I recently stopped by an old coworker’s house to pick something up and we stood outside her apartment building talking for a while when it started raining. Since we were in the middle of a pretty good conversation and we’re both vaccinated I thought she would just invite me in but she got sort of uncomfortable when I suggested that. Of course I felt bad and said something about how I should go home anyway but then she insisted I come inside.
When we stepped inside her studio apartment I understood what was happening. She told me that during quarantine she began buying supplies and other things in bigger quantities and also having a hard time letting go of stuff like junk mail and boxes that she should recycle, and things like that. But it was worse than that because it was also just really dirty. Or maybe filthy is the right word. It didn’t seem like anyone had cleaned or dusted or swept there in months. It didn’t feel like the kind of place anyone would want to be.
It really broke my heart and I can’t stop thinking about it. I feel like I need to get back in touch with her and offer to help her clean up or just talk to her about whatever is going on. She’s always been sort of a loner and at this point I’m starting to worry about her. We have never been super close but we’re close enough that I think I could say something to her. The question is: What do I say and should I really say it? —H.B.K.
Dear H.B.K. -
First I want to say thanks for being so compassionate and open to your friend. A lot of us might not have space or make space to even consider showing up in the way you’re thinking about showing up.
The line that stands out to me is “I can’t stop thinking about it.” It’s really something when our minds become affixed to an idea, isn’t it? We often take that as a sign that action is warranted, but as a counterbalance to that—as a way of pausing to investigate whether the thinking itself has run off and started to manufacture its own sense of urgency—let’s just look a little deeper.
I’m going to pepper you with a bunch of ideas stated in the form of questions, so I’d suggest starting with some notebook paper or a journal and writing out your thoughts and reflections longhand. You shouldn’t have to write out the questions; if your written answers are complete and true, it will be enough to first express them and then see them on their own when you come back through to review during your reflection and decision-making process.
(Spoiler Alert: You probably aren’t going to have your answer after reading this the first time through.)
When you think of wanting to help your friend; how do you see your role and do you imagine any way that helping her would be markedly beneficial or markedly detrimental to you? Would your role be an instigator or a sort of intervention starter? Would it be a full-on, all-in assistant? Would you act as a useful outside observer; someone who’s new to the solution and is able to see and voice what others can’t? Or, do you see your role as a more integrated and ongoing one? Would you plan to hang in there and help her clean up on a week to week basis? Do you see yourself stepping in early and helping her find qualified care and support, or can you picture being there six weeks down the line, putting together spreadsheets and call sheets and recyclable dust wipes? How long do you think you could keep up with either one? Would there come a point when you tire of it, and how would that leave your friend if you needed to bow out?
Just try holding on to one idea at a time and letting it play out in your mind. What might each option or level of involvement require of you? If you got involved, could you stay involved? How might your friend react to each idea or presumption?
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“I don’t know how somebody can look at somebody, without knowing anything about them, and just project all this negativity that then turns into hate,” she says. “It’s hard for me cause I just don’t get it because I don’t look at anybody and feel that way.”
Do you stand to gain at all here? I don’t mean to look critically at your motivations, but sometimes we can get entranced by the idea of being The Helper. The old savior’s complex; sometimes called White Knight Syndrome. You mentioned your friend was once a coworker; is there any way that helping her will reflect well on you at work, or signal virtue among any other shared community?
Ask yourself to really plainly state what your one main goal would be with regard to your friend’s situation, and then look at that goal with some critical curiosity. Are you imposing any of your own ideals on your friend’s life? Is this even a scenario where it makes sense for you to have a goal? What might your friend’s goal be?
Could getting involved hurt you? Could it hurt your friend? Could it hurt your friendship? How could or would you reconcile any of that?
I started off this first section suggesting that we look at this idea of “I can’t stop thinking about it,” but as I parcel out some of what I see there, I think we’re zeroing in on that other very resounding question you posed, “Should I really say it?”
What do you suppose it is that your friend might truly want? We often think of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and that can be so helpful—except that we are all such individuals and what works for one isn’t always ideal for the other. Did your friend give you any indication of whether she wants or needs help? Sensational intervention-based reality TV aside, it’s often the case that the person we think needs or wants to change must first decide for themselves that they want to shift, that they are ready to take on the introspection and action required in that. Have you found that to be true?
What do you think would happen if you circled back to your friend and simply told her that she’s been on your mind. What if you made a reference to the moment of hesitation and what was revealed inside her apartment, and let her know that you’re grateful she shared her thoughts and her situation with you. Would that create a certain opening in her; a space for her to move forward in ... if that’s what’s right for her? What if it made her uncomfortable and caused a small riff in your connection? Do you have the heart and resolve to move through that? To perhaps live in the awkwardness of the moment and even revisit it again later?
I’m going to assume you were clear on the concept of this column when you sent your question over, so I won’t apologize for how much I’ve posed back at you. My hope at this point would be that you have a sense in your body somewhere about what feels right. Many of us are conditioned to look outside ourselves for answers but I believe that you can find the answer inside. I really do. Just listen. Just keep listening
Now, finally, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination here to do something you may or may not be used to doing. Don’t worry about writing these reflections out. Instead, just daydream. (You can do it in the morning before getting out of bed if that helps.) Imagine zooming forward to this time next year; you and your friend are in her apartment enjoying a meal together and reflecting back on the past 12 months. Now color it in with a good, pleasing, healing story. What happened? What shifted? What did your friend need, after all? How did you first learn more about what was really happening with her, and how did you learn to support and care for her process?—even if you had only a sideline, occasional role. Take yourself through one or more of these potential stories in your mind before the day begins, or while you’re outside walking in nature or sitting somewhere calm and easy. The goal is just to open up to something great coming through. Think: “Expect a Miracle” but more like don’t forget to leave room for a beautiful outcome.
What’s the best possible outcome that you can imagine—for your friend first, but also for you. How can you discover whether what you imagine might truly be what your friend is living with? How can gentle but brave questions lead the way? How can the quiet but confident act of simply showing up make a difference? How can you show her first and foremost what you showed us here; that your concern and care are real.
“I’m Glad You Asked” is an advice column that asks more questions than it answers from personal coach and creative consultant Laura Sullivan Cassidy. You can read more about the project on her Instagram account.
We publish a reader’s letter every month; if you have something you could use some back-up thinking on, send Laura a message at email@example.com.