what your sad friend does not need to hear from you

I just had a really lovely, low-key, fun evening with a friend. We went for a hike and then for Burmese food. It was just what I needed.

Then I was driving home and thinking about whatever and kind of continuing the conversation we had had at dinner with myself, as I am wont to do, and then all of a sudden I was in tears. Not breaking down inconsolable, but a steady, obnoxious, salty stream–just me, mascara-y tears, and 101.

This is not the first time that some zen-ish driving (i.e. not rush hour) has…prompted? allowed? made? me start to cry about the state of my life. It has happened a lot since I moved here, and probably has happened in other non-driving iterations at other times in my life.

And one of the things that made the tears keep coming out, I mean aside from catharsis from being a generally bottled up, busy person, was my realization that I have no one to cry to except myself.

I have no one.

Before you start flipping out and telling me how loved I am, I am well aware that I have parents, a sibling, cousins, friends, all that. That’s irrelevant to this case, which is that I don’t have anyone, physically or emotionally proximate, to cry to. No one who is my Person, only mine.

I make friends pretty easily. Sincere, real friends. But I don’t make emotionally safe relationships easily. I have a lot of trouble socially, a lot of trouble interacting with people, a lot of trouble with small talk, a lot of trouble with extroversion, especially since my feigned extroversion gets so tapped out at work and professional that I have little to none left for actual life. I had a lot of trouble navigating social structures in school, and as much as that was awful, I’m even worse when I’m out of school. At least I know how school works, even if I don’t know how people work.

Friendship can be sincere and good without being Everything. In any city I go to in America, anytime I’m out and about at a conference or something, I can call somebody up who I genuinely want to see and (re)connect with and hang out with. I am lucky enough to have and have kept a lot of really excellent friends from lots of times in my life, owed partly to the fact that I’ve never really belonged anywhere, which keeps me wandering around and looking for new things and meeting new people.

That doesn’t mean I feel safe crying to anyone. That doesn’t mean I feel safe, period. I don’t feel emotionally safe ever. I’m sure that’s partly due to my semi-treated bipolar disorder and my anxiety, but it’s also due to I don’t know what, and it’s probably also due to history and precedent. Muscle memory.

I have reached a point, at 26, where I need to acknowledge that there are some things in my life and about my life that I want that I will not get. Some dreams that are beyond reach. That there are some things for which it is too late. That there is not always such a thing as making up for lost time. That it’s time to plan for what I can get to make my life fine and passable, not dwell on what I want and can’t have, even though I don’t know what I want when it’s not the stuff I wanted but will not get to have.

That’s what I was crying about. I was crying about how when I cry, I have to do it alone. And then I was crying about how one of the things I want is a person to cry about this to, and I don’t have that. And one of the things I wanted but probably will not have in my life is a person to love and to cry to who will reciprocate that. Because I thought that by this time in my life, post-college, post-grad school, nearly two years into regular working life, I would be with someone, or at the very least I would have been with someone significant in my recent past. And the longer I go not being with someone the more solidified my future singledom becomes. Not that I know, being perpetually single, but I’m guessing that you don’t get very good emotional muscles or relationship karma if you never use them, and the longer you don’t use them, the less you have them to start using them in the future. So the muscle I work out is being okay on my own. It’s the only one that gets any use anyway, so it may as well be strong as possible.

I’ve tried to make friends be the people I can cry to. Once, two well-intentioned, wonderful friends (one of whom I still call a good friend today), planned a night out just the three of us to cheer me up after some pseudo-romantic thing that I was hung up about. We went out and had a nice time, and the two of them made jokey, fake complaints about their longterm, live-in (for one) boyfriends on our girls’ night.

It did not make me feel any better. Nothing about smug relationshiped people being fake annoyed and exhibiting fake camaraderie makes a single person feel good. It was with good intentions and absolute support that those statements and actions were made, but they were not helpful.

Which gets me to the point of this post, which is maybe to give you some advice, not to wallow. I’ve already said more than I wanted to, because for all that the internet has been a better, more emotionally supportive friend than many others in my life, it’s not my person any more than any other people in my life are My Person. So, the question you may be asking me: how can you be a good friend – or even possibly an emotionally safe person for your friend to relate to – when someone is sad or depressed?

Whether you are friends with someone with clinical depression or generalized sadness (and I have experienced both extensively), you should be aware that your goodwill is not always the best thing to offer.

You might be shocked by your friend’s feeling of hopelessness, either because you’re a Suzie Sunshine who believes the world is good or just because you really like your friend and wish everyone knew how awesome they were, but either way, that doesn’t make their hopelessness invalid or even incorrect. Sometimes what hopelessness is REALLY is fucking pragmatism, and it is not your right to tell someone that they are wrong about something that they have likely spent a lot of time analyzing, going over, considering, and understanding about themselves. I personally do not come to conclusions about my life lightly; you’ll recall I spend and have spent basically all my significant personal time and developmental stages alone, if not physically than certainly emotionally. I do a lot of soul searching and I know myself really fucking well. If you have no crystal ball in your hands, it is not your prerogative to tell someone that you personally guarantee that their life will get better or that this thing they’re sad about will definitely be fixed. As clinical depression is not cured by reminding someone how good their life is*, neither is any sort of sadness or hopelessness – temporary or permanent, clinical or just du jour – cured by making projections that require a magic wand to achieve.

