The Helping Relationship - Nathan Engrstrom

About five years ago I entered college as a psychology major. I proudly rebranded myself as a college student, made shakey connections with peers in my dormitory, and even momentarily decided to get a cat. Class was difficult yet manageable, new passions began to blossom, and the only curfew was getting to class on time. Life was good. It was a glorious time as I explored my newfound world, soaking in as much stimulus as I could handle. Independence was freeing -- who would have thought?

As time passed, classes began to get harder, high school relationships seemed strained, and independence meant taking care of myself, my whole self. My image fluctuated as I strived to fit in, not wanting to be the only person feeling conflicted. I looked for deeper emotional connections in my peer relationships like a birder watching a fowell through binoculars -- admiring from afar but heeding my approach for fear of disturbing the peace. Rather than speaking about my mom’s second divorce, my lack of ability to pay for my groceries, or my body dysmorphia, as I compared myself to the upperclassman Adonises in the gym, I chose to appease the inherent situational norms ever-present in college life. My body was screaming, my gut bursting at the seams, I wanted to regurgitate my emotions and find any assemblance of community in those struggling with similar feelings. I remember calling my mom crying saying, “I am THE ONLY person I know not happy to be in college.” Social media was telling me everyone was having a blast. Kids were reaping the benefits of youth and nothing was wrong but the waning reserves of alcohol in the mini-fridge. Life-sucked, but only for me. Maturation would later tell me I was wrong.

During that first year in college I spent my time reading self-help literature, writing poetry, and trying my hardest to get affirmation from any source but my “college friends” -- as not to be seen as uncool. Trudging back to my dormitory from class, a journey that will one day be described as a mile uphill both ways, I was approached by my friend Stevie. There is no way to describe Stevie without using the word ‘bro.’ He had been featured in surfer magazine, was golden tan, and had a pearly white smile to go with his overly positive attitude. To me, this was the epitome of a happy college student, he had copious friends, awesome hobbies, and what I deemed as an innate ability to balance academia and social life. Stevie came up to me that day as I was dripping in sweat, contemplating whether to neglect the gym I told myself I promised I’d start going to, and he asked me for help. He wanted to talk about some things that were bothering him in his life and he trusted me? This kid who I had known for less than a month was asking if I could listen to his struggles. I didn’t know what to say. My first thought was “this guy has problems?” immediately followed by, “and he wants to TALK about them?” I was in shock. Apprehensive, I agreed and what followed can only be described as a revelation. Hardly biblical, this involved Stevie, my other friends Walter, Nico and I sitting on overturned trash cans, beds, and a sort of home-made hardwood art piece only a college kid could love drinking beer and listening to Stevie share while then subsequently talking about hardships in our own lives. If I described living on my own as freeing than this was nothing short of liberating. We sat and “shot the shit,” drinking beer and talking about real world issues that were bothering us. Offering advice when asked and listening to each person share a part of them to new friends -- an idea that once seemed taboo. My hypothetical ‘cool card’ was ripped up along with the symbolic lorgnette that was keeping me from presenting my authentic self. 

To this day I don’t know if those guys know the impact they had on my mindset towards seeking peer affirmation and open emotional communication in my everyday life and I don’t think I will ever know. That day in the red brick dorm room, sweating from the midday heat, drinking a cool beer with my first real friends in college, I ascertained a core value that will forever stick with me. From the coolest guy I knew, “everyone has shit they’re dealing with and you can either choose to trust in the people around you and make real connections, or live your life in fear of breaking the masculine societal norm. It’s nice just having a beer and actually talking about what’s on your mind instead of going through your life pretending.”

- Nathan Engrstrom

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