This was to a friend of mine who when I first wrote it, was reaching out to others, talking about how hard things were and getting the message that all that talking about it was “too much.”
Do it anyway.
People may tell you you are “just attention-seeking.” Hell, yes, you are attention-seeking! And thank you for doing it! Saying hi is attention-seeking. Wearing a nice shirt to work is attention-seeking. We humans are a social species. That’s what we do. We want attention because it is part of connection, and we need connection. It’s literally in our genes; it is part of how our species survives from one generation to the next. We don’t all want the same kinds of attention and some of us have learned that attention is unbearably painful, but in some way or others each of us wants to be with people we love, or at least with somebody, and that involves attention.
What people mean is, they don’t like how you are seeking attention and they want you to cut it out. So, okay, ask if there are ways to reach out for connection that will serve you and the people you love better and, if there are, try to learn them and use them to replace the ones you find most problematic. But putting someone down for seeking attention is putting them down for being a mammal and it’s not fair. And people who seek attention in desperate ways are expressing desperate needs, so even if it gets to that, keep going.
Do not let people shame you out of doing the best you can to find ways to connect with other human beings including “attention-seeking behaviour”: do it anyway.
Because, yeah, we’ve talked about travel, we’ve talked about beer, we’ve talked about services, I’ve seen your pride in your home and in the recognition you have earned. And we all know people who get joy from travel or knowledge or or power or hobbies or money or achievement. But whenever I have seen you really light up, the conversation has been about people, one way or another. And whenever I have seen you expressing deep pain over something specific, the conversation has been about people, too. I get that. That’s about how it works for me as well. So keep reaching out. Even when it’s people you love and respect telling you not to, do it anyway.
There will be people who tell you to reach out, but they don’t mean to them. They mean to a professional. They will give you hotline numbers, tell you about medication, suggest counseling. Those things help some people. If you want them, pursue them. But sometimes this kind of “helpful advice” means “stop reaching out to non-professionals. Whatever you do, don’t reach out to me. Your needs are too much.”
Paid relationships, while they have value (who, on a summer day, goes into a 7-11 for a Slurpee and doesn’t value their relationship with the clerk, who would not stand there ensuring they get their cold sweet wish satisfied as an unpaid hobby?), are no substitute for chosen, reciprocal relationships. There is nothing like people who are around you just because they want to be.
So seek professional help if that seems like a good idea, but when it comes to not seeking connection, don’t listen. Do it anyway.
Yeah, you are going to get some well-intentioned but hurtful responses along the lines of “Settle down, things really aren’t that bad.” Discourage them, but as kindly and gently as you can, because not only they but others are watching, and the lesson some of those watchers are getting is, “It’s better not to reach out because I may make things worse.” That is not a lesson you want to teach, however unintentionally; when people reach out it is attention-seeking and we want others to feel okay about reaching back. Do your best to hear that people are uncomfortable, that they don’t know how to respond, that at least some of them are really trying to help and that’s a good thing — and let them know you appreciate that much, if you do and if you can — although also recognise that sometimes others just want you to stop, and then do it anyway.
Some people are going to say things that are helpful. For me, from people not in a position to actually make things better, which most of the time is everybody, what helps is along the lines of “Yeah, that sucks, I wish things were different.” Flag what is helpful to you. That is a big part of how people learn to do scary things they are afraid to mess up: they see it done more skillfully than they know how to do, they learn that it is more skillful, and they dare to imitate it.
So scary stuff not only has to be done, but sometimes it has to be done in front of audiences. Some people desperately want to say something helpful but they are afraid of making things worse, so they let you dangle, which makes things worse. Showing them — as kindly and gently as you can — is part of building the community you need and others need and the next generation will need, so even though it is hard, do it anyway.
People will sometimes tell you about self-help and self-care. If you’ve asked, or if it’s someone close to you, this can be an act of kindness. Otherwise, it’s usually a way of reminding you that your problems are your problems to solve. And that is not untrue. Nobody else has to be there for you. But if you want to live in a world of connection, where people reach out and reach back, if you want to strengthen that part of the culture that says we are responsible to and for each other, for yourself, for the people you love, for the people coming up after you — and from what I know of you, I believe you do — this is part of how you move slowly and almost imperceptibly toward that. I know you know this; you are a patient and generous teacher. So do it anyway.
