We were waiting in line for a sandwich, at a little known, out-of-the way shop. My 17 year old daughter and I were hoping to grab a bite to eat without being recognized. From behind me I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw her. A friendly, well-to-do, fellow Dance Mom approached me with a smile. We exchanged pleasantries and made some meaningless small talk. Out of the corner of my eye, I observed my daughter subtly stepping backward toward the display of potato chips, hoping to avoid the impending conversation. Just then, the Dance Mom’s focus turned toward her.
She smiled kindly enough, and wondered out loud why my daughter was home in the middle of a school day. “I just didn’t feel well.” My girl stated, her eyes scanning the floor in silent hopes for the end of the conversation. But Dance Mom’s pleasantries didn’t catch on to her discomfort, and continued her interview.
“Oh, you are a Junior? That’s a big year! Where do you want to go to college?” The weight of the inquiry snared her hidden turmoil. She winced with the question and her shoulders slumped. She pasted on a benign smile.
“I’m not sure yet.” She replied politely. Dance Mom finally caught on and changed the conversation to the weather. We gathered our brown-paper wrapped sandwiches and ate them in silence in the car. The encounter in the shop jarred her, and ripped open a festering wound.
Why couldn’t she answer the innocent question? The reason is shocking and simple. She doesn’t even know how she is going to survive tomorrow, let alone the next four years. What the rest of the world doesn’t know is that my girl with the crystalline blue eyes and porcelain skin is in the battle for her life with deep depression. She’s home from school and going through a mental crisis, questioning her very existence and her will to live.
For someone experiencing mental illness the expectations of the general public, for success and acclaim can be a lead weight around his neck We haven’t been trained as a society to recognize the struggling. We don’t know what to look for. We don’t know what to say.
How could Dance Mom have handled it differently? Three ways: Notice, acknowledge, encourage. To notice someone is to truly see them, observing not just what they say, but their body language and tone. By using the information gathered from observation, greet her in a way that acknowledges the emotional state she is projecting. Words aren’t always necessary. Start with a smile. If she is ready to communicate, she will. End your conversation with encouragement.
The world is full of negativity and judgement. Struggling people are desperate for hope. A word of genuine encouragement can speak life into darkness.
It’s as easy as this. (notices closed body posture) “Hi! It’s so good to see you.” (smiles) “You must have a lot going on at your age! I did too. Hang in there, you’ll get it all figured out. You’ve got this!”
While we might not have the ability to solve the suffering of others, we can all learn the skills to notice their pain, acknowledge their struggle, and encourage them on the path to heal.