Willoughby

I don’t have many words these days.

Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.

Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.

Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”

Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.

What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.

He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.

So then what does perfect mean?

Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love. Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.

Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.

I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.

I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.

I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?

Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.

We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.

“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.”
~ SYML, DIM

Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.

I want some more time, I can’t give you up.
One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me.
More than a body, you’re more than my heart,
you’re my blood, stay with me, stay with me
!”
~ SYML, STAY CLOSE

Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.

“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.”
~ SYML, DIM

Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.

“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . .
I will protect your light.”
~ SYML, DIM

And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.

I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.

In your closest relationships, is the real you even there?

Driving home the other day, something struck me while I was listening to Nora McInerny’s (amazing) podcast (that you should listen to) Terrible, Thanks For Asking. In an episode called Don’t You Want Somebody to Take Care of You?, a woman named Gina recalled growing up with a depressed mother. Each morning her mom would retreat to her bedroom, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Then, shortly before dad returned from work, mom would appear, all made up and ready for the day. Looking back now, Gina realizes, her mom was “just trying to keep shit together, and not let my dad know how much she was struggling.”

That struck a nerve. It struck a nerve because I think I’ve lived both versions of that. The version where you hide your struggle and the version where you say “You know what? This is me.”

We hide things. It can be depression, as in the case of Gina’s mom. It can be addiction of all kinds. It can be insecurity. It can be anxiety. It can be compulsive spending on Amazon Prime. It can be our unfollowed preferences, desires, even dreams. It can be our anger or heartbreak. We hide things. Especially stuff we’re struggling with. Like loneliness, mental illness, guilt, and shame.

Why do we hide these things from our closest people? Gina’s mom didn’t need to advertise every detail of her depression to the whole world. (Some do find freedom in being an open book to the world–that’s not bad–nor is it wrong to want privacy.) But why did she need to hide from her spouse–the love of her life, her best, best friend? And why do you and I hide the stuff we’re struggling with from our closest friends? And especially our life partners?

We hide because we’re scared. Scared of being alone and scared of losing love. And we imagine scenarios like, “If only he knew, he would leave me,” or “If she found out, she would be so angry,” or “If I was honest about what I really want, we could never make this work.”

So we keep our struggles under wraps, desperately clinging to what love and acceptance and companionship we think we have.

Imagine you’re Gina’s mom. You never feel happy anymore, you never really feel much of anything–but your husband doesn’t see you as “a depressed person”–he doesn’t know. And you’re so afraid that if he finds out, you’ll lose the good you have, the love you have. Strangely, of all the people in the world, your life person is who you most need to hide the truth from. If the person ringing up your groceries finds out you’re depressed, no big deal. As long as my husband/wife/significant other/best friend/family doesn’t know!!!

The person who could be our biggest support is often the one we’re the most careful to hide our struggles from.

Why?

Last night on a Zoom double date, I told my wonderful psychologist friend Glenn that I quote a particular analogy of his all. the. time. It’s true. This concept sticks with me, because I think this analogy explains so much about our closest relationships: A close or intimate relationship (like marriage) is sort of like walking a plank over the Grand Canyon. Lay a narrow board on the ground in your backyard and you can stroll right across without skipping a beat. Place it over a canyon, and suddenly two things become true: Walking across it will be the most breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful experience; And it will be the scariest, shakiest thing you’ll ever do. And that–in a nutshell–is a close relationship. The best and scariest thing in your life. When the board’s on flat ground, one misstep isn’t a big deal. Like when some person you barely know decides they don’t like you. With one misstep high above a beautiful canyon, however, there is so much to lose. Like when your spouse decides they don’t like you.

So shaking, white-knuckled, we grip the board and desperately try not to move, not to tip, not to misstep–we become paralyzed. There is too much to lose. This, unfortunately, is a fairly normal experience in our most intimate relationships. Protecting the bond we have feels so important that we can’t afford to show up as our real, messy, vulnerable, struggling selves. We have to keep it perfect. Too far to fall.

