Can you sit in the dark with me?

It’s Mental Health Awareness week and I find my mind skimming back over some of my former clients from as far back as 1988. I’ve been privileged to learn from every client I’ve worked with and I’ve appreciated every client willing to roll up their sleeves with me and dig into the task at hand – the task of figuring out how to get through the bad moments and increase the frequency and intensity of the good ones.  Clearly this is target practice, some days are better than others regardless of whether you are struggling with bi-polar disorder, chemical dependency, or just a rough transition that’s challenging your normal resiliency.

One incident with a young lady crosses my mind frequently.  It was a poignant moment.  Many years ago, I interned at a high school for teens too emotionally vulnerable to be in the mainstream system.  When one child became suddenly labile, it often set off a domino effect for our other students, making them feel unsafe and panicky.  I heard a commotion in the hall and went to see what was happening and direct the kids back to class.  One of the girls told me that her classmate, Robin*, was sitting in the girls’ restroom in the dark and wouldn’t come out.

Once it was quiet, I cracked open the bathroom door and asked Robin if I could come sit with her.  She said yes but only if I left the lights out.  I made myself comfortable on the floor with her and sat quietly for a few moments, taking in how peaceful it really was in there in the dark and without the other girls around.  Robin was surprised to hear that I understood the attraction and relaxed, knowing I wasn’t going to panic or herd her out the door or tell her she was being ridiculous.  Once the calmed down she began to  confide in me why she was struggling that day.  Not long after she finished telling me what was on her mind she felt ready to pick herself up, walk out of the dark and carry on with her day.

Often, that’s most of what someone needs in a bad moment.  Just someone to sit in the dark with them without trying to change it or cheerlead or judge.  It was a good intuitive choice for me to just sit with Robin.  But most of us aren’t very comfortable with that,  thinking that isn’t helpful or that it’s not doing anything.  In reality, sitting with someone’s pain is one of the deepest gifts we can give and sometimes all that is needed to help someone out of a difficult moment.

How comfortable are you with someone’s pain or anxiety?  What is your typical reaction when someone tells you they are having a hard time?  Maybe no one ever tells you that for fear of your criticism or judgment.  If so, would you like to change that?

Unquestionably, Robin could have been in much worse shape and may have needed  more than someone to talk to for a few minutes.  Depression and anxiety are serious illnesses that can require therapy, medication, even hospitalization.  It can take a few minutes or hours, even, to determine how much help someone really needs.  But whatever action needs taking, it starts with a conversation.

I liked what had to say about this:

The same steps apply to talking to someone about anxiety.  I also like that this article downplays the need to panic or rush to a diagnosis and plan.

If you have a loved one who suffers from mental illness, be sure to find support for yourself.  And in a tense moment, ask your friend or loved one what they need in this moment.  It may be as simple as a cup of tea!


*Name changed to protect confidentiality