Because you are a teacher. You are an activist, an organizer, an advocate and a community-builder. I’ve watched you do all these things and do them beautifully. Reach out, make connections, and do in in public so those who don’t have your skills or your bravery or your experience can see how to do it, too. I know you get told a lot that other people are better at things than you, and it is true that everyone you meet will be better than you at something. But when it comes to the stuff that really excites me, you are amazing. No college degree or car, no dancing lessons or polished resume, would make you a better or more beautiful person, and part of your beauty is expressed in your willingness to reach out to others, to ask for and give help. Whatever anyone says to you, do it anyway.
There will be behaviourists — maybe, because you are disabled, highly trained professionals, but certainly those who have incorporated the behaviourists’ methods into their everyday relationships — who will figure out what you love and hold it hostage until you behave the way they want. They will tell themselves, and you, and anyone who will listen, that this is for your own good. I know you know better. It’s control. It’s abuse.
Anyone has the right to not go out of their way for you; nobody has the right to use that fact to control you. You never have to accept abuse. Never. People will tell you you should. People can be f***heads. That said, it can be hard to keep reaching out in the face of having been abused, but please, do it anyway.
There will be times when people convey that whatever you are having a hard time with really isn’t that upsetting. It wouldn’t upset them, they think (sometimes they are right, sometimes they are clueless, and sometimes they are lying). Or others have gone through, and seemed to handle, worse (so what? It’s not a contest. And they may not have been coping. They may just not have been reaching out).
But there is no objective scale for what upsets us. I’ve watched people absolutely thrive in situations I could never handle, I’ve coped with things that almost everyone thinks are intolerable and completely lost it in situations nobody else seems to mind, and I’ve watched people crumble in situations that gave me joy. It’s not anyone else’s place to judge the worthiness of your pain or tell you when it isn’t okay to reach out to others about it. Let them have their say — you can’t stop them — but ignore them and do it anyway.
When there are people who could help, a lot of them won’t. Some that you think could help really can’t, in ways that may not be obvious. If you love someone, try to understand who they really are, what they really can and can’t do, the ways that what they can’t do are inextricably linked to the best things about them, and try not to get angry that they aren’t who they aren’t, because that’s not love. But some people are making choices. They have a right to do that, as much as it hurts.
Not asking for help is a failing of mine. As long as I don’t ask for what I need, I can pretend that if I did ask, I would get it. And there are days that I need that fantasy. But I also need what I am not asking for, and if nobody knows, I definitely can’t have it. So take a deep breath, risk the fantasy, and do it anyway.
You’re going to hurt people and they’re going to hurt you back. There is really no way to be around other people without it being a bruising experience for everyone some of the time. That’s in the nature of fallible humanity. Hurting someone by accident or in some other ways is not the same as being an abuser. Being hurt is not the same as being abused. (But you also don’t owe it to anyone to stick around for pain you don’t want, even if it is not caused by abuse. They don’t have to deserve to be left for you to deserve to be able to leave.)
Listen to this stuff and ask yourself if it’s true. It is certainly possible to cross the line and hurt someone, and I know you don’t want to do that. And anyone else has the right to say, “I don’t want to be around you” over anything at all. But that doesn’t mean that who you are is not okay. So respect what other people want and need in their own lives. Ask for what you need, but don’t demand from someone what they won’t freely give. Social media is amazing for this because it relieves people from individual responsibility; you can say what you have to say and other people can choose to take a break from hearing it. But no matter how much people are telling you that good manners or health or the rules of a civilised society require you to stop trying to connect with other people, do it anyway.
Also, some people really don’t want to hear this stuff. Some people need not to. Be thoughtful about that. When you learn that about someone, don’t make them hear it. But don’t let other people’s general discomfort stop you, either. Some people will try to police you: they’ll tell you you are inappropriate or even toxic, that you have to stop so they can have healthy boundaries, that you are a bully.
People are going to tell you to be more grateful and remind you of the good things in life. As hard as it is to be told to be grateful when you are in pain, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Good things happen, and noticing and acknowledging them does help. The ability to be in the presence of people who matter to me, to joke around with them, to be a part of something meaningful, to do work I value — these are real gifts and I treasure them. Express your gratitude as best you can, because the people who give you these gifts should get reached back to. But don’t try to force gratitude. Pain counts, too, and if it is not visible people cannot connect with you in those moments. So when you want or need to express your pain, even though people will point out that pain is not (or in their opinion should not be) all there is, do it anyway.
