How are you, really?

A piece inspired by the moving ABC's Four Corners "There's no 3G in Heaven" episode on September 9, 2012. Written for those we've lost and for those we can inspire to keep on going. September 13, 2012 in RU OK Day. Make sure you ask someone you care about how they're really going.

A few months ago, one of my close friends sent me a message, cryptic as usual, that set off my alarm bells. I asked him what was wrong and he refused to speak. He told me I should be studying and that we'd talk on the weekend. I worried. And worried some more. And didn't study effectively at all. Friday eventually rolled around and I asked him again, what's wrong? Is everything okay? You seem upset. I don't mind listening. 

And then he told me. A close friend of his had committed suicide. Worse, it was almost ten years to the day since they'd lost another of their group. Ten years in which they'd allowed themselves to think maybe it'll all be okay. We're stronger now. We're older.  But that day, the nightmare was back. The sort of nightmare from which you wake feverish, gasping for breath and with the grief blurring your senses. The sort of nightmare that, for a split second, the cause is unknown. And then, just as certain as the sun rising in the morning, it dawns on you. It didn't matter that they had grown up, or that they were wiser, or that they'd long left the awkward corridors of High School behind. No, the world after school can be that much more isolating - especially when it's so easy to get caught up in doing things rather than hanging out. The hurt, the sorrow, the thoughts of "what-if" were palpable between the lines of my friend's short text messages. I'm so sorry, I thought. I wish you didn't have to go through this again. And I don't know if there's anything I can do to make you feel better. Let your hurt out. Just cry. Just scream and cry and yell, because otherwise this hurt will win and you'll get lost too. Please, just cry. Just cry and I'll be right here if you need me.

A few short months earlier, I sat with a different friend as he unconvincingly forced a smile. There was no fooling me. What's up? I asked. What I really meant was I know something's bothering you. You can let it out. I can see you're hurting. "Oh nothing," he said, "I'm just tired." I wanted to say that wasn't the whole story, but I bit my tongue. I wanted to tell him that he didn't need to be macho, to keep it in, to act like the slumped shoulders and not-quite-half-smile that definitely lacked twinkling eyes was just from fatigue. It wasn't like I would think he was less of a man for feeling emotional. I found myself biting back the other soliloquy about strength having nothing to do with muscles and everything to do with being open to your own emotions - and sifting through them. The speech I find myself giving many of my friends, especially my male friends, when I sense they're feeling down. You don't have to do this own your own, I thought, loudly, as if that would make it more obvious. I won't think you're silly. I won't judge you. I've got two ears - I can listen and maybe it'll make more sense if you say it out loud. As the small talk continued, I saw him disconnect from that hurt, momentarily, forgetting the tumultuous thoughts that had been raging against the tight confines of his brain.

About the same time, I was at a cocktail party with some good friends. Sitting quietly and watching over everyone having fun, a friend sidled up to me and whispered quietly, are you okay? I was surprised by the question, but truth be told, cocktail parties can be a little boring when you're the only one not drinking. He wanted to talk, so in amongst all of these laughing, loud, dancing friends, we sat. We've never really talked properly, he said. We hang out all of the time, but we never get to just talk. I understood. And so we talked. We talked about what matters. We talked about the best moments and the worst moments. We talked philosophy. Our sentences were punctuated not by grammar but by laughter as our deep conversation was broken by the antics of our friends. I want to write about my journey, he said. Will you read it?

I said yes. The ten-page essay that confronted me the next day (the size of the slider on the scroll bar indicated I was in for quite a read) was a deep insight into this friend's experiences and, suddenly, his wisdom and absolute empathy suddenly made sense. Most people go to hell and back at some point in their life; this friend seemed to have made that journey five times over. I cried for his pain and smiled ruefully at the things that only seem humorous in retrospect. And I knew, if there's anything in the world that makes you "real friends", this would be it.

There's not a day that goes by where I wish I could tell people it'll be okay. The teen girls at the train station who lament (loudly and with more expletives in their sentence than anything else) about their unfaithful boyfriends; the business people on the train who manage to hold it together for their 9-5 but need something when they are forced to go home to an empty house; the families I see crying quietly at hospital. It'll be okay, I want to say, even if it isn't right now. The cliches mean nothing - time won't heal all wounds, but being honest with yourself now and letting others in will make it hurt less.

You wouldn't let a physical wound fester. You'd wash it with antiseptic, which would make you wince with that horrible burning sensation that seems to last far longer than the cleaning process. You'd give it a bandaid or bandage, which you'd change frequently. And if it didn't get better, you'd go see a doctor.

Let someone in. Start a conversation. Look out for your friends and be ready to catch the people you love when they need you. Smile, because it might make you feel better. Laugh at the little things. And ask yourself, am I okay? And if you're not, it's okay to seek help.

If you are distressed or worried about a friend, you can access online resources at beyondblue and ReachOut.com or call Lifeline (13 11 14) or Kids' Helpline (1800 55 1800). In an emergency, dial 000 in Australia (112 internationally).

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