Empathy is our Superpower

When human warmth shows up unexpectedly

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

You can always make a difference in this world,” my friend reminds me.

Like me, he’s keenly aware of his surroundings and of the plight of fellow humans, whether they’re right in front of him or halfway across the world. My best friend Anthony was similarly wired. He’d feel others’ pain as if it were his own.

This hypersensitivity is a disposition rather than a choice. When you have it, it makes going through life quite exhausting. Emotional triggers abound, you get drained.

The trick — because there’s one to protect yourself from overwhelm — is to apply reason to prevent emotion from clouding your judgment. That way, you can function. But when your brain is wont to malfunction as mine does, emotions can spiral out of control and take you for a spin.

Over the last five years depression rearranged my synapses until all that was left was a paralyzing sense of dread.

Not only was I reluctantly alive, but I was also unable to do anything with my existence. As inadequacy and a surplus of self-loathing took over, reason stalled. Because I couldn’t think, I couldn’t write.

The only thing that came out was disjointed emotional overflow that refused to obey the rules of syntax or grammar. It was as if some alien force has colonized my brain and was steering the ship. Try as I might, I couldn’t right it and lived in permanent fear of capsizing for good.

Owing to severely reduced circumstances, I had no help, no lifebuoy.

Life with depression feels like being caught in the eye of the storm.

There is little respite, if any. Whenever in the throes of intense psychic pain, I’m so lost I no longer know who I am nor how I got to that point. I look back at my past with the distinct feeling it all happened to someone else, which in a sense is accurate.

Depression turned me into someone I could no longer recognize, someone I didn’t know. One day, I’m standing in front of the mirror with no clue how to put make up on because I can’t recall what makes me me. I spent so long trapped within the confines of my cranium and in my house that I became detached from the world, free-floating, untethered.

I was a cardboard cutout, no depth, no soul, just void behind the familiar facade. It was as if my whole brain had gotten caught in the door, I could no longer feel it.

Even my empathy vanished. I was frozen in time at the prospect of needing to pull myself out of this mess but not knowing how. This made communication difficult. I didn’t know what to feel so I didn’t know what to think so I didn’t know what to say. The sound of pain was all I knew and I couldn’t even express that!

Looking back, I was as terrified of living as I was of dying by my own hand, caught in the middle, and trying to remember how to breathe. Even though I was intellectually aware of what was going on, I had no idea how to process raw facts any more. My brain was out of commission, whirling in a constant stress feedback loop.

Unwittingly, I had attained a perfect state of detachment: I had moved out of my own head and heart, leaving behind a confused body ruled by adrenaline.

Needless to say, joy seldom filtered through and when it did, it was always fuzzy and cat-based.

During those five years, people were in short supply.

On the one hand, depression felled me upon immigrating before I even had a chance to build and populate a new life of my own. On the other, I married a loner.

My best friend was a constant though. Until he died in September 2018, he had never not been by my side, a North Star showing me the way forward. But apart from him, crickets. And because I was neither writing nor working — the two being one and the same thing for me — I wasn’t reaching out to anyone.

For all the intellectual stimulation they provided, those five years might as well have been a jail sentence. Only I was under arrest in my own head, held captive by the vagaries of depression and the fickleness of my brain.

When Anthony Bourdain took his own life, I realized I too was slowly dying and needed to do something.

So I did the only thing I once knew how to, the thing I had not been able to do for years, and the thing that terrified me the most: I put pen to paper.

But first, I got angry. Angry at the parlous state of American health care, angry at having to fight depression alone…

I was incandescent with rage for weeks on end, self-combusting with outrage and disgust at myself and the world I lived in. Of course, it wasn’t sustainable and I’ve mellowed since then. But anger gave me the jump start I needed before the will to live and hard work took over. I fell back in step with the world. Alas, I didn’t have much of a clue how to be a person in it anymore. I was marching to the sound of a beat I thought only I could hear.

But I soon discovered I was wrong, so very wrong.

The dented and broken among us have a way of singling one another out.

Our narratives are the flares we send out into the world; our stories identify us as members of a universal tribe of rebels in adversity. Surprisingly — if you’re new to or unfamiliar with mental health issues — there’s much strength to be found in numbers. Also, it’s often the most broken with the least to give who turn out to be the most present and have your back against all odds.

Because you can always make a difference in this world, even to a random stranger. Those of us who have suffered the debilitating effects of all-encompassing isolation know this only too well.

Loneliness can crush you until you believe you have no value whatsoever. And without feedback, how can you even remember who you are once mental illness does away with your sense of self?

You need someone to remind you, and the only person who can will have enough empathy to either understand or identify with your situation, or both.

The reason I write so much about mental health is to try and generate empathy among those who are lucky enough not to have the kind of firsthand knowledge I do. For example, it’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed when faced with a depressive if you have no idea what you’re dealing with.

But it needn’t be.

We’re all the same underneath the skin, there’s a beating heart even if the eyes look dead and the corners of the mouth won’t turn upward.

The need for peer validation never goes away, ditto the need for kindness. The gift of attention is the most precious thing you can give another human. To take a few minutes out of your day and listen to someone tell you about theirs is precious and costs nothing.

To be human is to be vulnerable and this vulnerability can inform your writing but please proceed with caution. Vulnerability can sometimes be a weirdo magnet so my one rule is never to address anything I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving a public talk about. Some people prey on the vulnerable and I’ve met my fair share over the years, as have many women.

Caring is a choice and we can always make it; the more often we do, the greater our understanding of our shared humanity and the richer our lives.

Therein often lies the genesis of friendship, too — you see yourself reflected in another person who sees themself reflected in you. Illness and pain become connectors, alienation recedes, and then one day you share the story of how you set out to save your own life.

Only you didn’t do it alone; you enlisted help along the way because it showed up when you least expected it.

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

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