When I was a kid, I learned to hide everything. I hid everything because so constantly the things seen in me were corrected, condemned, and shamed. Choices, interests, activities, tastes, requests, dreams.

I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times I got up the courage, as a teenager, to ask permission to go hang out with friends. I knew that the reaction would almost always be about having something better to do with my time, not being around bad influences, or that I should love my family more than my friends. About to head overseas to work with a missionary for the better part of a year, 18-year-old me asked, “Hey, can I go spend an afternoon with Ben? I really want to see him before I leave.” The response was a mixture of anger and despair: “How could you ask that when I’m busy cleaning floors? Your family clearly doesn’t matter to you at all!” It was confusing.

I’d venture to say most of the people you and I come in contact with don’t leave us with scars and dysfunctions. All it really takes is a few important people to teach you those yucky lessons. Like that you are bad, or that you need to be perfect.

When we heard footsteps in the hall, my siblings and I would jump up from whatever innocent, carefree games we were playing and quickly start “cleaning” or “reading a good book” or something to show we were “redeeming the time.” Because most of the “enjoy” type stuff would be met with disapproval. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I finally got to watch Beauty and the Beast on YouTube as a 17-year-old. The kind of stuff I had to keep to myself.

Those lessons don’t just go away when you “grow up.” The urge to hide all my stuff worked its way deep inside me. I don’t think I really noticed as an adult how much the urge to hide controlled me day to day. The assumption that real-me-stuff would make people hate me or judge me or disapprove of me.

I remember one time I heard my wife’s keys in the door and quickly turned the TV off and picked up a book instead. I didn’t want her to see me nerding out to a Marvel documentary. What if she didn’t like that about me? Better to just hide it. And more than a few times I made sure to hop out of the luxurious eucalyptus bath and dry off before she got home so that she wouldn’t think I was . . . . . taking a bath?

I know this sounds silly. But it was a lesson I learned as a kid: People will disapprove of the stuff you do. People will not like the real you. Hide your stuff.

The funny thing is what happens when we hide. It was a sort of subconscious way to keep my wife from disapproving of me. But slowly it made me feel like . . . she must not approve of me. After all, if I can’t be myself around her. . . . Spoiler alert–my wife doesn’t give a shit if I enjoy a bath or a yummy drink or making a spreadsheet of the MCU timeline. She’s not a bully. She wants me to be happy. But in my fear of rejection, hiding my happy stuff, I kept writing the same old story in my head: She wouldn’t like you.

Instead of keeping me safe, hiding my most basic self made me lonelier and lonelier and more afraid and more afraid.

I bet a few of you grew up learning that it was safer to not be your real self, too. I bet that just about all of you grew up learning that it was at least safer to not be your real struggling self.

Maybe feeling like you have to hide the innocent little personality-stuff doesn’t resonate at all with you. But I bet you do feel the need to hide the yucky stuff. The struggle. The dark, sad, scary, exhausting, hurtful, “bad” stuff. The stuff you’re afraid “could change everything.”

Back to Gina’s mom. She and this guy loved each other so much that they decided they’d be lifelong buddies, best friends: Marriage. And this friendship mattered so much to her that she couldn’t risk admitting, as time went by, that she was struggling. If I tell him how depressed I am, will he be angry, disappointed, unsatisfied? Will he want to leave? Will he think he’s better than me? Will he regret being with me? Will he get tired of me? So she kept it under wraps. Played her part. A façade.

Hiding the struggle keeps you . . . “safe.” Sort of. Safe from the chance that someone will reject you for it. And, as you hide, the struggle slowly pulls you down and holds you under. Ashamed. Alone.

What is your deep struggle that you can’t share with your most important person?

If you’re in a relationship, think about what sparked that interest, that desire–for you and your life person to belong to each other? Why do we attach to someone and share our deepest soul with someone in the first place? It has something to do with needing to be seen and loved. Something to do with being accepted. Something to do with having someone on our team. Someone by our side. Someone who says, “I see you and I love you.”

