I emerged from the student affairs office, exhausted, wrung out, and battling my desperate need to curl up into a ball and cry. The conversation I’d just been forced to have had been so invasive, so demanding, so controlling that it had left me feeling battered. Everything inside of me was telling me to find a corner somewhere and hide until it was safe to come out again, but I didn’t know where to go. Nowhere on that campus felt safe– it was like I could feel people staring at me around corners, and I had to fight against the urge to constantly check over my shoulder.
When I got out into the hallway, thanking my lucky stars that it was between classes so the hallways were empty, I ran into Andrew*.
During the course of my three-year relationship and engagement with John*, my rapist, I had lost most of my friends. In what had been, at the time, “my own decision,” I had cut myself off from almost all of my friends for one reason or another. By the time I finally and mercifully escaped that relationship, I realized that losing my friends had not been my decision at all– I’d done it because John had told me to, and that was it. He had felt threatened by the friends who were willing to tell me the truth about what they were seeing.
Andrew, for some reason, was an exception. It’s not that John hadn’t felt threatened by him– because he had. He had forbidden me from talking with him, and I actually had. I’d cut off all contact with him whatsoever. Refused to even look at him when I passed him on the sidewalk, or in church, or in the cafeteria.
But that day, after John had broken our engagement and I’d been dragged into student affairs more than once and it felt like I was reaching my breaking point, Andrew was there, in the hallway. He didn’t say a word. He took one look at my face, and he hugged me.
For a moment, I was frightened– what was he doing? He knew physical contact between genders was against the rules!
But that lasted for a microsecond. In an instant, I went from terror, to devastation, to the simple knowledge that I needed that embrace more than I needed air to breathe. I needed him to not say anything, to not offer me advice, or a word of comfort, or a solution, or a way to fix me so I’d feel better. I needed him, as a friend, to hold me, and give me a place where I could exist for a single moment in safety.
Over the next few weeks, Andrew continued being that safe place.
He never asked questions.
He never gave me any words of wisdom on how to deal with a breakup.
He never tried to help me.
He was just . . . my friend.
And it didn’t matter that I hadn’t spoken to him in well over a year. It didn’t matter how I’d treated him, how I’d slighted him. He was there, and that was what I needed in one of the darkest times of my life. In the few months it took to repair some of the damage wreaked on my other friendships, he got me through it by taking me to dinner with his group, by making church less miserable, by shielding me from John when he tried to verbally attack me in public. He never pried into some of the things he’d known or witnessed, he never took me to task for the things I’d done while being controlled by an abusive manipulator. He knew he didn’t need to understand anything, or to know anything, to support me.
That was over three years ago, and it’s taken me that long to realize the importance of being a safe place for someone, a harbor they can come to in order to escape a storm.
The compulsion to help is a strong one, but very often, our definition of help is not helpful at all. Because we see help as only being helpful when there’s a concrete, evidential improvement in the circumstances of someone’s life. So, we give advice, and believe that if our friend takes it, their circumstances will improve. Or we give money. Or a thousand other things that we do in an effort to truly help.
And we forget that sometimes, none of that is important.
Sometimes, all a person needs is a respite. It could look like not saying anything, or completely ignoring the problem, whiling away the time in productive things, or non-productive things. It means asking the question “what do you need?” and then listening for the response. It means not sticking our oar into a problem that we are not capable of understanding, because we are not our friend.
Sometimes, all our friend needs is a place to come to where they’re not going to be hammered with constant interrogations into their motives and reasoning. A place where they can come and have their agency as an adult recognized. A place where they are not demeaned, but respected as someone capable of making their own decisions. A place where they can be empowered and strengthened in their autonomy, a place where someone they care about cares about them, and not the fabrication of who they “should” be.