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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Reaching Out

It's not easy to ask for help. It can be hard enough to even acknowledge that you need it, much less find and reach out to someone who can actually give you the support you need (and devastating when you reach out and don't get that support!). I've always admired people who weren't afraid to admit needing a hand, particularly those who could do so publicly.

I still remember, years ago, seeing a college acquaintance with whom I was friendly (we had one class together - poetry - so I felt I got to know her pretty well through her work, and always chatted before/after, though we never hung out outside of class) post on Facebook that she was struggling with depression and had checked herself into an institution. That admission seemed so brave to me, who had been suffering with depression and anxiety quietly, always trying to keep my painful parts away from the people I loved. Here was someone, an acquaintance, if not really a friend, who was telling the world, help me! So I reached out. I told her how much I'd admired her work (true), how kind she always was with my poems, how I appreciated her feedback and friendship, even though we hadn't gotten to know each other well. It started a dialogue. She told me how grateful she was that I'd reached out, that she'd always admired my work, too, and had always remembered my kindness (just goes to show how a smile or a sincere "how are you?" can impact someone more than you know). She made another post in which she tagged a few folks, including me, thanking us for giving her support when she needed it most. This began an occasional communication between us, checking in every once in a while. I made a point to react to or comment on the posts she made about struggling, about the ways her job wasn't supportive of her mental health, the ways the system failed her. I wanted to acknowledge that I saw her, that she mattered to people, even people like me, who barely knew her, that she had an impact on the world. I wanted to give her the kind of support I needed and was terrified to ask for.

Last year, I published an essay in HuffPost about having a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy a few years ago. It was awkward to talk about so publicly, something that still feels "taboo." It certainly felt that way for me at the time; when I had to tell someone something to explain why I was out of sorts or couldn't play hockey, or whatever, I might say "I just had surgery" or "I've been sick," as opposed to the truth: My left fallopian tube ruptured and I had to have emergency surgery while I was bleeding out. It felt uncomfortable to talk about.

It even felt uncomfortable to tell my then-fiance-now-husband that things really weren't OK. He literally held my hand all day as I waited to go under and stayed awake, drinking bad hospital coffee, until I got out of surgery around 4:00 a.m. I didn't want to spend another minute in the hospital, so he drove me the half hour home, despite operating on zero sleep. He was there the whole time, but I didn't know how to tell him that, as the physical pain slowly abated, the emotional pain hadn't. I didn't know who to reach out to - or how. I wasn't in therapy at the time. Though I had people in my life whom I'm sure would have listened and offered support, I was too afraid to ask for it.

Cut to five years later, I finally wrote about that painful experience and a major news organization actually wanted to publish it! I was nervous; this wasn't something you talked about, especially not to strangers. But the response blew me away. So many people wrote in the comments section about how my story had struck home, how they'd been through something similar, the ways in which our medical system wasn't equipped to handle this sort of reproductive trauma and its emotional impact. I was trending on Apple News! This response validated my experience; it told me I wasn't as alone as I'd felt (yes, there were also a few trolls talking about killing babies, despite the fact that my fetus had never been viable in the first place). And then, something amazing happened. People started to reach out personally and say me too. I heard from a number of folks who had gone through similar experiences and told me how helpful my piece had been to them. And it continued to happen. Although that piece was published last May, just last week I heard from another person who'd recently experienced a painful ectopic pregnancy and was comforted by my words, enough so to track me down and thank me. This both showed me that others had experiences that mirrored my own, and that my words had offered some level of support, which was validating and encouraging to me. I felt connected to these strangers who had sought me out, even indebted to them and proud of them for taking that huge step.

While rooting around in my Messenger app to respond to this latest message, I also found one that was a few months old and had somehow slipped through the digital cracks about an essay I'd published in OC87 Recovery Diaries about manic episodes last fall, from someone who also lives with bipolar disorder and wanted me to know how much my story had spoken to him. This kind of engagement is so important to me as a writer and human/feeler of emotions. It also emphasizes, for me, the ways in which we can come together, find a stranger's words out in the void and discover connection. Although so much of our digital existence may be sugar-coated and not reveal the cracks of humanity, of our real struggles, it can also provide a way for strangers to reach out and say your words matter to me, which, for me, is more important than anything. You have a voice, they are saying, and we need to hear it. I make it a point to reply to all of these messages and thank these readers for sharing their own stories with me. It reminds me of the power of words and stories, how they connect us and bring us together.

Of course, it doesn't always work out so well. Asking for help is, again, difficult, and sometimes, that help just isn't enough. My college poetry acquaintance who'd asked for help? We sent the occasional message and, I'd like to think, if we'd lived in the same city or even state, I might have offered to grab a meal or coffee with her sometime. But I didn't. I didn't go beyond a few Facebook messages here and there. I think you see where this is going. I saw the message a few days after this past Christmas. It was written by her father. He wanted her friends to know how important they'd been to her, he didn't know how else to reach out. He was heartbroken, of course. This casual reaching out hadn't, ultimately, helped enough. She died by suicide on Christmas day. Could I have made more of a difference? Could anyone? Maybe. That's a slippery slope to go down. Her loss, it feels, doesn't belong to me, as someone who spent a few hours a week with her a decade ago, and yet. What might I have done differently? How else could I have been supportive? How do you even know when someone needs so much more than you can give? How can you tell the people in your life, however tangential, that you are here for them, that you're ready to give them the support they need, and you really, really mean it? Can I just put a blanket statement out there - I'm a really good listener, please, however little I know you, I'm here, please reach out if you need to? And I promise, I will be there. Because I've known what it's like to be on the other side, to be institutionalized, to be hurting.

I don't know if my writing about ectopic pregnancies or manic/depressive episodes or eating disorders is the kind of help you need; maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But I want you to know, reader, whoever you are, that I'm here. All you need to do is reach out.

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