I've been calling my parents, in times of trouble, for as long as I can remember.
I can still envision the phone I once used to dial them from a childhood sleepover. The number keys were oversized, and each a different shade of grey, the 3 a little darker than the 2, and the pound key the darkest. Their ombré hues were lit by the moon, coming in through the kitchen windows after midnight.
Homesick and staring at the ceiling of my girlfriend's bedroom, I finally crept from my sleeping bag and called home, hoping my parents would file into the minivan and cruise the quiet suburban streets to rescue me from my missing them.
They were a little jostled, but not angry. They talked to me for a few minutes, and by the time I hung up I felt braver, more calm. I got the dose of Family I needed, enough to finally fall asleep and make it 'til morning to see once again the people who made a daily, trusted appearance in my life.
When I dialed home this weekend, Dad's voice slipped instantly into concern, moments after he answered and heard my tears over the line.
"What?" he asked gently, and I wondered for a moment if I heard fear in his voice. Fear that we had taken a trip back to the Bad Old Days, the days when I called every few weeks, laden with debilitating sobs and very little hope for my long term future, let alone the next five minutes.
I had just finished crying to Alex, and after running in to the drugstore to pick up my anti-depressant medication, a new round of sadness came over me and I suddenly, instinctively, needed only my Mommy and Daddy.
In a Rite Aid parking lot, I found myself unable to stop worrying about those in my life who are struggling to find mental, spiritual, and emotional peace. With a wave of utter grief, I realized what it must have felt like for my parents to support me all those years, to watch me wrestle to keep my sanity.
It was, is, almost too much to bear. So I did what I'd done a hundred times before. I flipped through my contacts, selected "Home," and punched Send.
The quick story of my life goes like this: content, somewhat anxious, hyper childhood. Happy middle school years (I know, I'm weird). Out-of-place high school years. Elation in college, until senior year, when anxiety came back to visit. Isolation and depression following graduation. Escalating anxiety, therapy, meds, able to sleep and eat again. Then a lot of UP! and down. Weaning off meds, getting back on them. Seasons of therapy and seasons of no therapy. Then almost to the brink of no return, a phone call to a psychiatrist, new meds -- AWESOME meds, then (pretty much) happy, happy, happy.
Read about my full journey here if you want the longer version, but I'm not going to get into many details of my past because I want to focus now on where I sit today, which is a place I've never been before.
In the last several months, I've watched multiple people in my life struggle with their mental health. In some cases, I've been very close to the action -- or, rather, inaction, as depression is generally more of a sluggish state and is not usually quick to disappear.
After service this weekend at church, I thanked our pastor for preaching on mental health. I had him introduce me to our new mental wellness intern (Hallelujah! that such a thing exists); I told him I'm happy to help in any way I can to serve our community.
I dropped off my prescription, grabbed groceries, ate a giant salad, went for a walk. Happy, happy, happy.
Or so I thought.
In the morning I had celebrated that my church community is discussing mental health, openly and fervently. We hired an intern, for crying out loud.
By late afternoon, when I drove to pick up my meds, the unmet needs of my friends had started to weigh on me so heavily that I had crumpled 20 tissues on my passenger seat and was still reaching for more.
Instead of getting the usual relief from my tears, each salty trickle down my cheek brought with it a new layer of feeling -- guilt, selfishness, anger, helplessness. And then I thought about my parents. I thought about how they must have felt all those things during all the years that I fought to feel happy again. How they must have watched in fear, impatience, sadness, hopelessness, wondering if I would ever bounce back to that hyper, happy girl they once knew -- particularly in the moments when, too depressed to function or too tired to care, I wasn't putting up a fight for myself.
I have felt for quite some time that my role in this life is to write. To be honest about my past struggles, to share how I reached my mental health victories, and to encourage people to talk, talk, talk about their own messy stuff -- because if we remain in silence, we're all set up for failure.
In addition to being a writer, I feel like my other calling in this life is to be a pushy-yet-gentle mental health advocate. I work by day at a mental health center, I am vocal about the fact that I pop two pills every day which basically saved my life, and I show up to therapy even when I don't feel like hashing things out. Because like a workout at the gym, a regular talking through of things keeps me, plain and simple: healthy.
Beyond this, I mainly just make myself an approachable person, and wait for people to approach. I am the friend who is here to listen, who won't be freaked out by crazy thoughts you share with me, and who will offer to go to therapy with you for added support.
Living as this uber-supportive friend was going fine and dandy, until I found myself caring about people who weren't taking my prescribed steps toward mental health. In some cases, I felt the friend was so sensitive or volatile that I was afraid to even speak up and suggest something such as therapy. And boy has this sent me in a tailspin of feeling.
As I looked out at the Rite Aid parking lot, each new emotion piled on top of the last. I choked on some tears and told Alex, "This is almost as hard as being depressed myself."
I am seeing some true colors in myself that I didn't know existed, and I don't like them. The chartreuse crayons have pulled themselves out of the box and I'm looking at them, thinking, "Can these really be me?"
I don't consider myself to be a control freak at all. But I have had my eyes opened, as I've ached for people in my life to go to therapy and consider medication, to what it feels like to want to control someone else's life.
Before, I felt like some benevolent guru, in a flowing linen outfit, hands calmly folded, an open spirit waiting for a broken one to come crumple in my lap, at which point I would stroke the hair of that broken spirit, listen, offer tea, and privately, victoriously, pump my fist in the air once they'd announce to me they were headed to get additional, professional help.