Your sad friend does not want to hear any variation of “you’re so amazing” that starts with “but” in response to their admission of fear or sadness about something.

It should be assumed, among friends, that everyone thinks everyone else is baller. This may be because I’m more a negative Nancy than others, but I get tagged as a kvetch just because I happen to think that beautiful and good things are default and natural and expected, so I spend more time pointing out what’s not. Let’s all assume that if you’re friends with someone, it’s because all parties agree upon general awesomeness. So pretending to tackle someone’s insecurities or outlook by saying you disbelieve their conclusions based on their awesomeness is offensive. It’s unhelpful. It’s unsupportive.

Your sad friend does not want your opinion or hope, no matter how earnest or sincere, that what they want or need will come at some point, especially if you are saying it from a point of having it yourself. Of all the people in the world to give me advice or reassurance, I absolutely do not need people who have consistently been in some romantic relationship or another since they were 14 to tell me how someday, somebody will love me even though no one ever has before and no one could even be bothered to ask me to prom when I was in high school. Or, for example, if you have never lost a job and your sad friend has been fired from five, they don’t need you to tell them that a positive attitude and their fantastic resume will get them through anything and they’ll be a millionaire by this time next year. I don’t need that kind of comment because it’s not a guarantee, and I don’t need it because you obviously don’t have a similar experience**, and therefore you have no perspective on this. None. You should accept your limitations when it comes to empathy, or else you’re not being empathetic. You may think you’re being nice by pretending your experience matches your friend’s, but what you’re actually being is smug and patronizing. It is not your job to belittle your friend by saying things to them that disregard everything they disclosed to you about how their feelings come from a place of reflection and consideration, not just blind rage or sadness.***

Your sad friend does not need you to suggest that maybe there is another way that things can go their way in the future. Lots of people have tried to reassure me about things (funny enough, they are things that still carry a lot of pain today, years later) with some variation of “You never know – you might be forced into this choice now, but what if A happens and leads to B which leads to C YOU WIN AT LIFE?”

Let’s say I find my Person that I can cry to when I’m 40. I don’t, frankly, give a flying fuck. Where I am right now, at 26, alone and without a Person, and with XYZ other things I don’t need to tell you right now, is not where I planned or want to be, and that’s what’s not okay. Something good happening years from now won’t excuse, make up for, or erase the pain of now. It won’t make any previous pain “worth it.” It won’t make the plans I have now executable at 40. It won’t build a time machine. Magical thinking is not support; it’s evasion.

When you encounter a friend who is feeling hopeless, depressed, or sad, you have three options. I think all three, when executed well, are acceptable and respectable and keep your friendship alive.

1. You can say that you are not able to be supportive in the way that this friend needs in this situation and then back off. As much as I am writing from the perspective of someone with mental illness, I have also been the friend, ally, or adult in other situations of hopelessness. It is everyone’s prerogative to say that they are not equipped to handle something and to cede responsibility to someone else or to simply say, “The best way that I can be a supportive friend is to not be a supportive friend right now.” That takes a lot of bravery and understanding of self, and it’s commendable, and it’s sometimes the right thing to do. Obviously there are situations in which it is still your responsibility to do something (I have my adult hat on now and am thinking about children I have known that have needed to be watched veryclosely for self harm reasons), but generally speaking, sometimes the most you can do is say that you are aware that it is not in you to be the right kind of friend at this time.

2a. You can say, “I hear you,” and then you can just let them keep talking and say absolutely nothing else, or you can stroke their hair or sit back in your chair or hug them or do whatever that person needs just to have a little indication that they are not alone and that the person they are disclosing sensitive information to will not undermine, twist, or trivialize what is going on.

2b. You can say, “I hear you,” and then you can try to help them make plans for what they can do in lieu of the thing that is hopeless.

In the scores of people in my family and friend groups, people whom I know want me to be happy, people whom I know would rush to my side in a hospital or house me when homeless or do any number of extremely wonderful and necessary and good things that make them wonderful and blameless, I cannot identify a single person who would do one of those three things if I needed them to, and that is precisely what I need right now.

I’m just saying.

*We fucking know that, thanks; it makes us feel even worse to have bad feelings when we know that technically speaking life is not awful in the grand scheme of things

**because as the person crying, I don’t need to give a shit about YOUR story right now; I only need to give a shit about how your experience has significantly easier than mine in this particular arena, you see?

***In case I was not clear before, I am talking here about deep, rooted, extended sadness from lived experience and/or clinical depression, not Random Sad Blip. I don’t know anything about Random Sad Blip, sorry.


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