Wanting to protect your loved ones from what ails you is a natural tendency.
When my stepmom felt her breast tumor and ganglion cysts growing back, it took her a few days to tell my father. But when I spoke to her on the phone from the US a couple of weeks before flying back to Paris in the spring, she told me she feared her cancer had gotten worse.
While my stepmom and I have no filter, and she has none with my father, he remains very private and loath to share what’s going on in his heart and head. This is why I am here, as he’s mindful of burdening my stepmom and is currently holding it all in but won’t be able to for much longer.
As we learned when my grandfather died, I’m the only one he will talk to and listen to. Not without arguing or attempting to push back mind you. We’re French; complaining is a national sport and one my father would win Olympic gold for if he ever competed.
No matter what happened between us nor how many years we were semi-estranged, the bond between us is unbreakable. This makes it one of the few things we can both rely on in this life, same with the bond he and I share with his wife. My stepmom has always read my mind and intuited things long before I bring them up. As a result, we don’t always need to talk to understand each other.
When darkness is your natural habitat, you eventually get to know your neighbors.
These days, my stepmom knows she can be bluntly herself with me when opening up about the distress within because, unlike Dad or her son, I won’t flinch or recoil. Or pretend everything will work out fine when we have every indication it probably won’t.
Because I come from darkness too, some of it intimately familiar to her.
Losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder has changed how I approach human relationships.
I was determined not to worry my parents so I kept them at arm’s length for the duration. Living half a world away made it easy but it hurt my father terribly as he couldn’t understand why I was being so distant.
Eventually, I realized silence empowered my illness and enabled it to thrive unhindered. Because it had become such a source of resentment in my household, I couldn’t talk to my husband.
The few times I tried, whatever I shared ended up being used against me during later arguments. So I learned to keep the contents of my mind under lock and key, all the more as I never had the means to access therapy.
Fast forward over a year since I started getting back on my feet and writing is helping me rebuild a life that works. It enables me to support myself modestly and has facilitated some life-affirming connections with fellow humans.
While sharing our unredacted humanity in print can bring us together, taking the conversation off the page is always a challenge. My guard has been up for so long I’m wary of letting anyone in even though I remain approachable.
And whenever I do let someone in, I worry constantly that my darkness may be too much for them to handle and that they might subsequently walk away.
But not everyone fears darkness. Those who are familiar with it already know how to navigate it. As a result, they are more likely to offer you a hand to hold than someone who means well but hasn’t got a clue about the kind of sadness that eats you alive.
Those of us who have ever had to make a conscious choice between life and death naturally understand one another.
But coming together is often a result of happenstance, a fluke, a random act of algorithm when it happens online.
And on the rare occasion it does, it is the most precious gift.
The ability to open up on a personal level is hard-won.
Vulnerability is like a muscle, use it often and it becomes a lot easier to harness its power of connectedness. This, in essence, is why I turned to mental health advocacy so others wouldn’t feel as alone and isolated as I did for five years.
However, individual conversations take a lot more trust and faith on my part. Trust that nothing I say will ever be thrown back in my face during a disagreement, and faith they’ll still want to know me afterward.
The only way to get over this is to embrace shared vulnerability rather than have just one person leaning on the other. When you’re an equal footing, you can be weak together and draw strength from your willingness to be fully yourselves.
This doesn’t necessarily take away the urge to protect them but it helps you overcome reservation, reticence, and the fear of being judged.
Or of having your confidence betrayed at a later date.
“Sorry, that was heavy,” is something I say a lot these days as I worry about burdening the persons whose friendship has been holding me together for months.
Because you can be sure that behind every competent person in a crisis situation, there’s at least one unsung hero with saintly patience. A confidant(e), a fellow human whose constant benevolent and loving presence is a balm for your achy heart.
Darkness always gets lighter when shared but you cannot share it unless you’re willing to drop the mask and abdicate all pretense. This means taking risks and daring to be fully yourself without attempting to sweep your mess and shortcomings under the rug.
And when you find a kindred spirit, your life will transform in innumerable ways. This is how shared humanness can shield you from further harm; this is how random connections can turn into lifelong friendships.
All it takes for others to find you is the courage to be a whole human.
Even when it’s more than you feel capable of, there’s no other way to dispel darkness.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.