The less we feel or the less we express ourselves, the more we blend in with one another. We are encouraged to speak up, to dare be different, and to challenge the infamous “status quo.” But those who do, are at times condemned with isolation.
Sometime in my late twenties I was at a conference with some colleagues. We’d been having fun all evening. At some point, the conversation shifted to insomnia. Sue mentioned that it was hard for her to sleep and at times she would only snooze for a couple of hours.
Wendy seemed concerned, she said that she had that problem as well. Then Wendy let us know that her doctor had prescribed anti-depressant or sleeping pills which had solved her issue. Sue was intrigued. Seeing her interest, Wendy offered her some samples.
Taken back by the interaction, and as if I was following the ball in a tennis match, I looked at my two peers. They were so into their conversation, that I doubt they noticed my surprise. I was speechless, my mind spinning, while my words were attempting to catch up, but failed.
I didn’t know much about drug interactions with alcohol back then, but even in my ignorance, something about drinking and prescription pills seemed off.
Wendy, reached into her purse, grabbed an orange bottle with a white kid-proof cap. The label said her real name and how much she was supposed to take at night. She opened the bottle and dropped a few capsules in her hand. In an act of kindness, she placed her hand on Sue’s and dropped a few pills.
“This will help you sleep.” With a caring motherly face, Wendy closed Sue’s hand.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Sue had a drinking addiction. My guess is that none of us were aware of the degree of her problem. Back then, she could chug a whole bottle of wine on her own on any given night. Her hair, lips and skin, brittle and dry. Her pulse was shaky and in a brief conversation, it was easy to wonder why everyone was “out to get her.” But what made it hard to pinpoint was that she made everyone laugh with her North-Eastern wit. She seemed to enjoy being the clown of every party – and everyone went along with the show. She somehow made herself lovable.
Having immigrated a few years before that incident, I was still trying to assimilate into the US and corporate American cultures. Even though drugs and alcohol are a problem everywhere in the world, this was my first exposure on my own to someone with this type of medical issue.
Sue grabbed one pill, placed it in her mouth, and washed it in with some tap water from the restroom. I was still speechless.
“You’ll get a good night sleep,” then Wendy reached out and hugged Sue. There was no question that Wendy was convinced that she was helping her friend. Their embrace seemed genuine and loving. I remember thinking “this doesn’t seem right,” but being clueless on what to do.
Words never came out of my mouth that night. However, eventually, I did speak up. It took a couple of public embarrassments and near misses which included a car collision. Sue could have died or killed someone if she had continued down that path. Once I realized I couldn’t help her, I went and talked to someone who cared, yet was distant enough to be able to do something. I don’t think she took it well, and in her eyes, I may have become “the snitch.” Shortly after, and to no surprise, we all went our separate ways.
A part of me felt guilty for not being able to help her more. I was mortified about what would happen to her. But I understood that no matter how much I cared about her well-being, I had to let her go. I prayed that she would seek help, and that she’d get well. Especially, that she would stop listening to well-intended advice from an untrained friend – the type that wasn’t leading her to some sort of recovery or self-empowerment – assuming, that she wanted to be healthy.
Admittedly, it has weighed on my conscious that I didn’t guide her sooner towards specialists that may have made a difference in her life. I just didn’t know any better at the time. Frankly, I still am not sure she would have heard me at all. Getting help is a very personal choice, and no matter how much it hurt me, I had to respect her choices.
To somehow make up for my shortcomings during my twenties, I’m going to write down a few tips I should have given her back then. If I had a go-back this is what I’d share with her today. This is also the advice I give myself (and follow), when I get off my wellness tracks.
Finally, it’s important to remember that well-intended advice from good friends, family, or anyone, may at times lead us in directions that are not aligned with what we want or where we want to be. Fine-tune your filter so that you can easily recognize such situations, and if you don’t know what to do, go ask a real expert. Generally, your trusted adviser should have read many more books than you!
May our path lead us to the experts we all need …
Written with gratitude by,
M. Patricia Diaz