When it’s too loud in your head to hear me…

standing at the beachI can hear the tightness in their voices when someone makes their first divorce attorney call and it’s transferred to me.  They start off with a bunch of questions that have no answers, at least no answers that they will hear if I speak them right now.  One thing I am certain of, and there are so few things I am certain of, is that no one can hear me when they are holding their breath, trying not to cry and speaking all at once.  I know this because I always get asked the same questions during our next meeting.  And the one after that.

So I ask them to breathe.  Usually, I have to ask this at least three times before I hear them exhale.  The first two times, they just keep talking, not even waiting long enough for me to answer one question before asking another.  Eventually, they hear me tell them to breathe and they are a little pissed off, they feel like I’m not REALLY LISTENING to them.   They have important questions that need to be answered.  They don’t notice that they haven’t been listening to me at all.

It’s like standing at the beach and trying to tell your kid up at the dunes to bring another towel down to you at the water’s edge.  They seem to be nodding and understanding.  But they just keep walking down to you without bringing the towel because they never really heard you in the first place.  It’s frustrating and even though you know it’s not their fault, you still yell at them “didn’t you hear me?!” and they say “I thought you were just waving” or some other such silliness.  The crash of the waves just keeps drowning out our voices, no matter how loud we yell.

Once I hear the person on the other end of the phone exhale, I know I have only one moment to say something they will remember.  I have one short window of time to slip a few words past the chaos in their head.  Long ago, I decided what the one message would be that I would try to give to the crying ones.  I say, “I have been where you are, you’re going to be okay.”  And then the ragged sobs begin.  If they don’t rush to get off the phone right then, if they stay with me for just a few more minutes past their sobs, I ask them to take very good care of themselves – to be careful when driving, to try to eat something and not to worry too much if they aren’t sleeping well right now, it will get better.  I’m not sure anyone ever hears that part, but I hope that they do.

When we are in deep upset, we often try to communicate – not noticing how we can neither speak clearly, nor listen well, in that mental space.  If you are in deep upset with someone who loves you, they will be unable to comfort you with words in that space, even if that pisses you off.  You have two choices that are of any use as far as I can tell, you can allow yourself to be held or you can wait out the crying and try again later.  Anything else will only deepen your upset.  I take calls from crying people at least 3-5 times per week, I’m practiced at slipping in a quiet message of comfort.  Have patience with the ones you call crying if they don’t handle the tumble of “why” questions with grace, if they get angry or defensive or shut you down.  Take the time to get past the ragged sobs, the raging questions, and then, once you have opened up some space for them to speak – listen.

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