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 Meetup.com, 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?”
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:
- 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.
- This activity should involve other people and require regular meetings (lessons, rehearsals, practices, outings).
- 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.
- 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.