Reader question #35: On bouncing back and finding community.

Dear Captain Awkward:

Since the new year began, I’ve been having some fairly serious life issues. I had a major panic attack in January, and then my house caught on fire at the end of February. I’ve been really struggling to keep my head above water. I finally started seeing a therapist, changed my work schedule to accommodate my needs, and moved into a new place. During this time, I definitely had some tried and true friends support me, but it felt really scattered and only as a response to the immediate incident, but not the after effects.

I ended up meeting up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years (we had a falling out, then reconnected on Facebook, but hadn’t actually met up and hung out together in about two years), and she was talking about some difficulties she’d had recently with an increasingly abusive ex-partner making threats against her and her new partner. She started talking about her community, and about how they rallied around her as a support system. One of my flatmates who was living with me in the house that caught on fire also seemed to have had a big community support system come out to help her through the emotional aftermath. I know that the former friend’s community is revolved around the queer community in the bay, which I’d love to be involved in, but again…I don’t know how, and then the latter friend’s community is largely built of lifelong friends and friends from her Aikido group.

As I said, I do have some support: My parents helped me a lot after the fire, my work has helped me get a therapist for free (I work with domestic violence survivors, an industry with high levels of vicarious trauma, and they wanted to support me so I can continue to work with these women). Already, it feels like I’ve started to slowly come up for air. However, I did have a lot of friends and loved ones that didn’t come forward to call me or support me. Also, I felt like there was a lot of immediate support, but my emotional struggles afterward were…well. Not acknowledged. I feel like I have a lot of friends who can immediately support because they feel like they should, but otherwise I’m left to be on my own. And there’s a huge difference between friends and community–obviously both care about you, but the structure of the system is different.

All that said, the point is: Am I wrong to want this community support, which seems to go above and beyond individual friends going, “Yo, are you ok? Ok, good,” and then checking out again? Is that selfish? I am totally grateful for the fact that people came forward at all (since some people didn’t!), but I felt like I needed (need?) more. And to be clear: I don’t begrudge the friends that came forward for not coming forward enough, I just feel frustrated that it seems like my emotional needs/support needs are not being met, and that I don’t know how to fix the problem. I also don’t know how much of the problem is that I tend to be seen as someone who is sort of stoic and who takes care of herself. I find that people often assume my capacity for self care and perseverance is often infinitely greater than it actually is (and maybe it’s that way for everyone, but I feel like it’s especially so for me–people always tell me that I’m “so strong” and blah blah blah). I’ve tried to express that, talk about my severe depression that I’ve battled with periodically throughout my life with those close to me, etc., but I don’t think I’ve made much headway. I don’t know how to express these things without seeming needy or high maintenance.

I would love to build the kind of community these two aforementioned friends have, but I’m not sure how. Obviously, there’s some common interest involved in these communities. I’ve tried to look people up through, etc. but I’m still not sure how to integrate myself. Although I can be social, I tend to be a loner, and so developing a consistent community is outside of my experience.

Lordy, that’s long. And sort of a roundabout question. But I hope that all makes sense.


The Lone Lady

Dear Lone Lady,

That sounds like a lot for anyone to handle in a few short months, and I’m glad you’ve gone back to therapy and have support from your workplace, your close friends, and your parents.

I’ve been sitting on this one for a little while, because you’re really asking two questions (I think):

1. How do I interact with my friends to get my emotional needs met?

2. How do I find a strong sense of community and belonging?

Tackling the first question, I don’t think you can go back in time and take people to task for not meeting your emotional needs before. It’s unfair and it puts people on the defensive. A sad fact is that some people clam up when something terrible happens because they don’t know what to say, and they feel pressure to say the right thing, when usually the right thing to say is a variation of “I am sorry, I am thinking about you, do you want to talk about it, and is there anything I can do?” Keeping offers of help simple and straightforward and focused on spending time together also helps, like “Can I take you to lunch next week, or whoever you’re up to it? I’d like to see you.” “Would you like to talk about what happened, or would you prefer a pleasant distraction? I can go either way.”

If you’ve been projecting an air of being busy and having your shit together and that’s your general role in the friend group, for some friends asking you if you’re okay might feel intrusive and disrespectful. Also there is the distinct possibility that they are preoccupied with their own problems and aren’t really thinking about you (but are happy to help/listen/pet you if you speak up and ask).  They’re taking their cues from you and they can’t read your mind, in which case you can say “I know I try really hard to come across like I have my shit together, but lately, I just don’t.  Can you help me?”

So something you might want to work on with your therapist is how to express vulnerability and ask your friends for what you need, so that you can say “I‘m feeling really down and really lonely, can we get together?” Also, with your therapist, let yourself feel and express that anger about not feeling taken care of in the aftermath of the fire. The anger is legitimate, you don’t have to talk yourself out of feeling it. With your friends, you might reach out more and schedule time with them to hang out, not necessarily for the purpose of crying on their shoulders, just social friendly time together. And when they ask “How are you?” you can say “I’ve been feeling really sad and shaky since the fire, but I’m so glad to see you today,” and go from there.

