The Sandwich (aka We Can't Make it Alone)

A few years ago, sometime in between my dad’s second and third strokes and whilst he was still living at home with my mom, I would visit around Christmas and Summer, and would often spend much of that time locked in my bedroom, avoiding the world. You see, it’s only been in the past 3 years or so, that I’ve felt truly comfortable and excited to return home to Portugal. I left to run away from my past, and potential future, and for many years after that, I used to resist going back to visit.

There was a particular Christmas break where my dad managed to really rile me up by doing something very simple, and actually quite harmless. He used to knock on my bedroom door in the middle of the afternoon and ask if I could make him a sandwich. I wondered why he used to ask me that when my mom had already left everything ready for him to make his own sandwich. I used to do it, but always felt quite exasperated by it. Upon returning to London at the end of that break, I was talking to my therapist about this, when he said: “Ryan, have you ever considered that maybe this was your dad’s way of asking you to spend time with him?” I responded with: “Why wouldn’t he just say that?”, to which my therapist said: “Do you always say what you mean?” Ouch! This is why I need a therapist: to have someone in my life to tell me these cold hard truths, to give me these emotional punches, and these moments of profound realisation. My ego was slightly bruised by that exchange, but I knew it to be true. Especially the sandwich part. But up until that moment, I honestly had never thought about it that way. More often than not, people will express their deepest emotional needs and longings, through the most mundane and simple actions or words.

What is your version of “asking for a sandwich?” What are the things that people in your life always say, that might sound completely ordinary, but are indeed masks for something profoundly significant? I encourage you to start paying attention to what those closest to you say to you, consistently. I confessed something to a friend the other day, that I’ve rarely shared with anyone in my life, about a specific need and longing I have when I feel lonely. And it dawned on me that I’ve been doing this “sandwich” thing with the people closest to me, for years! After 6 years of participating in personal therapy, I still find it hard to ask for what I really need or want. I’m still afraid to ask for help. And like me, there are countless others out there.

Therapy sometimes gets a bad reputation, because most people come into it at a moment of crisis. It’s rare that someone decides to see a therapist for pure and casual mental and emotional gymnastics. It’s in these moments of crisis, where people have exhausted all their options, have tried to get help without necessarily asking for it, it’s in these moments that they often meet their therapists for the first time. By that time, there’s an underlying message of “I’ve tried everything, and nothing worked, I must be a failure, and you’re my last chance.” Sounds dramatic, but it’s mostly true. There’s a shame attached to coming to therapy, in particular, but also a great shame attached to asking for help, in general.

Sometimes I think that there’s nothing more toxic in this world, than this illusion and lie that we’ve all been told that we can make it alone, that we’re all alone, that we must “get on with it”. We reach crises in our lives because we choose to “get on with it” every time we have a feeling, and fool ourselves into thinking that everything’s fine, when in fact, all we did was put those feelings into some kind of twisted box, which will inevitably burst at one point or another. Most of our crises could be avoided by speaking to someone when things actually happen, by asking for help when things are still small (and much more manageable), and by actually feeling our feelings, which at the end of the day, are temporary. We are the ones that perpetuate and make our feelings permanent by placing them in carefully compartmentalised boxes in our psyches. We felt them, and then we boxed them. We didn’t actually allow them to run their temporary course, and now they’re just gaining momentum and waiting for the right exact moment when something else, often unrelated, happens, so they can all come out and play.

Stigma of any kind is probably the biggest killer of human beings. People ignore clinical diagnoses due to stigma. People suffer in silence due to stigma. People pretend they’re happy every day due to stigma. My dad used to ask me to make him a sandwich, instead of asking me to keep him company, due to stigma. I was taught to not talk about feelings, due to stigma. We are all mostly taught to not ask for help, due to stigma. Stigma is a prison. A mental prison, but a prison nonetheless. It stops us from reaching out, but also from reaching within. It reinforces the illusion that we are all alone, and that we must solve everything on our own. That is a lie. We are not here alone, and we can’t make it alone.

Reach deep inside, and try, even with just a little bit of courage, to reach out, and tell at least one person in your life the truth about your needs, wants, and longings. No sandwiches, just the truth. To just one person.