Thoughts On Empathy

I think I have always been fairly empathic. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine how I might feel if something bad happened to me. So whenever I saw bad things happening to others I was capable of empathy.

However.

There is one area where I was lacking empathy. Because I couldn't imagine what it felt like. I can imagine a house fire, cancer, death, unemployment, etc. But I always struggled with mental health. I saw people who struggled with mental health issues as weak. There are a lot of reasons for this but I don't think it's necessary to list them. It's not important why I couldn't empathize with people struggling with mental health issues. What IS important is that I now can.

What changed?

First, my divorce. I had some very rough moments with that. It left me with a slightly better understanding of depression. But only slightly. It sucked donkey balls but I got through it. And without professional help - mostly because when I sought professional help what I found was an idiot. I also got through it without meds because I felt that I was supposed to feel miserable. It seemed wrong to me to medicinally suppress the pain that I knew was normal. Perhaps because it never got truly out of hand.

What gave me a real understanding of depression was my first pregnancy coupled with Pops' third cancer. Frankly it was mostly the pregnancy that caused the crippling depression but knowing that my father was dying did not help me see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that once I got through the pregnancy I would still have hard times ahead. And when I say "get through the pregnancy"... perhaps I should remind people that it took five months to kill those twins. Five months of blood draws to check my HCG levels. Levels that kept stalling or rising when they should have been falling. It got to the point that I stopped believing that I would EVER be NOT pregnant. The anxiety was overwhelming.

But that's another story which has mostly been told already.

In addition to my personal experiences with situational depression and anxiety that got out of hand I have met a lot of people (mostly women) on Twitter who suffer from depression and/or anxiety (among other things). I've learned so much more about mental illness in general - just by being on Twitter. I no longer see these people as weak. And I no longer see them as the "crazy" people on the bus to move away from.

Having taken care of Pops for almost 7 years I am also now more empathic to people in wheelchairs and/or people who have "accidents" in public places. It can be difficult to get to the bathroom when you are physically impaired.

And now for the story that prompted this post.

Last week a man got on my bus and sat next to me. He was mumbling to himself and clearly not quite right. I could make out most of what he was saying since he was next to me. He was counting the stops until he could get off the bus and telling himself it was going to be OK. Clearly, riding buses gives him anxiety. Perhaps it's being crowded in. Or maybe he fears all vehicles and the inevitable accidents that occur. And maybe the fact that the driver accidentally closed the door on a woman behind him didn't really help his anxiety (she was OK).

All I know is that I used to see people like him and move away and think "crazy" and "weak." But this time I saw a brave man doing something he was scared of. Despite being scared. And so I thought "brave" instead of "weak." And when I heard him say, "It's going to be OK, it's going to be OK" I turned to him, smiled, and said, "Yes. It will be OK."

seen on a bathroom stall door

Seen on a bathroom stall door. A kind word can go a long way.


He seemed surprised I had spoken to him but smiled back and said, "Yes. Thank you. It will, won't it?" I'd like to think I helped him make it one more stop. Regardless, I have finally found a silver lining for all my suffering: Seeing people for how brave they can be on the inside rather than how weak they look on the outside. I think it makes me a better, kinder person and I am proud of myself for still being capable of learning new behavior. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? ;-)

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