The micro-niceness of strangers

We talk a lot about how to help people struggling with mental and emotional distress. We talk about friends and social networks. About support services and accelerated access. We know all these things are important and need strengthening. We also know, or at least should know, that people experiencing distress and the intensity of not coping might never take that first step to seek help.

It is shit, feeling that you’re not coping. Being knocked over by emotions you don’t recognise, a million of them, all at the same time, going for you, again and again and again. Like the worst wipeout of your worst nightmares. Suddenly. Maybe when you thought you were making progress. Having the ground crumble, the walls cave in, the screaming despair thump around inside your head somewhere and everywhere.

You don’t necessarily get to formulate the thought of calling a friend. Or the Samaritans. Or an ambulance. Sometimes there’s no space for it. For some people it just doesn’t happen.

I’ve been told off in the past for speaking to students out of hours when they were going through hell and the appointment with the university counsellor was over two weeks away. Because my job was only to signpost to relevant services. I suspect I’ll get told off again a number of times. Whatever.

To anybody having hell in their heads and stomachs, in their teeth, on their skin, crushing their chest, grabbing their throats, I would say all the usual things (you’re bored of hearing them, I know), but ALSO: you never know, sometimes a little relief can come from total strangers.

Look, I don’t know how it happens, but it does happen. And it’s powerful. And important. It may not be enough but it is something.

It’s not the sort of help you have to seek but you do have to let it in. Can you stay open? To the world, to other humans? I understand it doesn’t come naturally when you’re feeling like that. Hopelessness is numbing, deafening. But here’s a possibility I learned about through my own very personal hell: of course seek help and cling onto anything that won’t just break off and sink with you; BUT ALSO, let the power of unexpected micro-niceness reach you and hold you up even if it’s only for a minute. Even for just three seconds.

The woman on twitter who writes the funny clever comments to the musician you follow – see if you can muster half a smile to her. A year and a half later she may be your closest friend. That guy you once said hi to after a show – maybe keep an eye on what he says online, you might find wisdom and strength that you hadn’t expected. The busy academic on the train surrounded by books you really want to read – ask her for the name of that author with the interesting title. She may turn out to be as angry about gender norms as you are, and you don’t know this now but you’ll soon be ranting about it together over a picnic in the park. The dude with the scary muscle mass who is offering advice on your posture – he may fix your knee at last and take some of the pain away. The clever journalist you admire – he may be willing to teach you stuff. The daily Miranda tweet, the other parent on the bus with too much luggage, the smiley guy from the bench with the funny photos and sharp insights, the colleague who offers to buy you a sandwich, whatever. All I’m saying is if you can get a three-second break, grab it. And then practise noticing opportunities for three-second breaks. Tune into unexpected kindness. However brief. Three seconds here and six there may slowly add up to whole minutes. And minutes of rest from hell are precious. Ok, maybe don’t start hoping it will last. It probably won’t, although it may. But expectations are a tricky business. Just grab it for now.

During birth, women are told to ‘enjoy’ the pauses between contractions (or ‘surges’, if you’re into that sort of thing). Now, I personally never got to ‘enjoy’ the space between contractions but, boy, was I grateful for those handfuls of seconds! They never seemed to last long enough (they got shorter and shorter, to be honest, but then that’s childbirth) but it is there that you get to catch your breath for the next one. And it makes a hell of a lot of difference to the extent to which your brain doubts whether you’ll make it through this or not.

The parallels end there, I’m afraid. But the point remains. If you can let serendipity kiss your forehead gently, if you can stay open enough to the micro-niceness of some strangers out there whilst the black waves are still crashing onto your head relentlessly, then that fleeting lull can make all the difference. Or at least a hell of a lot of it.

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