A Coke, A Hug, and A Smile

Beckie and Wil

Monday night, I was talking with one of my friends who is a skilled nurse, and many of her patients struggle with mental illness. Upon entering the room of one new patient, she found the woman on her bed, sobbing uncontrollably. When my friend calmed her down enough to inquire what the problem was, the poor woman blurted out, “Someone took my Coke away! All I wanted was a Coke with crushed ice!”

My friend made her way down the hall, and returned with a nice cold, fizzing drink filled with crushed ice. The woman stopped crying immediately and thanked her profusely.

“A Coke with crushed ice is her world right now,” my friend explained.

I do not understand this woman’s mental illness like my friend does, I have neither the training nor the experience, but I do understand what a diagnosis does to you. I have felt how it pulls the rug hard and fast from under your feet, and leaves you suspended in time, a whirl of scientific terms and statistics closing in on you. Your world has instantly been de-humanized, and you crave something that gives you comfort, some human understanding, in this too close and confusing place. And then, someone takes your freaking Coke with crushed ice away? What the hell?

I have a dear friend who recently went through a deep depression. I had never seen her like this, and I was really scared for her well-being. I sat with her and listened to her long-buried struggles bubbling to the surface, and how terrifying and difficult it was to make her way through them. I felt so ill equipped to help her, but I didn’t want to burden her anymore than she already was by asking what she needed from me, so I was there for her in person as much as I could be. Finally, I admitted to her that where she was scared me, and I wanted to help her any way I could, so please tell me, how can I be there for you in the way you need?

And, she said, just be you, that is enough.

Whenever anyone asks me about how I felt when Wil was diagnosed with Down syndrome, it’s like I have this internal zoom lens that beams me back to the day he was born, with his 7 lb body wrapped tight in a white hospital blanket with a thick blue and pink stripe, laid upon my chest covered in a thin, dull white hospital gown, with little faded blue patterns. The internal camera zooms further still, and rests in a full close-up of his eyes. Those big, blue almond shaped eyes.

So many people did not know what to say at that time. Heck, I didn’t know what to say. Then, my girlfriend Kelly, who I called up shortly after Wil was born, and sobbed into the phone that he had Down syndrome, asked me, “Well, how much does he weigh?”

What a refreshingly normal question! In that one question, I felt a sense of normalcy and of community, two things I had been sorely missing in those tight four hospital walls. I am sure my emotions at that time were not much different than the woman who was delivered that sparkling Coke with crushed ice that had so recently been taken from her.

So, when my dear friend struggling with depression answered my question of how I could help, by saying she only needed me to be me, that was enough, I fully understood. I needed no further explanation.

I think, many times, when we want so desperately to help a friend struggling with a diagnosis, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking we need to do or say something extra special, when what they really need is the normalcy we bring with us, and a comforting sense of community.

And, if she cries out for a Coke and crushed ice, for pete’s sake don’t question it, be a friend and get her one, and deliver that Coke with a hug and smile. A friend deserves nothing less.

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