There’s a quote from a meme that makes me want to scream, hit things with sticks, and scream while hitting things with sticks: “It’s not too late to make this life everything you’ve always wanted it to be.” For some people, that might sound inspiring and uplifting. For those of us who have lived a life that’s nothing like we planned, it’s an upsetting reminder that we don’t have control.

Twenty-five years ago, I was prescribed powerful psychotropic medications for a mental health issue I didn’t have by a quick clinic doctor who never saw me again. I was stressed, sick with a sinus infection, and desperate to feel better. I walked out with prescriptions for antibiotics and strong antidepressants (and a coupon for a free 30-day supply). My gynecologist refilled the prescription every year when I went in for my annual exam. More pills were added to counteract side effects, and I slowly became a completely different person. Turns out that when you alter the chemistry of a healthy brain, it can change a person in devastating ways.

The easy-going, funny, empathetic real me was replaced by someone who manipulated, screamed, and threw frequent tantrums. I only cared about myself, and my words and actions proved it. My husband threatened to divorce me and take our kids with him. I laughed in his face. My behavior became so out of control I lost my career, my security, and my reputation. That finally made me see that something was terribly wrong. 

“My downfall both ruined and saved my life.”

Once I realized it was the medications changing my personality and causing erratic behavior, I accepted that my downfall both ruined and saved my life. I didn’t have the chance to share that lesson with many because even those I considered my friends didn’t know what to say and avoided talking to me if they could. When they did grace me with interaction, I was told every version of “It’s going to be okay” from “this is all God’s plan” and “everything happens for a reason” to “try to stay positive” and “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” None of it helped. 

I was slowly tapering off the medications, in the middle of withdrawal, and trying to survive day to day—sometimes minute by minute. The words people thought were encouraging made me feel worse and utterly alone. They felt like a brush-off, a surface-level response that kept me at a distance, a few words thrown out just to fill the void of silence. 

I remember, in one instance, a friend asking me how I was doing. After several minutes of detailing what I was going through, she smiled and responded, “This too shall pass,” before walking away. I sobbed in my car so hard that I couldn’t breathe, feeling like nobody cared. 

I understand the awkwardness of not knowing how to approach a hurting person. We don’t know what to say, so we flip through our mental files of uplifting quotes and pull out the one we deem most appropriate. Throw it out there, and see if it works. Is that why we keep doing it? We don’t know what else to do. 

Or do we feel like we must have the magic words that will make everything alright, that we will be the one person with the perfect advice to turn the tragedy around? Or maybe we avoid the person entirely because we’re afraid their bad fortune will somehow rub off on us.

“When someone’s deep in the pit of despair, they don’t need cheerful quotes yelled from above.”

When someone’s deep in the pit of despair, they don’t need cheerful quotes yelled from above. They may need to be alone for a while to process what’s happened. They may need help with the small things to help them inch their way out. They may need someone to crawl down into the pit with them and sit quietly while they mourn what they’ve lost. They may need to be asked what they need.

I do agree with the memes saying we should be kind to everyone because we never really know what someone is going through. When we’re navigating a tough time, it can feel terrifying to share how bad it really is, feeling like we’re burdening people with our problems. Or we’re ashamed and don’t want to add fuel to the gossip. Watching someone we care about struggle can feel helpless; we fear we will say or do the wrong thing. 

A dear friend of mine lost her son to suicide. I didn’t know what to say to her; nobody did. So nobody said anything. We talked candidly about it years later. She said the death was horrific, but the loneliness of avoidance made it so much worse. People crossed the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to her. She taught me that nobody has the right words when bad things happen, and we don’t have to. She didn’t want or need them to say things hoping to cheer her up or make things better. She just wanted them to acknowledge her loss and be there.

If you don’t know what to say, then say that. Be honest. Lean in. Someone whose life is disrupted by illness, accident, or tragedy has heard it all already. They crave the conversation with the friend who says, “I don’t know what to say. This is awful. How can I help?” 

“If you don’t know what to say, then say that.

Take them wine or their favorite tea. Take them ice cream or a huge salad. Take their hand and hold it while they cry. Hand them the stick and scream with them while they hit things. Just don’t try to fix it with cheerful words. There are other options. Instead, try saying this: 

  • “I don’t know what to say or do to help you, but I want to try. Is there anything I can do for you?”
  • “This is horrible. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m here if you want to talk about it. I promise I won’t give you advice. I’ll just listen.”
  • “I can watch your kids for a few hours today and bring dinner home, but I also understand if you just want to hide from the world and not see anyone right now.”

Sometimes being human is awful. Bad things happen because they can. There will be seasons of grief no matter how positive we try to be. Those seasons have to pass on their own, and cheerful words won’t make them any faster, but honest ones can make them less lonely.

Regina McKay is the wife of a firefighter, mother of five adult children, and passionate advocate of all things vintage, especially her pink bathtub. She works as an accountant but plans on using her experiences with mental health treatment to transition into a career in Criminal Justice/Mental Health reform. After hitting her rock bottom, she learned for her happiness didn’t come in a pill bottle. She now strives for contentment and appreciates moments of joy when they come.