“Just because I carry it all so well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.”
This quote resonated with me so very, very much. I think strong people are often forgotten. At least, they aren’t thought about in a way that’s helpful. I am not one to hide any trials through which I am going, but I think my ability to be crushed under their weight and still show up for work and wear a smile makes people think whatever is going on behind the scenes isn’t really “a big deal.”
OK, sure, sometimes people exaggerate issues for attention or sympathy. But let’s not be so cynical, shall we? When someone’s life is falling apart, and they say “Eh, I got this,” and manage to get up every morning and show up for the day, it takes a strength some others will never fully understand. It requires a level of concentration and voluntary, temporary amnesia that some people just do not possess the ability to achieve. You have to forget about whatever is happening behind the scenes and focus all the remaining energy on work, school, kids, whatever.
There is simply no time to cope or deal, there’s only time to do what needs to be done, and the energy and force of will it takes to not only bury those things until later but also face the day with as much competence as you need – it’s astonishing. I am not saying you need to pity anyone who has a burden to carry. I am instead asking you to recognize that heavy burdens sometimes fall on upright shoulders, so they go unnoticed.
Over the past couple of years, I have had my share of hindrances – divorce, health issues, heartbreak, unexpected responsibilities, and crippling anxiety problems. For the most part, I’d tell people I was “fine,” when in reality I was breaking apart, little by little. The anxiety seemed as though it would never go away – I was scared and worried every minute of every day – and I just couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t “logic-it-away.” I felt as though I was struggling to keep my head above water and someone kept tying weights to my ankles. Not enough to pull me straight down, but enough to make it harder and harder to tread water.
…heavy burdens sometimes fall on upright shoulders, so they go unnoticed.
I was told to “get over it,” to “just pray about it,” to “buck up,” and of course the multiple comparisons to other peoples’ life problems. The intentions were all good, I understand that, but they were not at all helpful. I felt like no one understood that if I could get over it, I would have already! I felt weak, small, incapable, and like a failure. In response, I shoved it all away, and showed up for work, and carried it with as much grace as possible – all while trying to move and set up a new home, to help take care of family, to navigate a relatively new job, and to try to maintain my sanity. For those who didn’t bother to look past the “I’m fine’s,” I seemed to be managing OK. I wasn’t.
Then someone came along who held my hand and held me up and carried me… whatever I needed, from the small encouragements to the place to turn when I couldn’t take anymore. He untied the weights one by one and handed me a life preserver. I never asked for help, but he didn’t buy it when I said: “I’m fine.” He showed up and helped out and took away some of the everyday worries and chores so I could focus on the big stuff. I was never placated or belittled or minimized. I was allowed to cry and scream and sleep and be quiet. I was allowed to trudge through without being told to “get over it” or told I was overreacting or told that what I felt wasn’t valid. And it saved me – my health, my sanity. Readers, I encourage – no, implore – you to be that person for someone else.
Does someone you know have a particular burden to carry and they seem “just fine?” Do me a favor and ask them how they are doing – and do not take “fine” for an answer. I’m not asking you to pry, simply to push a little harder. Let them know that you are there if they need someone. Sometimes just one gentle push can have someone unload a weight they couldn’t carry alone any longer. Sometimes the lightening of that load can mean the difference between sanity and insanity, illness and wellness, or even life or death.
I also ask you to not offer tired cliches and mottos and sayings.
“I promise it’ll get better.”
“I know exactly how you feel – and I got through it.”
“It’s not THAT bad.”
And my personal favorite:
“If it doesn’t kill ya, it makes ya stronger!”
First of all – maybe it won’t get better. Maybe this albatross will be with them forever. You simply don’t know that for sure. Second – no, you just don’t know how they feel. Each person processes difficulties differently, so do not assume you know how they feel, even if you’ve been in a similar situation. Third – yes, it is THAT bad. It’s that bad for that person, and you have no right to determine the hierarchy of malady. It’s however they feel, and telling them it’s “not that bad” is basically telling them that their feelings are irrelevant. Instead, be honest, be supportive, and be kind. That’s what I’d want. Try this:
“I have no idea if or when this will get better, and I cannot even imagine what it’s like, but I am here for as long as you need me. I know it seems bad, really bad, right now but maybe with some support, we can work through it all together.”
Be a pallbearer for whatever hardship they are trying to put to rest, and do so with dignity – yours and theirs.
And for the love of God, stop using the “if it doesn’t kill you” line. The truth is, some people never make it out of that first category. Second, you’re basically telling the person that their tribulations only have two possible outcomes: death or self-improvement. This couldn’t be farther from reality. Sometimes people don’t become stronger after a trial. Sometimes they realize their limits and know they can’t handle it. Sometimes they are shattered. Not dead, but broken – and that does not feel like strength. Yes, to be that broken and still move forward does take an unbelievable amount of strength, but that’s not always how it feels in the moment. Trust me, I know. There are also times that people are broken and they can’t move forward. No one is asking you to be a life coach, they are asking for your shoulders so you can share the load.
Instead, say something like “I’m going to do what I can to help you get through this and to pick up the pieces. I’m here for you.” Offer to aid with everyday burdens – cleaning, cooking, babysitting. Perhaps if they don’t have to worry about keeping the house clean or going grocery shopping, they will find the strength to deal with whatever issue is at hand. Stop offering advice, and instead offer real, tangible help.
They may not accept it right away. They might not accept it at all. But they will know that you’re there, and knowing, sometimes, is half the battle. It’s a lot less scary to walk the tight rope when you know there’s a safety net underneath. Be the safety net. Just be there, without pity or judgment. Be a pallbearer for whatever hardship they are trying to put to rest, and do so with dignity – yours and theirs.
Check on your “strong” friend. They often are the ones who won’t ask for help, even when they need it most. Don’t minimize someone’s heaviness just because their shoulders seem strong enough to hold it up.
I am not affiliated with @wordporm in any way. I’m just a writer who is inspired by them.