The other day I was scrolling through my morning Facebook feed when I saw a meme that stopped my pointer finger in its track. The meme, posted by a friend of mine, read, “Sometimes the strongest among us are the ones who smile through silent pain, cry behind closed doors, and fight battles no one knows about.”
Oh, no, I thought. No, no, no. The meme’s words got me riled up in the way you get when you’ve learned an important lesson that really moves and inspires you and you’re convinced the rest of the world needs to learn the same lesson. Whether they want to or not.
I grabbed my mouse, hovered the cursor’s little hand over her name and clicked on “Message.” I stared at the empty private message box and wondered where to begin. The old me, from a few years ago, would have hopped on this meme’s bandwagon and clicked “Like.” I may have added a comment, “Right on” or “I feel you” with several exclamation points. “This hits the nail on the head!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
That was before.
That was before I learned what it feels like when your world caves in on you. Before I learned what it feels like to wage a losing battle against an invisible demon that’s ripping your family apart, stealing your child’s innocence and her mind. I know what it means to feel totally alone; to feel that not one single person on this planet understands your pain and to keep it bottled up. I know this feels like the only way to survive. I also know it doesn’t have to be.
For my friend, I wanted to harness the swell of emotions I felt in my chest, to empathize with her, but also let her know I disagreed with her viewpoint and why.
So in my mind I gathered my resources. I silently repeated the mantra I learned from reading and rereading my Brené Brown books (especially The Gifts of Imperfection): Courage, Compassion, Connection. I wanted to shorten my friend’s path to the lessons I learned about the importance of connection in the giving and receiving of compassion, how much courage it takes to be vulnerable, and that connection to others is an essential element for humans to thrive, at any age.
I typed the following message:
Over the last couple of years I spent a long time crying behind closed doors. I bet you have too. Here’s what it taught me ____________________. By that I mean it taught me nothing. At least not right away. Eventually, I figured out there’s more pain behind the pain and when we stay in that pain alone, we don’t allow ourselves the generosity of others who could show us compassion and help alleviate our suffering. Then, for them in turn, we help alleviate their suffering. We don’t have to suffer in silence, and, in fact, we shouldn’t. We are on this planet to help one another. Although I understand 100% how near fucking impossible it is to take that leap of faith to vulnerability for fear it will only provide us more suffering, not less.
She wrote me back:
It has nothing to do with being vulnerable. Not everyone finds comfort in letting someone into their pain. And for me, I don’t think I’m weak for not doing so. I have found that only I can help me feel better.
Wait. What? I was expecting a “thank you” and maybe even a “you’re right.” She missed my point which made me sad. I wrote her back:
Nope. Didn’t use the word weakness and wasn’t implying it. Sounds like a lonely place to be, but I’m glad you figured out how to make yourself feel better.
She wrote me back again:
Just because someone prefers to cry alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in a lonely place and shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re being judged.
Whoa. Now I was pissed. She could have just asked what I meant. Judgment of her, her feelings or how she was handling them was the last thing on my mind. Yet, my chest was burning. Had she touched on something?
If only feelings followed a nice neat pattern, like a flow chart, one with a circle that says, “Start Here” with yeses and nos and arrows that point in different directions until you arrive at your final destination. Alas, my only option was to be honest with myself. It took a while, but when I looked beneath the anger I found what’s always beneath anger: Hurt.
Every day after my daughter got sick, I sought ways to make sense out of what happened, but came up empty-handed. After a while, I gave up. I believed I’d never understand why she suffered and why nothing I did helped her. She went into a residential treatment program, and while she was gone, I was forced to focus on myself. That’s when I found Brené. My friend’s response hurt because I felt misunderstood and dismissed, yes, but there was more to it than that.
As my daughter healed, I too healed. Healing requires change and hard work. By the time we emerged from the black hole of her mental illness into recovery, I had learned how to foster positive change in my life and wanted to share my knowledge with other hurting parents. To lessen another’s pain gave me purpose. As I reread my message and felt its preachy insistence, I realized what was at stake. If “my” way of dealing with the pain wasn’t better than my friend’s, then I had traveled this far and worked this hard for naught. I needed to be right, and my need fogged my intention. But connection isn’t about being right, it’s about being present.
I wish I could say that I called her and we forged a deep new understanding of one another over the phone. I didn’t call. Instead, I wrote her back and told her I wasn’t going to write this kind of stuff to her anymore because it’s too easy to be misunderstood. I told her that if she wanted to get together, to let me know. I’d love to be able to support her.
A short while later we did get together. We risked vulnerability and said we were sorry. She allowed me the privilege of compassion. We mended our spat and are closer now than we were. When I asked if she’d mind if I wrote this piece, she cheered me on. She said she learned our friendship is a gift. I told her I felt the same way.
There’s no right path to connection—only the path that brings you together.
How has connection worked in your life?