By Rob Siebert
As someone living with a mental illness, specifically anxiety, I’m often in the position of having to be comforted or reassured by others. It’s something I try hard to be mindful of. I don’t want to generalize, as everyone deals with anxiety in their own way. But I’ve found that it’s very easy to for me to make difficult conversations about myself, my feelings, and what’s going on in my head. It’s never intentional, of course. But when you’re used to being so open with someone, it almost comes natural. That’s something I really dislike about myself. No one should put others in the position of having to be comforting and reassuring all the time. Having anxiety doesn’t excuse that.
With that in mind, these last few years I’ve really tried to work on my own listening skills, and being that comforting person for the people in my life when called upon. That’s not always easy because of the social aspect of my anxiety. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s good to think about it.
So where am I going with all this? A few days ago, I was put in a position to comfort someone. This is how it went…
My day-to-day job, my “joe job,” involves a drive-thru. A few days ago, the girl I have running the drive-thru asks me if we can call the police. Naturally, that’s a question that makes you snap to attention.
I find a woman pulled up to the window crying, claiming the man in the car behind her has been following her, and verbally threatened her. For whatever reason (no judgment), she feels like she can’t call the police on her own. So she’d like us to do it.
I dial the police non-emergency number. As I’m doing so, the man who’s supposedly following her drives away. So whatever immediate danger is has passed. Still, I hand her my phone, and the dispatcher tells her to come inside with us while she waits for an officer to arrive.
So the woman, let’s call her Jill, comes inside and sits down. Jill is roughly my age. Early 30s, maybe late 20s. She’s not in hysterics, but she’s clearly upset. Understandably so. I don’t want to leave her alone. Not just in case this man comes back, but just out of general courtesy. No one should have to be alone after a traumatic experience like that. Unless they want to be.
We’re sitting at a table together. Jill is crying. And I’m in a position I’m not necessarily comfortable in. Not because she’s upset, but because I don’t usually do well in one-to-one situations. I’m much better in groups. When it’s just me and one other person I stress about awkward silences, keeping the conversation going, not saying anything dumb, etc.
But there we are. Together. In that moment…
Unintentionally, my body is crooked slightly toward the door so I can see if the police officer is coming. I don’t mean to do it. But it’s a product of my anxiety. I always need to have a way out.
I get Jill a drink of water and some tissues. (Paper towels, actually.) We review some of the details of what has just happened. I ask her where she was headed. She says she was on her way to babysit for a friend. She calls said friend, during which I mess around on my phone a little bit. I check on my co-workers.
When I come back, I struggle for something to talk about. I figure it’s not a good idea to dwell too much on what’s just happened, right? She’s already upset, after all. We start talking about my job and work environment a little bit. It seems to ease her a bit.
Jill decides to call her mom. Because sometimes you just need to talk to mom. I go back and check on my co-workers again. It seems like the cop is taking an awful long time to get here.
So I bring up how long she’d been driving beforehand and where she’s from. That leads us into where my wife and I are from, what my day-to-day commute looks like. We actually end up comparing notes on Chicago and Milwaukee, as that was more or less the journey my wife and I took when we moved.
The cop finally walks in. I excuse myself, but stand close by in case they need me. The officer talks to Jill, then escorts her back to her car. I have a quick talk with the officer when she comes back, then she’s on her way.
I cringe when I think back on my interaction with Jill. It was actually fairly difficult for me to dictate what happened. Not because either of us did anything wrong. It’s just so easy to think back and pick my side of it apart. I should have said this here, or that there, etc.
Still, it feels good to have been there for somebody. To have put myself in that position. In theory, I could have just gone back to my job and let her wait by herself.
Lately I’ve been on a big Fred Rogers kick. I’m sure at least part of that stems from seeing the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary. But I just finished reading the new biography by Maxwell King. I’m now in the middle of I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. There’s also another documentary, Mister Rogers and Me, on Amazon Prime. One of the prevalent themes that seems to run through all of these is how Fred Rogers had the amazing ability to be totally present and in the moment with everyone he talked to. That’s the kind of thing that seems super easy. But it’s not. Especially in today’s world.
I don’t think I was completely present in that moment with Jill. I don’t know that I’m completely comfortable being present in the moment with anyone, outside a very select few. But I’m working on it.
In the end, working on it is really all we can do. That’s how we improve.
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