There are going to be days when you want to walk away from it all and take a break from other people. And that is okay, if you are doing it for you. There are going to be days when you want to give the people you love a break from the discomfort of being around you. And that is okay, too, as long as it’s temporary and really based in an assessment of their needs. It’s the overall shape of things that counts. If you stop reaching out altogether, other people stop reaching back. If you stop being honest, you lose that ability to connect. And that kind of cut-all-ties withdrawal that seems in the moment to make sense does not work long-term. So know yourself. Sometimes when you don’t want to reach out, let yourself off the hook. Sometimes, do it anyway.
It is only by showing up and reaching out, by opening yourself up to the possibility of real pain, that you lay the groundwork for connection-based joy. And you never know when those moments are going to come. You may be freezing your ass off in some park somewhere when someone you deeply respect takes one of your suggestions seriously. You may be in someone’s office when they ask you to do something that is easy for you and hard for them. Someone may tell you they trust you to do a job that you know is important. You may be in an ER QR someone stuck you in because you couldn’t cope in the last place they had you, even with your eyes shut, trying to control the rising panic and not bolt because you know you need not to, when the person with you (note that oppportunity for gratitude) sucks you into a ridiculous discussion about someone’s duct-taped, disintegrating wheelchair tyre and you find yourself laughing. You may be in a parking lot with friends listening to someone’s hilarious story of trying to figure out the worst pack of boxer shorts he ever encountered. You may be in a place where you are supposed to have your game face on, trying like hell not to laugh at a private joke with the person next to you. You may be in a hotel lobby learning you don’t have a room when someone you admire shows up, supports you, and goes with you for a burger, a beer, and an epic conversation. If you reach out, you get hurt a lot. But if you don’t reach out, you don’t get those joys, so do it anyway.
Some people are going to get overwhelmed by you and walk away, and that’s going to hurt so much. It hurts to be given up on. Especially when it is someone you really, really love. And I know enough about how people with your disability get treated to bet you have experience with that pain. When you have something that really matters to you, there is incredible risk. You can lose it. It can be weaponised against you. For some of us, that is a never-ending experience. The only relationships of mine that ever last involve a whole lot of distance and non-contact; people like me sometimes, but nobody likes me for very long, and that is almost unbearable knowkedge to live with. You learn to hide and hoard what matters to you. I’ve certainly learned to act as if I barely notice the people I want to know, and not to trust signs that they may want to know me, too. You can do that with a lot of things. But love doesn’t work like that. There’s no way to do it right, to give or receive it, without risk. Without unbelievable risk. You have to force yourself to take the risk. There is no way not to get hurt.
Love is a contact sport, played without protective gear. So as terrifying as it is to try over and over to connect with those whom, right now, today, you love and who love you back, and those whom you might love or be loved by, do it anyway.
And there are going to be times when you fuck it all up and you just want to hide. It is hard to be human. Do it anyway.
Here’s the thing. At any given moment there are reasons not to reach out. And sometimes those reasons will be enough and that is okay. I’m not going to tell you when or or how often to whom or how to keep reaching out. Those are personal decisions and different people should make different ones. I’m just saying, there are always reasons not to, and other people will remind you of them, because you reaching out is uncomfortable for most people. They may want to fix it but be unable to. They may want to help but not know how. They may not want to know what you are going through — and some legitimately need to not know about it. They may feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do. It may offend their sense of propriety. They may be subtle; they may be direct. You are going to get hurt worse. DO IT ANYWAY. As much as you need to, and sometimes just because you can.
Because the cost of not doing it is higher.
I know you know this. I know what a soul-destroying price I paid for extended and total denial of human connection, and I know the one you paid was steeper and younger. But I also know you are hearing from people who are well-meaning but haven’t thought through what they are asking of you, and I wanted you to to hear from someone who has.
Your best move in the moment is not always your best move. Because it is never just the one moment. Moments lead to other moments lead to still other moments. They mean something. A life emerges. It means something. It means a lot.
I am sorry things are so hard right now. You deserve better. I wish I knew a way to help, but I don’t. I hope the unsolicited advice hasn’t made things worse. I wish you were happier, but I am glad you are telling us how things are. I hope they get better soon, but until they do, thank you for reaching out and telling us.
And thank you for being you.