I’m currently living in the land of “thoughts that aren’t long enough for a blog post but it might still help someone”. Which is fab (sarcasm), but whatever. So as I mentioned recently, I was the victim of a robbery not very long ago, and I’m still struggling to get back on my feet from that. For whatever reason, it sent me and my system into utter chaos and confusion, and we are not recovering well. It affected every area of my life and the way I relate to the world, to others, to myself.
Now, let me pause and say that I have some fabulous friends. I mean, they’re fantastic. So I am writing this from what they have taught me recently. I’m not writing this to inform the ones who are in my life, because they don’t need this. They know it, whether innately or by experience, I don’t know. But they know it. They do it. They are doing it. I’m writing it because they have informed me, whether they know it or not, or meant to or not. But this comes from having been the recipient of some sensitive, consistent, and loving support. I wanted to share some of these experiences in hopes it will give others some direction, or even just a starting point.
Disclaimer: I know there are about five trillion “What to Say/Do” or “What NOT to Say/Do” [when people are in a crisis] articles already floating around out there. They’re all great, but they’re all basically the same and I don’t need to write any more of those, because if you need them they are here and here and here and here and here, with one of my favorite ones (the ring theory) being here. (Those are all really good links, by the way.) And if you need even more than that, Google has about three million more suggestions to choose from.
I did, however, want to reiterate a couple of the big ones and give you a couple more ideas that have helped me in the past, even as recently as this week, that are slightly beyond the basic stuff. To me, the basic stuff is the stuff like, listen to the person, don’t judge or correct them, don’t minimize their feelings, try to help out with the practicals (food, appointments, tasks of daily living), be consistent with your presence in their life, etc. If you don’t know the basics, you should read any or all of those links in the first full paragraph. I’ll wait. 😉
I’m putting these in first person, and bear in mind this is just me. Others may react differently. Everyone is an individual. You know your people the best, so you will have a better idea what direction to go in when you’re with someone in crisis.
When I am in crisis…
- It’s worth repeating: Listen to, and validate, the emotions I’m expressing in the moment. Don’t try to talk me out of feeling how I feel. It just makes me mad, or shuts me down. Don’t argue with how I feel, citing examples of how my feelings could be factually untrue (e.g. if I say I’m feeling like a failure, please don’t turn around and cite all my recent professional successes).
- Something you CAN do, after you have listened to everything I have to say, is ask me “Do you want to know what I see when I look at you?” If I say no, then don’t. Although I personally would probably not say no to that question. If I’m in crisis, the chances are high that I don’t know who the hell I am right now (in more ways than one), and I’m struggling to find somewhere to land, mentally. I’m feeling all the negatives but struggling to grasp that that is not ALL there is. I will probably want your input, but only after I feel like you’ve heard and understood me FIRST.
- If you don’t understand what I’m going through, don’t act like you do. You can even tell me you have no idea what it must be like, because then I know you’re not bullshitting me. But acknowledge that I have legitimate reasons for feeling the way I do, whether you know all of them (or any of them), or not. Ask questions and give me space to say everything I want or need to say without correcting, minimizing, or judging.
- Try to help me remember – or plan! – things to look forward to. A few years ago, I got through almost an entire October by planning my first tattoo appointment for the second week of November. If I am in severe crisis, especially if I am suicidal, the future looks nothing but ominous to me. If you’re aware of something pleasant coming up that I might not be thinking about right now, you can remind me of it. If the crisis is too big, and I don’t care anymore, it’s worth seeing if there’s something else I can plan to do, to look forward to. This doesn’t have to be planned out in detail. Something as simple as, “What do you think about taking a weekend road trip with me in a couple months, to (some particular nearby city) to do (some particular activity, eat at some specific local restaurant, or just sightsee)? Would that be fun?” If that doesn’t sound fun, it’s a perfect opening to ask what does sound fun, to see if there’s something that might help me stay motivated to stick around for. Not too soon, but not too far in the future either. The idea is to set an attainable goal. For the suicidal person, every hour feels like an eternity. Making plans to do enjoyable things need not even be big special things like road trips. It could even be something like “Hey, I have some free time this weekend, would you like to go see a movie?” Or anything that helps me look to the future with something other than dread. Different people have different love languages; mine happens to be quality time, so I’m an absolute sucker for anyone offering to spend time with me doing anything. I’m happy spending time with someone just sitting and talking, doing nothing. So whatever floats the person’s boat, really.