I have been like Oprah, handing out advice and trail maps to her studio audience, not being asked, just sharing my mental wealth with the masses.
"You get a therapy appointment! And you get a therapy appointment!" I yell, full of good selflessness.
"And guess what, Audience? Your insurance is gonna pay for itttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt!"
My friends cheer for me, their linen-clad mental health hero.
Except that instead of enthusiastically accepting my suggestions, people close to me have passed over them, like less-than-attractive garments at a store.
As I have watched people in my life feel worse and worse, every day passing without a call made to a professional helper, I have begun to feel less benevolent and more...nasty.
I have felt annoyance, wondering why these people won't help themselves. I have felt impatience, waiting for them to see the light of what (I think) needs to change in their lives to make them feel better.
I have felt relief, in the moments that they open honestly to me, releasing a frustration or a hurt from inside themselves and choosing to share it with me, letting some air out of their over-inflated tires. And then I have felt desperation, when they have another spell and I worry that each new spell will be worse than the last. In my worst worrisome moments, I wonder if one of the spells will be one that breaks them.
And I have been hurt, to the point of sobbing in my car, wondering when, and if, my friends will ever start acting like themselves again.
I have become self-righteous in my mental wellness, which is one of the strangest and perhaps most sick things I've ever had to admit.
I have been introduced to a Me who feels less compassion than I once did, for people struggling with depression, sadness, anxiety. I brood primarily in selfishness, wondering why THEY don't see why I am right, and do what I -- benevolently, gently -- suggest already.
I hate this Me, and look at her with horror.
When I was in the throes of my own emotional ups and downs, when I was without a map, when I felt like I was making every last healthy decision to no blasted avail, what made me feel THE worst were the moments in which I could feel those around me, those who loved me, being mad at me. I couldn't understand how anyone could be so heartless to see me in such a miserable state, and instead of just picking me up off the floor one more time, they threw up their hands instead. I was the depressed one, and you can't be callous with someone who's depressed. We're too fragile. Too exposed. Too everything.
My extreme emotional instability was unfair enough, and to have the people closest to me react with tough love was the most unfair thing of all. It's what made me hesitate to dial the phone, and I so desperately needed people who I could call.
In high school, I went to a church event with middle schoolers from our congregation, as a chaperone (I know, yikes. Someone once put me in charge).
There was a workshop that weekend about prayer. This very funny guy, who was acting as our emcee for the event, led the workshop, and while he peppered his presentation with jokes, he mellowed as he talked about conversing with God.
The one thing I remember from his talk is this: you can pray with your hands open. They don't have to be clasped, or holding the hand of another (though I love the holding hands while praying thing). You can just rest them on your thighs, Mr. Emcee said, upturned, like shallow dishes you might drop jewelry into.
I am usually a clasper, and when saying the Lord's Prayer with my family or praying with Abby in our living room, I am a hand holder. But every once in a while I drop my hands and leave them open, letting still air touch my palms.
Our emcee is not the only one who sees the value of openness. I read in Isabel Gillies fantastic book, A Year and Six Seconds, that she sometimes lies on the floor on her back. The position guarantees vulnerability, she explains.
Loosen your grip, writes Anne Lamott.
As I let my hands fall open during our congregational prayer this past Sunday, and as I listened to Rustin's sermon, it occurred to me once more that I've been operating with fists lately, and not open hands. I have the treatments that worked so well for me -- therapy, meds -- bubbling around so actively in my brain; I don't seem to have any room left for grace.
I've discovered that I detest watching people I love grapple with pain. I've also discovered that I can be impatient, waiting for their struggle to end, and focused only on the solution that I want to see.
I've learned that I have embodied a behavior that, when once exercised toward me, threatened to crush me, while I was in one of the most delicate states I've ever known.
This has not been an easy fact to recognize.
I suppose there is some good news in all of this.
Even though I've deemed myself a selfish, self-righteous person in reaction to my friends' pain, in the midst of this I have not lost sight of the fact that I am not the ultimate solution to their problems. I still understand that a therapist can help in ways that I can't. That an "unbiased third party" (as my brother so famously once describe a counselor's role to me) can listen and offer advice in a way that doesn't have all my Bailey-ness in the way. I sure hope my friends need me, but I don't want to be the only thing they need.
I recognize that God can help. That faith communities can help. That walks, and water, and pets and funny movies and pizza and singing and being silly can help. That time, blessed time, can do so much, God willing, to turn things around.
Alex and my parents have reminded me that I can't fix people. I can't make them engage in self-help activities if they don't want to, even if I think they're beyond due for some.
In the meantime, there are some things I know I can do.
I can continue to advocate for mental health services at large. I can keep writing, and talking, and listening. I can always be ready, in my hypothetical linen (it wrinkles, so I don't have a lot of it in my closet).
I can keep taking care of myself, so that I can remain in a place to listen, to love. I can recognize when I'm being less than compassionate, and talk it out with my therapist and others.
And I can keep my hands open. I can pray for all of us, because we all need help.
And since God gave me two hands -- ai'nt that quaint? -- I can use one to pray, openly, and the other can maybe quit clenching and instead get up and help. Instead of using my hand to simply point one to another helper, I can use it to be a helper. Pour a cup of tea, clean up messes, buy a plane ticket to come visit, pick up the bill.
And I can use my free hand to call my friends who need some listening love. Always remembering those moonlit, ombré numbers that once connected me to people who listened and loved me.