In this update, I share the difficulty of receiving a kind message, going to a wonderful event with a friend, and personal questions.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
One of the hardest things for me last week was an extremely kind message that I received from a friend. Over the past year and a half or so, I had intended to check in on my friend regularly and support him. I would send an occasional text to see how he was doing, and always meant to do more. I wanted to go see him, or take him and his family something nice. I wanted to get to know him better and spend more time with him.
But I was busy. I told myself that the needs of my family came first, and that is true. I told myself that I needed to care for my mental health, and that is also true. I told myself that I would would do more soon, and that was not true. Choosing to prioritize something, even when it is deeply important to us, requires intentionality and effort.
Someone else reached out to me last week and let me know that my friend was in the hospital with kidney stones. I messaged my friend right away to check in and see what I could do for him and his family. There was a sharp pang of regret when I saw that our last exchange was in May.
His response to my message overwhelmed me. First, he let me know that he had family close by that was taking care of him and his family. Then he shared that he had been telling someone that very morning that I was an example of a good friend and a support. He said that I always know when something is up, and he knows I will text him, and that he really appreciated that.
It was too much for me.
The pain and regret I felt at not doing the more that I intended crowded out any of the kindness that he had just expressed. I burst out crying and ran to my bedroom to be alone for a minute. My wife came in after me to see what had happened. I couldn’t even tell her, and she took my arm to see the message on my watch. She was sure that someone had died, and wanted to find out more.
When I could talk, I told my wife that I did not deserve that. The juxtaposition of his kindness and my feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me. Describing to my wife some of the feelings allowed me to exercise some mindfulness and get in touch with the present moment.
I realized that I don’t get to define his experience. I had been assuming that he felt unsupported and that I hadn’t been a good friend because I hadn’t done all that I wanted to. And when he said otherwise, I immediately discounted it. But that’s my experience. He gets his. And that was a profound revelation to me.
Months ago, my wife and I got tickets to see The Minimalists in an event in Salt Lake City. They were coming, ostensibly to promote their new book, Love People, Use Things: Because the Opposite Never Works, which I have enjoyed. While we are not minimalists, I aspire to be. Or at least to take some steps in that direction.
A couple days before the event, we realized that some family activities had come up that we could not reschedule. So the nice date that we had planned would not happen. We took a minute to grieve together the loss of that planned time. We don’t get many opportunities for an occasion like that, and were looking forward to it.
When my wife couldn’t come, I reached out to one of my good friends to see if he was available and wanted to join me. He was, and we met up for dinner and then enjoyed the event together.
It was a delightful time. I took some sketchnotes of the talks they gave, and the question and answer section. That is always an enjoyable activity for me. The event was interesting and the chance to spend time with my friend was a treat.
A couple friends from work and I went to lunch last week. We had actually been at a department picnic at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake. We got to see many people that we hadn’t seen in a long time and enjoyed chatting and playing cornhole. A food truck was there to serve us lunch, but they were not prepared for the amount of people. After almost an hour, we decided to head to a restaurant to grab some lunch. We even saw someone else from the picnic at the restaurant we chose.
Over the course of the conversation, we talked about family and kids and such. One of the friends is married with kids himself, and the other is dating someone. We asked him about his girlfriend, but he was reluctant to share too much.
As we were walking out of the restaurant, this single friend talked about how he would like to have kids one day. He asked me if we were going to have any more kids. I told him no, that we were done. And then I said,
Since you just asked me a very personal question, let me ask you one in return.
He was almost aghast at having asked me something that I deemed to be personal. He meant no offense by it, and was not trying to pry into my life. I assured him that I knew that, and that it is actually a common question that I get. But whether we will have more children is a deeply personal issue.
It made me think about all the personal questions that we ask each other without even thinking about it, because they have become normalized. And even more, I thought about the personal questions that we find ourselves uncomfortable asking. Some of the latter are about mental health, and whether those close to us are struggling. We are afraid of prying into the details of people’s lives.
But in reality, these are the kinds of personal conversations we need to make space for. We should never insist on discussing someone’s mental health, or press them to share details that make them uncomfortable. Instead, we need to create safety so that people can open up when they are ready.
A simple example is to take some time when asking, “How are you?” and make that a true question, and not just a greeting.
MakeItOK.org is a great resource with ideas on how to start conversations around the topics of mental health. It has ideas of what to say, and what not to say.
The way in which we do it matters much less than just doing it. It’s ok to make mistakes. We need to be willing to let the other person tell us that what we did didn’t work, and then try something else. Just be there for them.
My hope, for you and for me, is to honor the experiences of others. We don’t get to define their experience, and we don’t ever truly know what they are. But we can stop trying to control them. Instead, let’s ask more personal questions. In a respectful way, we can open the possibility of meaningful conversations and allow others to share what they actually feel. And then listen. Truly listen. This could save lives.