mondays with phil: phight the power.
Updated: Aug 15, 2018
Listen---I know that's a stretch, but it's the best I can do.
Organization does not come innately to me, however desperately I wish that it would. Therefore, when I made the decision this weekend to reorganize my home, to put everything in a place, I did so knowing how mentally exhausted I’d be afterward. I opened my trusty search engine and typed “Home Organization Tips.” I combed through page after page of creative ways to use baskets and picture ledges and binder clips and crown molding, photo after photo of pristine, uncluttered lives.
I foraged through piles of old clothes and papers, grew vicious when deciding what to keep and what to throw away. Do I really need to waste closet space on those high waisted acid wash jeans I bought in college that, due to my ass’s recently acquired real estate, haven’t fit in several years? What about the Class of 2008 picture frame I received as a high school graduation present? Or the travel toothpaste that expired in 2014? I mean, better keep ‘em all, just in case.
Unfortunately for me, the internet had far less to say when I typed “What To Do When a Friend is Suicidal.” Oh gracious. That must’ve seemed abrupt. You probably weren’t prepared for it. Truth be told, neither was I. Because as common as suicidal thoughts are (which, for the record, is very common, so just in case you’ve ever had them and feel a deep, black pit of shame swirling around in your stomach, DON’T), suicidal intentions are less so.
Tell me, Internet, what to do when your friend isn’t pretending to be strong? What to do when you know the dangers they pose to themselves but are powerless to do anything about it? It makes me sad. And it makes me angry. I’ve been broken too. I know the energy and the courage and the strength it takes to put yourself back together. The herculean effort it requires to even want to. And I feel a deep emptiness because I know, having been where she is, how little I can do, how my efforts—however valiant, however small—ultimately may not matter.
I’ve had many, many conversations in the last week about my ingrained need for control, to feel like I’m doing something to dispel the bad feelings. I hover above Kyle, buzzing in his ear like an angry bee, pollinating reminders of bills and homework and dishes. I can occasionally make him feel incompetent, and my heart squeezes painfully that I don’t have better control over my compulsions, that I make my Most Important Something feel like anything less than incredible. I can’t helicopter parent my husband. Or my friends. And my attempts to do so within myself have yielded only negative results.
For so long, for protection, I wouldn’t allow myself to feel all my feelings. To really sit in my sadness or my shame or my fear, instead of merely wallowing in it. As soon as they surfaced, I pushed them deep down, focusing solely on what I could do to make them go away. I could drink them away (Heyyooo, bet nobody else has ever done *that* before. I’m very creative.) I could laugh them away. I could research them away. I could dance them away or sing them away or read them away or talk them away. And because of this, I made the same mistakes over and over again, insistent that this time would be different. This time I would be different.
But the years of living with undiagnosed anxiety and depression left me constantly on the verge of exploding, a live grenade wrapped in Scotch tape. No amount of encouragement to go exercise or get some sleep or “just don’t worry about it” mattered to me when I couldn’t encourage myself to open my eyes. Or get out of bed. Or brush my teeth. It took me a long time to pull myself out of that hole, a lifetime of patience and support from the people who love me. I had to be ready to get better, ready to start to put myself back together.
I sat today on the leather couch in Phil’s office, snuggled underneath my anxiety blanket, comforted by its weight, absentmindedly fingering the looped, white tabs around its borders. “What are those tabs for,” I wondered? I immediately pictured poor, anxiety riddled patients being tackled onto a stretcher, strapped and secured by a weighted blanket, thrashing uselessly underneath. I’m sure the reality is far less sinister, but I read a lot about true crime, and I’m unable (unwilling?) to think of a more logical reason behind them. And with that, I’ll keep an extra close eye on Phil during our next visit. That’s right, Phillip—which is what I assume your full name is, so sorry if it isn’t—I’m watching you.
I feel compelled to do something, I told him, to be the crutch my friend uses to hobble toward mental wellness. I see her self destruction so clearly—I know intimately the mantle in which she’s already wrapped herself—and I am both furious at her and sympathetic. For years, I have been suffocating under weight of my powerlessness, pressed nearly to death by its accompanied rage. I wonder if anyone else has ever realized it’s much easier to be angry than to be heartbroken. I mean, probably not. It’s quite obvious to me that I’m an emotional savant. (This is an example of sarcasm. Should you be unaware, I am very sarcastic. Today, Phil mentioned that I’m occasionally too subtle with it, which I imagine then just reads as belligerent narcissism.) Anger is self righteous. It is bright and burning and actionable. But it is also unstable, obsessive.
I have rampaged against those restraints, frustrated with my own helplessness. Sometimes, life’s problems don’t have easy solutions, no guidebook for its nuances. Sometimes there is no right answer, and frankly, that makes me unbearably sad. It likely always will. For the first time in a very long time—maybe ever—I’m forced to take the full brunt of my feelings, to relinquish my tightly held control, unspool my unstable obsession.
Because for once, I’ve realized I can love my friend and hold her and encourage her, but I cannot control her. I cannot control anyone. As much as I pretend they are, others feelings are not my responsibility. I want to shield them from their own self destruction, from the inevitable potholes of life into which we all occasionally fall. But from Phil’s own experience, the most I can be is a steward, protecting and guiding those around me, those I love, as they navigate their place in the world.
I am struggling with the guilt and helplessness and anger and sadness and bone deep weariness I’ll feel if my friend moves forward with her suicidal intentions. She is not ready to start putting herself back together. It’s possible she may never be. But in my persistent search for truth, the truth is that feelings—mine and others—aren’t organized. They’re messy. And scrambled. And fuzzy and perverse and grotesque. They’re crimped and fractured and fleeting. No amount of laughing or dancing or singing or drinking—no amount of researching—will make them pristine.
So—I am uncluttering my mind to make room for the mess. And accepting the powerlessness that accompanies the full scope of my emotional responses. Sometimes, the most I can do, the most any of us can do, is show up and sit still. Sometimes it is enough to just be sad, as devastating as that may be.