We need this so badly.

We finally get it.

And then we guard it. At all costs.

So when we struggle, we can’t let our struggle threaten that love we found. So we keep it to ourselves.

And all of a sudden, we’re alone. No longer seen and loved for who we are.

Listening to that story recently, it struck me just how relatable that story was to so, so, so many people: Slowly falling apart, but not being able to tell your life person just how broken you are.

I have something really special with my wife. Something I haven’t always had and may cycle in and out of in the future, but right now it’s pretty special. I’d say that I’m not sharing this to brag, but I guess after admitting to the Marvel spreadsheet thing you know I’m not here to impress. . . . So the special thing: Listening to that podcast, it also struck me just how opposite my experience has been with my own wife during some really, really, really deep struggle times. Resting my chin on the couch pillows, feeling every muscle weakened by this weird sort of gravity, I answered Lyssi’s “I want to know how you’re really doing” question: “Honestly, I’m not okay these days. I’m not happy. I feel hopeless. I don’t even care about the stuff I usually care about. I don’t want to run, I don’t want to write, I don’t even like watching movies or playing the piano. I’m so lonely and I don’t think anyone likes me. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to lay in bed.”

A few powerful things could have happened just then:

She could have rejected me: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

She could have desperately tried to fix me: You have so much to be happy about! Don’t be hopeless! I need you to feel better, okay? Which really translates to: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

Or she could have unconditionally accepted me: I hear you. It’s okay that you’re feeling that way. I love you and I’m here for you.

And in that moment, she picked the unconditional love route. And it made depression so, so, so okay. Like, still not all better, but at least I had her. I wasn’t alone. She wasn’t mad at me, she wasn’t threatened by me, she didn’t need me to stop being me, she just . . . was going to be with me. Okay. Maybe I can do this.

Like I said, my own life hasn’t always been–still isn’t always–marked by such open vulnerability met with perfect acceptance. But when it has been, that has been life-giving. Life-saving.

Struggling alone doesn’t work.

When we finally learn to share our struggles, we can discover that . . . our life people get it. And they love us. And . . . our struggles aren’t going to take away our most important relationships.

Sharing our struggles with our people opens up a world of safety, security, dignity, understanding, support–maybe the only conditions in which we can heal, or make it through at all. A space where we discover that struggling-Peter is no less valuable and loved than doing-great-Peter. A place where maybe we can go ahead and love our struggling selves, too.

So an invitation: What do you need to stop hiding? What is your struggle? And who could you tell?

If this sounds terrifying and panicky, that totally makes sense. The whole Grand Canyon thing. What if you share your struggle and it doesn’t go well? What if you lose that friend? That life person? At this terrified-point I’d encourage you to think back, again, to why you needed that relationship in the first place. Why the closeness? Because you needed to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved. So my question to you is: If you are not letting yourself be seen, accepted, and loved–is that relationship still even there? Like . . . the relationship you needed in the first place? Sure, you may live together or text each other every day, and it may get awkward in a worst-case-scenario where they walk away from you. But . . . if you can’t show up as yourself to be accepted and loved, then maybe the relationship you think you’re protecting is already gone. So do you really stand to lose by giving that relationship a chance to be real?

Not to downplay how crushing it will be if you give the openness a shot and it doesn’t go well. That would be terrible. Heart-breaking. And it may leave you with bigger scars. Of course, the alternative is to just keep your real-self hidden. Alone. Unloved. Both options suck.

The only route with any hope is saying “Yeah, this is the real me” and inviting someone to see and love that real you. And if that is a relationship they can’t handle, maybe it wasn’t there all along. And maybe it’s time to go find a person or two or three who want to know and support real-you.

