I was looking after. I told ‘P’ “sure, I’ll tell them”, and I escorted her to her car, got her license plate number, and called the police.  I then called her psychiatrist who told me I was the third or fourth person to let him know she was running around telling people she was suicidal.  That made me even more angry- but I’d notified the proper people. She was their problem.

I’m not insensitive to suicidality- not at all.  I’ve been there.  I’ve overdosed to the point of being comatose for three days, waking up in ICU and not knowing what was going on. I still don’t remember wanting to die.  I remember being overwhelmed, but not wanting death to be the outcome.  I know the internal struggle to find some way out of intense emotional pain. But this was different.  I don’t think that the vast majority of suicidal people are ‘crazy’…not by a long shot. This was behavior that is SO indicative of borderline personality disorder, which is an extremely difficult disorder to deal with.  The hot-cold, sick-well, black-white thinking and actions are exhausting.  The person is in legitimate psychological pain- and they spread it around whether they mean to or not.

There is no healthy relationship with someone who is a borderline…other than to back away and leave that part of their life to the professionals.  Folks with BPD create crises in their lives, and involve whoever they deem to be on their ‘good list’ (that week).  If there is some sort of perception of that person not seeing things their way, then they’re on the ‘bad list’.  And it flip-flops all the time.  Working with borderlines was tiring enough when I was getting paid for it; having one outside of work involved in my life wasn’t going to happen when it got to the point of her ‘playing’ with suicidal comments.

I got a message on my answering machine later that night saying that she was sorry to have upset me, and that the police were there when she got home from my apartment.  I never had voluntary contact with her again. She did surface at a nursing home I worked at, but quit after a couple of weeks: no call-no show. I was asked by my employer what I thought about ‘P’… she was a good nurse, but her personal life was a train wreck (she had a LOT of unresolved childhood trauma issues- which I did hope she got help for, but she didn’t need to be responsible for nursing home residents)…. I just said that I’d always thought her penmanship was really good.  I wasn’t going to tell them about the psychological issues   since she wasn’t still working there.  Had she continued to be in charge of elderly patients, I’m not sure I would have had a choice but to report her instability due to the rules of the Texas Board of Nurses. And yet, she had never let her patients suffer… she was a good nurse. It was iffy territory.   It wasn’t fair for her to put me in that position.  I’m a loyal friend until someone plays with crisis situations as if they were games.

I’ve thought about ‘P’ over the years, and hope she found some peace and was able to work through the things in her early life that were genuinely horrible.  She was in a lot of pain, and had some tragic things happen with one of her three kids.  I’ve wished the best for her and her family. The last I heard, she and her husband that I knew divorced (a borderline wife would have been really hard), and she’d remarried.  That was at least 20 years ago.  I hope she found some sort of calm in her life, and a realization that she didn’t need to create chaos for people to care about her. She had some wonderful qualities.  But she was in so much pain…it was more than a friend could handle with any sort of healthy boundaries.