Second question: How do you find community?

This is really the part of the question that I’ve been mulling over. Then I re-read Pamela Ribon’s Going In Circles (which is a really honest portrait of depression and a fine novel about a woman breaking out of that) and realized there is maybe a formula for this (but not a guarantee). The formula involves:

  1. Some activity that you secretly have always wanted to do but have been afraid (or just not had time) to try before now. Or something you used to do in college or high school and really enjoyed but have not done in your workaday adult life.
  2. This activity should involve other people and require regular meetings (lessons, rehearsals, practices, outings).
  3. The activity should be something that you are not already an expert at or anything that puts you in the role of leader or teacher right away. There is value in having a beginner’s mind and in being vulnerable enough to learn something new and be bad at it for a while before you get good.
  4. Bonus points if it’s a physical activity that gets you out of your head and into your body and requires your full attention.

Suggested activities: Roller derby, soccer, field or floor hockey, softball, volleyball, martial arts, improv, volunteering (though since you work at a DV org, maybe you are allowed to skip the volunteering), campaigning for a political candidate, music lessons, language classes, dance, rock-climbing, filmmaking, burlesque, theater, Team In Training, Dungeons & Dragons or other roleplaying games, triathlons, working with kids as a coach or mentor, sailing, canoeing, cooking in a secret underground restaurant….you want something new that brings you into contact with a variety of people and that must be done in concert with other people.

You can’t pursue “community,” it’s too general.  But you can find it in pursuit of the other things you want to do, and in the process make some new friends who know a different side of you, and make friendships that are about being part of something bigger than yourself.

Good luck, I hope things get better soon.

9 thoughts on “Reader question #35: On bouncing back and finding community.

  1. Lone Lady, I have been in exactly your place. After I had to get a restraining order against my mother and had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the hospital for depression in college, it definitely felt like the shit hit the fan with my supposed friends. When the dust settled, very few of them wanted to have anything to do with me (I guess they saw me as unstable and not fun and not exactly the kind of person they wanted to be bothered with) so I was left to deal with my emotional needs pretty much alone. My university required me to visit one of their therapists – I didn’t like her style so I asked to switch to another therapist at the student clinic whom I had seen once but had helped me more than the assigned one had in weeks. They wouldn’t let me and said if it wasn’t working out with my therapist, then it must have been that I wasn’t trying hard enough (because lord know you can’t trust the crazy people).

    I struggled for a long time trying to find community. I threw myself into the activities in which I was already engaged – I was on a sports team at my school but I was their captain and the other girls didn’t really know how to interact with me as normal friends. I threw myself into my studies – unfortunately tales of my “mental instability” had already tainted the other students’ opinions of me so I was given too wide a berth. So I just tried to soldier on and accepted the fact I was simply destined to be miserable but functional.

    It took me a few years to realize that I didn’t have to be miserable and alone. More than that, I eventually realized that I didn’t deserve it. I’ve gradually cut off people who weren’t real friends and while I have few now, I’d rather have 5 true friends than 15 fake ones. I started new activities, like Captain Awkward suggested, but it was important that I found places where no one knew me or my backstory so that I could start fresh. I’m still struggling with things but it’s gotten better. We don’t have to accept misery or shitty friends and I wish I had someone tell me what Captain Awkward told you ages ago.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, that must have been really lonely and awful. Boo to the college for not letting you switch therapists.

  2. Lone Lady;

    being “the strong one” is the shittiest position, EVAR. i feel ya – everyone “just knows” that you’re fine, and “knows” that “asking if you’re ok is insulting to you” –
    and WORSE, they really do EXPECT you to be “strong”, NO MATTER WHAT. if you AREN’T strong on some particular day, some people may react BADLY to that – as if you’ve been lying to them for forever, because if you’re “strong” you don’t ever get to have bad days or some shit.

    CA is right – yelling at them [or otherwise] for not being there before is sort of a moot point.
    but part of the problem, i think, is that you don’t want to HAVE to ASK for support – they’re your friends, they should just DO IT.
    [and i agree – i went thru 6 surgeries in 2 years. now i know who my friends are – and that’s VERY few people. of 20 people i expected were REALLY my friends, for whom i’d gone above and beyond, TWO came to see me at ANY point when i was in the hospital. and, added up, i was in the hospital for almost 2 months. they didn’t call, didn’t email, didn’t ANYTHING – and now, when i see them, it’s “why are you in a wheelchair?” and a bunch of BS about how *I* failed THEM by “not being around”… sigh]

