I have always felt alone, despite coming from a large family and always being surrounded by not just a few individuals but tens of them. I have always been a part of communities, the center of attention at school because I was always the new kid, and there was always interest in me. But despite all that, I felt alone. As the years went by I started understanding the difference between alone and lonely, and I realized that I have never been alone, but I have always been lonely. It wasn't for lack of trying, from either end, but I communicated my needs in a way foreign to most, and the people in my life supported me, but in their way, a way that was foreign to me. So I went through life, dealing with depression and anxiety silently, feeling lonely the entire time.
A few weeks ago, after giving a talk for over 100 high school students about my experience with different mental health illnesses one of the teachers came up to me. He thanked me for the talk, and then said "it'd have been great if you mentioned some of the supporters in your life, even just one." Of course he was talking about the dark ages, better known as middle and high school. I didn't know how to tell him that there really was no one. He asked about uncles and aunts and extended family members, because I had made it clear that my own family was not there for me at the time. I didn't know how to tell him that I had cut the majority of them off because they were the cause of some of the wounds, and the only way I knew how to survive was to shrink away into myself and keep everyone out. It's not that no one cared about me, or even loved me. But we communicate these things differently, and unless the individual in our lives understands that language they will not feel cared for, loved, or supported.
I felt supported for the first time my freshmen year of college, when I had met up with my second grade teacher, believe it or not. I have always been very forthcoming about my challenges in life, and I do not hesitate in telling my truth, and so when she asked I told her. I told her things since then have not been crisp, they've gone downhill, and then I started digging and I went underground for years, forgetting that there was ever any light. I buried myself beneath the trauma, the abuse, the dissociation, and all the mental health illnesses that had resided within me. I told her, very briefly, and barely any of this, but I told her, and she in turn did not tell me that I should value everything everyone has done for me, or that I'm making a big deal out of things, or that I need to leave the abyss. Instead she said, "I'm sorry the world had treated you this way." I could've cried then, but instead I shuddered and stared at her for a moment, speechless and terrified that I might lose it all. She didn't try to fix me, or to find the details of the life I had hid from. She made it clear that she was there if I ever needed anything. She shared a few things to show me that she gets it and she understands but she never demanded any more or any less of me. She let me be, she let me belong for just that moment.
I have never felt more supported than that moment. I have come a long way, but I still struggle with translating all the different languages that are so foreign to me. I know what caring, love, and support look like, even though I may not feel them all the time, despite their existence. For a long time I thought it was me being inarticulate in these languages, but along the way I have learned that we hijacked all three of these things and replaced them with investing our emotions and problems into one another. Caring for someone is not controlling them so that they can never make mistakes. Loving someone is not keeping them to yourself. Supporting someone is not solving their problems. You care by being there when they mess up. You love when you invest in their growth. And you support when you empower so that they can take charge of their lives.
I have felt cared for, loved and supported since then. With every smile, every good morning, every have a great day, I feel those things. I feel them from strangers most of all, because the more people invest in one another these days, the less they actually do it right. But I will never forget that moment when I felt seen, like I was a human being in front of someone that meant a lot to me, because I never got that elsewhere.
Ahmad Abojaradeh is the Co-Founder and Director of Mental Health for MCL, An Engineer, a world traveler, a Peer Support Specialist, a Novelist and the founder and editor of Life in My Days. He hopes to spread awareness of living a life of wellness through his writing, workshops and speaker events.