When my friend Riley died, I reacted how I always react when someone dies: I went numb. Around me, people cried and told stories and cried some more and laughed and told some more stories, but I just sat through it all, numb. Of course I didn’t want to feel this way. Well maybe some part of me did want to so I didn’t have to feel the pain. But I knew that being numb wouldn’t last forever, and while it did last, it only would make me feel like a jerk for seeming cold or distant or uncaring.
But I couldn’t stay numb forever. One of my dearest friends – one of the people who really understood me – was gone. I was bound to break.
Three weeks later, I sat in a Mexican restaurant and the dam decided to burst. Neither the stares of the other patrons nor the periodic stopping by of the waiter could embarrass me enough to stop the flow of tears. With my poor friend sitting across from me, helpless, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I couldn’t stop.
My Mexican-restaurant friend couldn’t possibly have handled it any better. He let me cry and he didn’t try to offer stupid platitudes that were supposed to make me feel better or stop crying. After I had been going for a while you gently asked me, “Tim do you know anyone else who has the same sorts of struggles and battles that you have? Anyone who might have felt like you feel now?” I told him through a sardonic laugh, “yeah, but he just died!” And then he asked me something life-changing. He said: “Tim, if you knew that Riley was feeling like you’re feeling right now, what would you tell him to do?”
At that time, for me, the answer was obvious: I was in a miserable work situation that was making my life harder and harder by the moment for many reasons I won’t list here. I knew I needed a break, if not forever, for at least a good while. But this decision came with a lot of unknowns and a lot of fear. If I were talking to Riley, I would have told him these things would work themselves out, that his sanity was worth more than any paycheck or job security. But in my own life, I simply couldn’t accept the advice I would’ve freely offered to Riley. I was trying to muddle through, even if it killed me.
I don’t want it to seem that I was crying about my job; I was crying about Riley. But I also knew that my job was contributing to my extreme depression, the kind that might well lead me down the road Riley had just taken, a dangerous intake of alcohol and drugs that stopped his heart. I knew that my job was a weight on my shoulders that would make it impossible for me to move forward or heal in the way I needed to at that time. I knew I needed to walk away from my job, at least for awhile. I knew that’s what I would tell Riley to do.
Psychologists often talk about parenting your “inner child”. It’s really a beautiful practice to take out an actual picture of yourself as a precious little boy or girl whose eyes indicate a deep hunger to understand and to be understood…to be cherished…to be safe…to be loved. We have all been that child. In psychological terms, inner child work means treating your current self as you would that little boy or little girl who is easy to feel compassion for.
And sometimes when I’m trying to have compassion for myself, I imagine the little boy in the pictures I have who is in fact me. I have a few different pictures in my mind of myself as a seven or eight-year-old child, and I can see the pain and struggle behind those eyes. It’s easy to feel deep compassion and love for that little boy.
But I don’t always imagine my childhood self in order to feel compassion for my inner self. Sometimes, it’s easier to think of someone else for whom compassion comes easily. Believe it or not, I often imagine Riley. Sometimes it’s easier to have compassion for someone else than for ourselves. That day in the Mexican restaurant, the person I imagined who was hurting and desperate was Riley. And Riley was a stand-in for me, for my inner child. As I thought about my job and how much it was harming me, I imagined what I would tell Riley to do if he were in the same situation, and it wasn’t even difficult to know the right thing to say. I told him that he deserved a break, that he was fighting a damn hard battle, that he deserved to wake up in the morning and want to be wherever he had to be that day, that he deserved a work environment where he was supported and loved and accepted for exactly who he was. Talking to my inner child as if I were Riley made it remarkably easy for me to know what to do.
It’s never hard for me to find compassion or grace for Riley. Sure he had addictions and mental health problems that Some might say made him imperfect, but never for one second do I feel incapable of loving the person who he was inside, who cared for people so much that it almost hurt him more than he could bear. I feel that way too, but I’m also far too hard on myself. So when I imagine my inner child, or my inner Riley, I can be a lot easier on myself because I know that I’m hurting and I know that I’m scared and lonely and broken and often desperate. But like Riley, I also know that I’m trying my best.
So that’s the lasting legacy, among others, that Riley has left with me. In a weird sense, he is my inner child. I can always have the proper perspective on myself when I look inside and see that I’m a lot like Riley, just someone who’s trying my hardest – often failing, but always trying.
I’m grateful to Riley for many things. He will forever be one of the people who really understood me. I will always be able to imagine conversations with Riley where I felt understood and loved and appreciated no matter how warped I actually felt. When I can’t bring myself to care for the little boy inside of me, I can always look to Riley and imagine how I would care for him. And if I care for myself in that way, I can care for myself the right way. For that and for many other things, I will always be grateful to Riley for teaching me how to love myself a little better.
For more about Riley, check out the foundation Riley’s Wish
Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
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