    i’d suggest, in addition to what CA has suggested, that those friends who were there for you, you have an additional conversation. one that includes you saying something along the lines of “i know i’m supposed to be the “strong” one, but no one can be strong 24/7. and i’m not – and when i’m “not strong”, having to seek you out and ask for you to act like my friend is painful to me. maybe you could seek me out more?”
    or something – that’s pretty generic and general. but a LOT of people don’t ask, don’t call, because they assume either A) you’re fine or B) if you’re NOT fine, that you don’t want anyone to know. which means that when you NEED someone to call, they don’t, because they’re working from an incorrect premise. the only way to fix it is to tell them the correct premise. and it may be different for you – i can NOT call a friend and say “hey, i need a friend right now” – i CAN’T. it’s screwed up of me, but i feel like i’m imposing and that if they WANTED to help me, they’d have let me know – in the meantime, they’re wondering why i don’t call to tell them i need them. so i tell them i CAN’T – and now, they call me.

    not everyone is going to be able to adjust to this “change” [that has to happen, because they’re working from something not-real] and that’s ok – if even a couple do, you’ll be WAY better off. but you *have* to, at some point, tell them what you actually, really need. either you’re friends, and they will help, or you’re not, so why are wasting time? that sounds cold, but you ARE, in a way, wasting time if you’re giving your friendship to someone who’s essentially not giving you anything. sometimes, people are needy. PEOPLE are going to be – we’re PEOPLE, and that happens.

    i feel like i’m talking in circles – so i’m gonna shut it, now – good luck, i send GoodThoughts(tm) your way.

    and try D&D or something similar – geeks rule 😀

  3. I also went through some tough times and a lot of people I knew left me alone during them, and afterwards.

    Some people may have thought that I was strong and independent enough to manage on my own (like you, I also give that impression to people, just by being myself), some may have felt bad for me but didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to prolong my sadness by encouraging me to share my feelings/stories about it, but some, unfortunately, seemed not to feel bad for me but to feel that they didn’t want to bring their own moods “down” or be involved with someone who seemed to be unlucky or wounded, because they didn’t want to bring negativity to their own lives and didn’t want to be tainted by someone who might not be charmed. I was told by several people that I had caused all my own problems (those particular problems) – which was blatantly, provably untrue – that all I had to do was snap out of it – they couldn’t see what was difficult, that all the problems were “for the best” because they always secretly thought that my direction and profession and life-arrangement had been wrong anyway (that is SO insulting to hear for the first time when you’ve just been brought low by forces beyond your control). There are many people I’ve never heard from again.

    Folks commonly say that “you find out who your real friends are” when you go through tough times, but it can be surprising when some people you really did think would be there for you — “be there” in a slight way, at least — suddenly absent themselves from your life, at a point when, if it was happening to an acquaintance of yours, you wouldn’t dream of cutting that person off even if you’d secretly been feeling “iffy” about them for a while.

    The reassuring thing about that depressing fact about humanity is that it is a common situation. So don’t take it personally.

    It’s also much easier in modern western life for folks to do this to each other. In a more-traditional situation where you live in a town of 50 or 200 interconnected people and you will be living there, or near there, for the rest of your life, it’s not so easy for people to be flaky and flighty at the first sign of difficulties.

    As women who are introverted and earnest, presumably without large extended families, presumably single and living independently in a western country, we both face a disadvantage in locating or embedding into a “community” that is more of a self-selected construct (like your friend’s akido group) and not due to natural forces (as in the preceeding paragraph). Our personality type is not to be outgoing, gregarious, go-with-the-majority, nurturing-multiple-relationships-simultaneously. It is hard to find an entire community one gels with and feels fully a part of and is considered a fully-fledged member of, and I think some of this is down to luck, some down to personality type, some down to cultural background, some down to the way things work in the geographical area you find yourself in.

    I do know that there are friendship styles and organizational-affiliation behaviors that don’t feel natural to me (and some that I just don’t want to engage in, whatever the cost to myself), and there are many things about this area of life that I have never noticed and have no idea about because I’ve got blind spots there, so I’m not doing them, and therefore am not fitting in to large self-selected groups who have and want to have deep bonds with each other.

    But I too feel that having a genuine community or communities would be valuable and enjoyable, and that I’m missing out on an important aspect of life.

    To that end, a year ago I stepped out of my comfort zone and looked for a promising medium-sized interest-based community to spend time with, and once I’d found one that I thought was worth a try, I tried hard to be involved, be responsible, be friendly, contribute my time and skills, show up regularly, make friends on an individual and small-group level, etc. — but it didn’t work and after 6 months I withdrew — and no one contacted me to ask where I’d gone, which was really telling. Mainly, I think they were a pretty strange bunch!! ha ha, but seriously they were…. AND, I don’t think I quite have the instinct to know how these things work.

    Captain Awkward gave you some great, practical steps to take. Good luck.

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