(Hey, truth moment here. If you’re trying to share your real self with your closest people–spouse, parents, best friends–and it’s going badly, you’re being met with rejection, losing your most important relationships–that’s the start of an incredibly scary and fragile journey, one you probably need to take, and the absolutely number one biggest one hundred percentest thing I can tell you right right now is: Go ask a therapist for help. Don’t think twice, just go. This is not a journey you should take alone.)

When I started therapy I bought a beautiful handmade Italian journal to accompany me on what I knew was going to be a momentous journey. Opening it now to its first page, I find the very first entry quite fitting. A life-changing principle my therapist offered me: “Friday, October 26: Openness brings you closer together, no matter what the feeling you have to be open about. Not being open pushes you apart, no matter what the feeling–positive or negative–that you are keeping to yourself.

You know the stereotype of the dad that can’t express emotions? He loves his kid so so much but can’t really say it. Keeps the sloppy, choked-up love feelings to himself. And the kid grows up never hearing that dad loves them. And they drift apart. When we can’t express something–whether it’s a thing that makes us mad at our person or even our good feelings about our person–we drift apart. On the other hand, when we do share the stuff, then and only then can we grow closer. Even when it’s tough stuff, like “Hey, it really upsets me when you-” or “I’m not doing okay these days.”

Our closest relationships–the epic ones that can be as beautiful as the view walking above the Grand Canyon–they need vulnerability. They need us to show up, our real, messy selves. We can take the shaky steps and experience the beauty, the love, the acceptance. Or we can close our eyes and hold on for dear life, unable to take a step, and completely miss out on the love. In reality, alone.

So here’s your invitation to say your stuff–no matter how messy. Your life person is your life person. You need them to know YOU. So share.

And, just as importantly, another invitation–or maybe a plea: You and I are going to have people who finally take the risk of exposing their struggling insides to us. And in those moments, we can respond in a few different ways. We can reject. We can panic and try to make them change. Or we can say “Oh my goodness, thank you for telling me, I love you so much!” And your reaction in that moment just might change their life forever.

So please be the person someone can be real with. Especially for your best friend, your life person.

It’s not easy. But it’s vital.

Remember that each time our loved ones bare their hearts to us, we can make them feel safer, or we can make them feel like they need to keep it to themselves next time.

A girl I know finally opened up to her mom: She, their star child, their smart, confident girl, was depressed. She was even thinking about suicide. How would you respond if your kid blindsided you with “I’m thinking about killing myself”? The reply this girl got from her mom went something like this: “I had no idea! I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I want to commend you for how good a job you’ve done not being negative, not burdening others with these awful feelings. I encourage you to keep pressing on with being strong and not making others take care of you.” . . . what?! . . .

In those moments, you and I can prove to someone that they’re not alone, or we can prove to them that they are alone. And when we tell them they’re alone, that is a lesson they learn deep. All it takes is one experience to keep someone from ever sharing their real self again.

In other words: Those moments matter.

We need our loved ones to be a safe place for us to show up with our struggles. And they need the same from us.

So invitations all around: Say your stuff to your person; and unconditionally listen and love when your person tells you their stuff.

I should note that unconditional love doesn’t mean enabling–and expressing your deep down feelings doesn’t always mean acting on them. In other words sometimes unconditional love–sometimes being a safe space–means looking your loved one in the eyes and saying, “I understand this addiction. I get that you are struggling and I love you to death. And I can’t let you or me continue stuck in this. You need to get some help.” Like, it’s messy. And when he cheats on you, you don’t owe him “Oh honey, I get it, I’m not going anywhere.” Right?

But when your person is trying to hold on, barely able to keep their head above water, and finally says “Hey, I’m not okay”–that may be their last hope at finding support, and your reaction can break them or give them hope.

I think we’re all so scared of rejection that these vulnerable interactions don’t come naturally to us. Which means if we want to be good at asking for support and giving support when things are dark and scary, it might help to practice the deep openness right now. To get intentional, to get maybe even a little dorky about it. Like, “Should we schedule times to just tell each other all about how we’re feeling?”

