Sharing the Burden

By Grace Scolyer & Alannah Murray

How to Speak

When I first noticed that my brain wasn’t working the way it used to, it wasn’t tragically melancholic like I expected. Addressing, admitting, and conveying my depressed thoughts was embarrassing, confusing, strange, and disorientating. More than anything though, it was just plain awkward explaining what was going on — but I knew it was time to let someone else share the burden, because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of strange, vulnerable, and poorly-segued conversations with my friends, family, and doctors, trying to explain the messy parts of my brain. Here’s what I have learnt.

  1. Don’t ever downplay your experiences. Be honest; be real. Resist the urge to test the waters with milder issues and just speak freely.
  2. If you know what you need, ask for it. If not, don’t stress. For now, this conversation is enough — sharing these thoughts is progress enough.
  3. Don’t give up if they do not react the way you imagined. Don’t blame yourself, either. This is just the start, and there are so many places to get the support you deserve.
  4. Try not listening to yourself. Try just speaking, without judging yourself, without thinking about how strange what you are saying sounds, without feeling like a burden. If your words are heavy, let yourself feel lighter for saying them out loud.
  5. Feel proud. Feel very proud for letting someone know, and taking the most important step in feeling better.
  6. Once you start talking, it will get easier.

There are times this conversation has gone well. There are other times it has had to be attempted multiple times before an acceptable level of understanding is reached – often my fault more than the listener’s. I’ve been very lucky to have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with supportive people around me. From them, I have learnt how to listen when I am on the other side of the conversation.

How to Listen

Here is what I have learnt about how to listen.

  1. Really listen. Try not to speak or put words in their mouth; there are so many words to come, and your open-ended questions are not always needed.
  2. Engage with every word and every silence that makes up the conversation. In order to listen and to support, you need to be present.
  3. Be kind. Be soft and gentle and as positive as is natural and possible.
  4. Be calm. Be quiet and soothing and nurturing.
  5. Be careful. Every word counts.
  6. Be proud. Be very proud for being such an important part of someone’s recovery.

The conversation is never easy and coping with the gravity of what you hear – its vulnerability and rawness — can seem overwhelming at times. You are not a therapist, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so don’t be afraid if you have stumbles, stutters, silence instead of solutions. You are there as a friend, and you need only to listen, be sincere and honour the trust they’ve placed in you.

Don’t push for information or action – you might push them away. Embrace the trust and embrace your friend and don’t let either go. Give them your ear, your shoulder, your support and your time, but never forget to take care of yourself. Debrief with someone else if you need it, and help them bear this impossible load – but do not carry it alone.

For both sides, the first conversation is the first step of many, but it is one of the most liberating, freeing, and most difficult steps to take. The truth is that far too often we feel alone in our messy brains, convinced no one could possibly make a difference. It takes one integral conversation, and the often-uncomfortable vulnerability that comes with it, for that thought to be proved wrong. Just by participating, speaking, listening (and reading), you are a hero – so thank you.


If you have a story, a piece of advice, or an idea that you’d like to be part of Wellbeing Wednesdays, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at commvp@mumus.org.

Featured image is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent (circa 1885). 

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