- Help me figure out the most basic steps I need to take right now, whether it’s getting a shower, eating a meal, taking a nap, putting the laundry in the washer. Practical stuff goes a long way in helping life move forward smoothly in the moment until I can get back on my feet again. It leaves less things I have to take care of that have built up when I am back to a higher level of functioning. When I’m in crisis, I forget how to do things like eat & drink, or I get too stressed, or I just can’t organize myself enough to make it happen. Sometimes clearing a substantial amount of brain fog can be achieved by simply getting some fluid back into your body.
- Help me figure out a few things I can do immediately to take some pressure off. If the pressure is mental/emotional, help me find something comforting to do. Stressed people are usually somewhat removed from their sensory environments. Re-connecting them to their senses is usually a good bridge to bring them back into reality, albeit at their own pace. Suggesting doing things that involve appealing to the senses can be comforting even if I don’t register the comfort immediately. The other night I was feeling very distressed and I had the bizarre idea to put my bedspread in the dryer for an hour before I went to bed, so it replicated the “hot blankets” put on cold patients in hospitals. Something THAT SMALL is often overlooked, especially by the person in crisis. But it actually helped calm my system down way more than expected. For some people it might be turning on music that they really like, or putting on their favorite lotion. Jogging the senses of touch, smell, and taste can be very helpful to bring someone into the moment and get them out of their head for a brief spell – long enough to gather some strength.
- Eliminate everything that is not vitally important to deal with RIGHT THIS SECOND. One of my friends recently did this for me. I was already very distressed on my own, and a situation popped up that started escalating like a vulture circling around my head. She told me gently: end the conversation. I forget that I CAN DO THINGS LIKE THAT. I tend to think that I have to be engaged all day, every day, with all things, all the time. The situation was absolutely of no importance, and CERTAINLY not deserving of being allowed to add more stress to my life when I was already overwhelmed, and she helped me realize that. So I ended it. So this is also a crucial skill that I’m slowing learning, which I’m suggesting to you as well: to cut out the “extras” that you don’t have capacity to handle right now. Either put them off, ignore them, or shut them down. If it’s not absolutely vital to your well-being in that moment, shelf it. If it matters in some other capacity, it will still be there another day and you can deal with it then. If it doesn’t matter in any other capacity, it may go away by itself with no help (I love it when that happens…*snark*).
- Don’t lay the praise on too heavily. I know this might sound weird, but people in crisis (and/or suicidal) are drowning in negativity because that’s all they can see right now. It might sound counterintuitive, but trying to fight all that negativity with a bunch of fluff doesn’t work. At best it highlights the cognitive dissonance I am experiencing by showing how big the contrast is between your outlook and mine, and drives the “What is wrong with me?” message in deeper. At worst it feels fake, insincere, inappropriately timed, and creates further isolation. I will feel unheard and misunderstood and invalidated. I’m not saying encouraging words are never needed or appropriate. I’m just saying be careful with them, and don’t try to smother the air out of me with them. There’s probably a legitimate psychological process going on that I’m not informed on, but for some reason it works much, much better to affirm and validate and agree that things just suck right now. You don’t have to try to qualify it or explain it or dismiss it. Just agree that the whole situation is bad, it hurts, it’s hard, you see my struggle and my exhaustion, and the whole thing is just all-around shitty. For whatever reason, doing that gives my brain the space to start bouncing back. I don’t know why. But it’s true. So keeping superfluous positivity to a minimum is good, during a crisis. Even someone telling me I did a good job with making good choices to keep myself safe, can go overboard. To be gut-level honest with you, when I’m in THAT deep of a crisis, it feels wrong to make the choice to stay alive. It feels like the wrong choice. Being alive feels like the wrong choice. So praising me for making a choice I didn’t want to make – and still don’t – is iffy and reminds me that I’m here against my will at this exact moment. Saying something like, “I love you and I’m glad you’re alive” is a better way to put it.
I would not say that I’m fully out of crisis yet, but I’m more optimistic today than I was yesterday, that I will make it. I have no idea why the robbery affected me this severely, all things considered. But this is where I am, and I have to be okay with that. I have put all of my long-term goals and plans on the shelf for the time being, which is a challenge for a big-picture, future-oriented thinker, so I can focus on getting through the day to day life stuff in the short term. Thought I might as well write about it, because that’s what I do. I write. Cheers. ~J8