Nurturing a safe space before you’re at rock bottom makes all the difference.

One little thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space is to notice each time I feel, for whatever reason, “Oooh, I’d better keep this to myself,”–reminding myself that’s an old story of rejection, of the need to be perfect, creeping up–softening into the thing I’m afraid of, and saying, “Hey, I think I need to share this thing, because I’m feeling scared of you knowing it, and I don’t like that feeling.”

Another thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space, I’ve learned just from observing my own best friend. People seem to share their stuff with her. A lot. When someone shares their stuff with me, I tend to automatically start calculating and fixing and offering and rescuing, and for whatever reason it only seems to make things worse. She, on the other hand, just listens. She listens. She just . . . . . is there with the struggling person. Just there to listen. To accept. Just being proof to them that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay that they’re struggling.

When you and I have to hide our deepest selves–especially the struggles–in our closest relationships, we slowly fall apart and we lose the love we thought we had. When you and I show up in these relationships by sharing our deepest, messy selves, and by showing up with love when they share their deepest, messy selves, we create a safe place to make it through this weird adventure called life together. We find hope. We fine healing. We find magic. We find love.

If you’re struggling deeply right now, why add hiding your struggle to the weight you’re already carrying? Why add wondering if you’re alone? What if you told someone? Imagine how good it would feel to get it off your chest. You may be surprised to learn that your people are okay with you being human. In fact, maybe they’ll just love you more.

And remember the life-changing gift you can give someone the next time they open up to you about something they’re scared to share.

We’re all a little weird. Let’s give each other some hugs about it.

Didn’t I tell you I hear what you say?
Never look back as you’re walking away.
Carry the music, the memories, and keep them inside you.
Laugh every day.
Don’t stop those tears from falling down.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
With courage and kindness hold onto your faith.
You get what you give and it’s never too late
to reach for the branch and climb up leaving sadness behind you.
Fight hard for love.
We can never give enough.
This is who I am inside
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
Riding the storms that come raging towards us we dive,
holding our breath as we break through the surface
with arms open wide.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.

Jordan Smith

P.S . Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.

If my weird-human-stuff complements your weird-human-stuff, throw your email below and we can keep thinking through this weird life together. :)

A safe and meaningless love

If you carefully edit your identity so that you’ll be loved and accepted,

and then the love and acceptance come,

is it really yours,

or does it belong to the caricature,

and where does that leave you?

So what would it take for your actual self to find love?

~

Wishing you courage to be yourself, friend! If you could use some weekly reminders to value your deep-down self, hop on board:

You may be the lighthouse they need

Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.

People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.

But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.

Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.

Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:

“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”

You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.

~

Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.

If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty. You want SO badly to help. And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?

I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?

Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.

Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.

I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.

So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?

If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?

~

If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.

I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”

There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.

I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.

Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.

Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.

It was beautifully depressing.

Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.

And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.

Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.

One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”

Hope.

The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.

~

Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.

And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.

Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.

Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.

And soon, you can’t help them anymore.

In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.

Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.

This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.

All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .

There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.

It’s not up to you.

And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.

But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.

Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.

Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”

~

I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.

How can I carry all this weight?

His answer? “You can’t.”

You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.

Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.

But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.

It makes your “help” worthless.

You drowning helps no one.

~

Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.

“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.

“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.

“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.

“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.

“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.

~

I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.

What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.

Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.

If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.

But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.

If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:

What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?

Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?

And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?

They don’t need someone to drown with them.

They need a lighthouse.

Before you break down

You hit a wall, so you start doing “self-care.”

Quiet time, journaling, fresh air, running, couch time, cookies, lots of bed, therapy, warm baths, PTO days, sharing your sadness with a friend. . . .

It becomes a top priority in your schedule because it has to, because you’re breaking down.

Are you allowed to prioritize (read “absolutely insist on”) self-care when you’re not breaking down?

Are your insides and mental health allowed to be just as important when you’re already doing well?

Or does it have to be a cycle?