Who are You When Someone is Asking?

On private needs, public persona, and concealing vulnerability

“Oh, you have a beast in your bag!” a random passer-by in Amsterdam Centraal station tells me in Dutch with a big smile and, unexpectedly, I understand every word.

He then points at the yellow and orange head popping out of my tote, all round eyes and wrinkly mane. Carrying around a little stuffed lion no bigger than a loaf of bread isn’t what you’d expect from a woman of experience traveling alone. Although the lion was never intended as a conversation starter, it quickly becomes one whenever it comes out of my bag for pictures.

Mostly, people do a double take then smile. Witnessing unexpected gentleness makes the moment different, intriguing.

And yet, my joyful companion came into my life this summer as a desperate attempt to hang on to all that has been giving me strength for the last few months. It is a visual, huggable cue I can whip out whenever I’m overwhelmed, just like kids who carry around a stuffed animal or a blanket.

That I have a few decades on them is neither here or there; I needed joy and I needed it fast.

I bought the little lion from a Dutch store everyone goes to; it has cousins scattered all over the Netherlands and Europe. Mass-produced in China, it is machine-washable, and seemingly indestructible.

On the surface, it points to my being the playful, sunny type with a soft and silly side. Deep down however, it belies an insatiable need for human warmth and reassurance that came to demand a reminder.

But like many of us, I’m a little self-conscious about communicating my outsize need for love lest it should make anyone feel smothered. So I went and got the lion after I realized my hints about it had been likely unintelligible.

And then I promptly transformed it into positive reinforcement of all that is good in my life.

Stating our own needs and asking for help is something most humans struggle with.

Because we don’t want to impose, because we don’t want to appear as less than capable and in control, because we don’t want to inspire pity or embarrassment.

Or even derision.

Because we are terrified of being judged as “lesser than” by our peers we settle for far less than we need to be content and fulfilled. We put up with situations that break our heart while hoping they might improve and getting frustrated when they don’t.

I lost five years of my life to major depressive disorder, yearning for human warmth, help, and support that never came. Everything I needed then I had to somehow make until such time when my words resonated with those who eventually offered me a hand to hold.

Back then, I had my cats; they provided me with unconditional love on tap and prevented me from dying by my own hand. Although I’m doing better now, the fight against the parasite in my head starts anew every morning. Exhaustion is never not crushing me, my stepmom is dying, and my financial situation remains precarious to the extreme despite how much I work, seven days a week. And after living out of a suitcase for over 9 months, I still haven’t secured fixed geographical coordinates in Europe either.

If I allow myself to focus on any of the above, the magnitude of the mess I’m in can and will destroy me as darkness sucks me deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

So I’ve learned to cope by not mentioning it much.

Cope a little too well with a little too much enthusiasm and people will forget you’re struggling and still need help.

That’s what I do but there are telltale signs: The deeper the distress, the sillier the jokes, so silly they get a little surreal at times. Instead of telling my friends I’m dreading getting hurt or hurting myself when I go back to the US and asking them for extra back-up, I try and imply it. Instead of letting them know it would help if they agreed to check up on me often, I frame it as one of my brain’s famous flights of fancy.

It doesn’t help anyone; if I minimize my fear then my friends will never know what I’m dealing with nor how to help me deal with it. And if they’re privy to distress whose root cause they’re not aware of, they’re likely to either feel helpless or wonder if they might be responsible for my turmoils.

No matter how much anyone loves and cares for us, it is unreasonable to expect them to figure out everything by themselves. Unless we make an effort to let them into our head and heart and share our vulnerability, the help we need will not magically appear.

Do not become so self-effacing that you erase yourself; everyone has needs, and yours are as valid as the next person’s.

“What can I do to help?” isn’t a question you hear every day.

But when you do, it is a sign someone cares so let them in, let them see you vulnerable and weak and soft, let them hold those dented and battered parts of you.

Let them squish the whole lot into a hug and have a good cry if you need to, regardless of what gender you identify with because emotions are clues, not crimes.

If someone wants to help, know they’re not repelled by any aspect of your humanness; the only thing they’re assessing is how they can empower you.

Think of “empower” as the mightier cousin of the verb “assist”, itself much reviled as it’s regarded as corrosive to agency. It isn’t though; none of us can go it alone in this life, and the sooner we understand and stop trying, the better.

We’re always at our best and strongest when we join forces, but sometimes this can only happen after we’ve explicitly asked for help.

Saying to someone “I’m hurting, I’m scared, and I need you to be here for me and hold my hand until I’m safe again” calls for humility and courage; both are a sign of strength.

Even when it takes a soft toy to remind us, we are only ever one person with an unlimited capacity for love behind the mask we wear.

The day I walked into that store and came out with the little yellow lion, I took mine off and never put it back on.

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.

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