**This is not an easy read. This includes mentions of trauma, abuse, and depression.
When I was a kid, my world completely fell apart. My adopted sister was spiraling down a deep black hole. She was violent, she was doing drugs, she stole thousands of dollars, and she hoped in and out of lock-up facilities. She was terrified of being in a permanent family after years of being bounced around foster homes, combined with all the abuse she suffered in her birth home. Turns out she was a violent sociopath, meaning she had no conscience, no awareness of or concern for the feelings of others. This was the result of experiencing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her biological family. She was never shown love, and so she had no idea what love was. To her, love was the scariest thing in the world. Fear and anger and violence were all she knew. By the time we figured this out, she was already in our home, and officially adopted. By the time I was 11 years old, she was not allowed to live with us because she was threatening to kill us.
The next few years were truly terrible, as we were afraid for our lives on a daily basis. Because I was so young when I went through this, my brain is wired around trauma. I have lived with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for the past 28 years, and have had at least two episodes of depression.
Not surprisingly, given my past, I have put some thought into the nature of emotional pain. I think being in significant pain is like standing on a rickety rope bridge, hanging between two cliffs. Below you are sharp rocks and crashing waves. Surrounding you is a thick fog, so thick you can’t see through it. On the cliff in front of you are all your family and friends. Although you know they are out there, you can’t see them. You don’t know if they are miles away, or an inch away from brushing your fingertips. All you know is fog, and the swaying bridge. You are holding on to the sides of this bridge as tight as you can, but your fingers are getting sore and you aren’t sure your legs can hold you anymore. You have never felt so alone, and even though you are trying to move forward, you are fairly certain you will never reach solid ground again. You can’t even tell what direction you should go in. At this point, you look down. The thought occurs to you that you could just step off the bridge. And some people do just that. They can’t hold on one second longer.
This isn’t selfish. It’s human.
It’s human to not be able to take it any longer. Everybody has a limit to how much pain they can handle, and if you reach yours, it says nothing about how great your friends and family were, or weren’t, or how much you loved them, or didn’t. It says nothing bad about you at all. It just says that the fog of your pain lasted longer than you were able to.
Or you could just lie down. You could give up trying to stand on that bridge, and you could just lie down and hold on until the fog passes. You could rest your head on the bridge, and allow it to hold you, rather than seeing it as the enemy. You could loosen your tight fist, let go of the railing, and relax your open palm. You could just focus on breathing. You could stop trying to see through the fog, and allow the cool droplets of the clouds wash your face.
For me, laying down on my bridge looks like acknowledging that I am having a hard time. It means that I stop trying to keep up appearances, and allow for my feelings to flow through me. It means allowing myself to be angry, or sad, or scared. It means respecting my needs when something triggers my PTSD. It means resting when I need to rest, and maintaining boundaries when I need to do that.
Laying down on your bridge looks different for everyone. This is just what works for me. But I’ve noticed that when people have a loved one that is standing on a bridge, surrounded by that fog of pain, they tend to all respond in the same general way. They stand on the cliff, reassuring their loved one that they are there, and that the person will be okay eventually. This is kind, and lovely. But it doesn’t ultimately help the person on the bridge very much. Because they can’t see you through their pain, and they still can’t see the way, and they are still barely holding on. Sometimes people stand on the cliff, and they yell across the distance that they are there if the person needs them, all they have to do is ask. This is less than helpful, although it is well-intentioned, because the person on the bridge is focusing all their might on keeping their balance. They are not able to call out loudly enough for you to hear them, all the way over on the cliff. But I’ll tell you what does help. When someone leaves the safety of the cliff, and walks right through the fog to you. When this person holds the hand of their loved one, and wipes the sweat and tears off their face, and says “My darling. I know you are so tired. You are trying so hard, and I am so proud of you. I have you, I am not letting go, and I’m going to help you get to the cliff. We will walk together.”
Compassion is not distant. Compassion is not trying to fix someone, or blame someone for not being able to fix themselves, or not being able to save themselves. Compassion is love in action. Compassion is truly seeing someone, and being willing to sit with them in their experience, as it is. This is my hope and prayer for mental health awareness—that we will learn to truly see each other, wounded parts and all, and reach out towards each other with active love.