What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? Your best holiday memory? Your most embarrassing moment? Your spirit animal? Your desert island book?
What’s on your bucket list?
The responses ranged from “Hike the Appalachian Trail” and “Donate a building with my roommate” to “Learn to play the piano” and “Eat a whole package of Oreos.”
Each week, I tape new sheets of questions on the stall walls in the bathroom. The 37 residents who live in my section eagerly respond to the queries….
The “bucket list” sheet was concerning. When I saw that someone had written “to want to live again” as a bucket list goal, I worried. It’s just an anonymous thing. There’s no way of knowing who could have written that! How am I supposed to help when I don’t know who needs helping?
By the next morning, someone had responded to the troubling post.
“You mean like reincarnation?”
Ok, maybe that’s what it is, I reassured myself. Nothing bad could happen in my section, not under my watch.
On an evening visit to the stall in question, I discovered that the original writer had responded:
“No. Like depression.”
The first stall gets a lot of traffic, and I put the bucket list question there because I thought it would provoke some interesting comments. It had, but not in the way that I had expected.
I avoided the stall for a little while as I tried to decide what to do. The cry for help was literally written on the wall, but the anonymity seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. I had a hunch as to who might have written it, but I couldn’t just call her out on it. What if I had the wrong person? Awk-ward.
It was time to talk to someone about the note. I stopped back in the stall to make sure I was clear on the exact wording, and I noticed that someone, a third person, had responded.
“We love you and we are here to talk if you need. Keep your head up. <3”
This was the best way that I could have hoped someone would have responded, but it didn’t solve the underlying issue, so on a Tuesday night, I brought it up at our section meeting over chips and salsa.
“I’m sure you all have seen the stall questions in that first one on the left,” I said, holding up the page in question. I read out the written exchange, expressed my concern for the struggling person, acknowledged my support for the responder, and asked for anyone with any information to please find me later on. “We’re a family here, and we support each other, but we’ll be able to help a lot better if we know who’s hurting. If you don’t want to talk to me about it, there are six other RAs and a handful of head staff members who would be happy to speak with you, but I just want to be sure that you’re getting the help you need.” As the discussion moved along to dorm announcements, I hopped over sprawling sweatpant-ed legs and bunny slippered feet and reposted the sheet in the first stall.
She knocked on my door later that night. I listened, she shared, we talked. What a brave thing to do, to tell your story to a stranger (essentially). She’s doing better now, and she stops by frequently to chat.
I think that acknowledging the troubling posts in front of the group gave everyone permission to be more open in person, rather than hiding behind construction paper scrawl. I still change the stall questions out each week, and now I’m not going to be surprised if I get more complicated answers than I had anticipated.