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Russell Wangersky: Just listen

Sometimes people just need a sounding board.
Sometimes people just need a sounding board. - 123RF Stock Photo

Years ago — a lifetime ago, it seems — I wrote a book about my experiences as a volunteer firefighter. About the things I saw, the effect those things had on me, about the whole complicated rabbit hole of inexplicable emotions, incomprehensible reactions and the way everything involved actually changed the order in my head.

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky


Like a repetitive strain injury in my brain.

I think about that every year, when Bell Canada mounts its financially successful fundraising (and face it, brand-spectacular corporate image-builder) #BellLetsTalk program.

There are good things in that discussion — taking mental illness and injury out of the closet and into the mainstream discussion of health is something we should do. And not just on one day a year, either, when each tweet about it scores a nickel for the cause.

Open discussion reinforces the fact that it’s all right to talk to your partner, to your friends, to co-workers who will listen. That it’s perfectly fine to use any supports your employer may offer.

But since we’re talking about it — since, like many people on Wednesday, I’m putting it out there publicly that I have had struggles — let me make a small point about your reaction.

If someone close to you comes to you to tell you about how they have been sexually abused, the best thing you can do is to listen and to believe their account. Don’t discount or minimize what you hear; don’t make excuses like “Frank is always touchy-feely. He probably didn’t mean anything by it.” Don’t write it off as small or unimportant.

Likewise, if someone comes to you to talk about their mental health, don’t minimize it, either. Don’t try to just change the subject or slough it off.

Don’t tell me how to “get better” the first time I tell you I’m having a hard time. Or even worse, don’t tell me not to “dwell on it” or to “just shake it off.” If that was even remotely possible, don’t you think I would have done it already?

And more than anything else, don’t suggest, at the very first instance, that you know a possible and simple cure.

Because, often, by the time someone’s ready to talk, they’ve worked through things in their own head, all alone, for months or years. Like a dog with a bone, they’ve worried over why they feel different than other people seem to feel. They’ve read about things and self-diagnosed and sometimes even self-prescribed, without much in the way of success, ranging from blackout drunk to drugs to total failure.

It’s one thing to say, “Something that helped me was…” if you have that shared experience. Or if you’ve got enough experience with others to help.

It’s something else to essentially say “silly you — it’s an easy fix.”

Don’t tell me how to “get better” the first time I tell you I’m having a hard time. Or even worse, don’t tell me not to “dwell on it” or to “just shake it off.” If that was even remotely possible, don’t you think I would have done it already?

I’ve heard a thousand possible solutions, if I’ve heard one. I’m not looking for you to become a specialist in the few minutes it takes me to tell you I’m having trouble, and why.

Over the years, I’ve been told to try this and try that, from different kinds of therapy and hypnosis to considering drugs that might simply make me forget the trauma I still deal with regularly in my dreams.

I find it hard to explain that I don’t want to forget. I never wanted to forget. Some people might want to, might have such a hard time that excising experience is the solution. I’m not there. It is, for better or worse, part of my life, part of who I am, and taking an eraser to it would be incomprehensible to me.

All I wanted to do was to learn to cope.

I think I can now.

And that’s important — coping is possible, though it doesn’t always look that way. I know I have to give in to some compulsive behaviour, like planning what to do if someone in my workplace has a heart attack, or like turning the car around to make sure all the stove burners are off.


But it has been, now, 14 years since I stopped fighting fires and finding new demons. That is a very, very long tunnel to walk down.

If someone talks to you, they’re not asking you to provide a snap cure.

They just need you to listen.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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