Oh, we’re so disarming, darling, everything we did believe
Is diving, diving, diving, diving off the balcony
Tired and wired, we ruin too easy
Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave…
We’ll stay inside ’till somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us
Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days…
–The National, “Apartment Story”
Are you afraid of the darkness?
I’m afraid of the darkness too
We’re all caught in the blackout
Trying to feel our way out
Wait for the morning
I’ll be waiting for you
–Frank Turner, “Blackout”
Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve poured my heart open in a public forum. I’ve written about fear. I’ve written about panic. I’ve written about sadness.
I’ve disclosed to you in these blog postings the awful, raw truth that sometimes, I don’t feel “okay.”
If that makes you feel uncomfortable, I can assure you that you aren’t alone. We ask people all the time, “How are you doing?” 99% of the time the response to this question will be “okay”, “fine” or “good”.
People will say this even if they are caught in an invisible internal undertow. And we want them to respond that way. So we don’t have to get too involved. So that we can keep their darkness at arms length.
In fact, when it comes to problems- or well, anything for that matter- we have an unwritten inverse rule for dialogue.
The more important the problem or issue, the less acceptable it is to talk about.
- We talk all day about our frustrations with the office internet or printer. But we stay silent about the pervasive impact of toxic personalities and cultures on well-being and morale in our workplace.
- We talk all day about challenges getting our kid out the door in the morning. But we are supposed to stay silent about how we are advocating to get supports for our kid who has been diagnosed with ADHD. Or how he has been pushed out of multiple daycares and preschools, and by first grade is already showing signs of depression, smacking himself in the forehead and calling himself stupid.
- We talk all day about health issues such as a bad knee, or carpal tunnel syndrome. But we aren’t supposed to talk about chemotherapy, or major abdominal surgery to remove organs and tumors.
- We talk all day about planning for retirement- how many years, months and days we have to go. But we aren’t supposed to talk about death, and that we may only have years, months or years left to live. Or that we are still mourning our wife who passed away from cancer years ago. Or break down crying because a good friend of ours unexpectedly passed away.
We have to stop pretending that the big issues don’t exist. These issues don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. Instead, they get internalized. And the person who isn’t discussing them? They pull back. They feel isolated and alone. And those emotions grow and fester.
Wonderful things and terrible things are a part of the human experience. Big emotions- both high and low- are a part of the human experience. The more we talk about them, the more we begin to realize that we aren’t alone. We find others who have experienced something similar.
And when someone opens up to us- even if we haven’t experienced anything similar- we gain a better understanding of that person’s struggles. It forces us to see the complexities of what they are wrestling with. We dust away the black and white outer facade and begin to discover all of the shades of grey that lie underneath.
Over the last few years, I’ve started to talk about the big things. And when I do, I watch the panic begin to light in other peoples’ eyes. I watch them freeze, begin to change the topic and/or search for an escape route.
Because we are are uncomfortable with honesty. We are uncomfortable with truth.
We are enmeshed in platitudes. We believe in a “just” world. We believe that there must be a reason for everything. We believe that all problems can be solved with positivity, faith, and a “bootstraps” mentality. We believe in easy solutions to complex problems.
- If someone dies, we say it’s because it was “God’s plan”.
- “Sometimes you just need to give yourself over to a higher power”
- If your kid is having trouble at school, we say “maybe you just need to be a stricter parent.”
- “We all could die at any moment” (note- I totally get the intention behind this, but assuming we are the same age, my chances of dying in the next 5 years are maybe 20-30 times higher than yours. If it’s all the same wanna trade?)
- “If they only ____ they wouldn’t have been raped, or killed by the officer.”
The worst of all of these is when people apply broad labels or names to the people that are suffering as a means of marginalizing and distancing themselves from them. They know that certain words and labels have the power to invalidate a person altogether. That if they can make the person “other” they no longer have to acknowledge their struggle.
Most often, we freeze because we just don’t know what to say. If someone tells us something negative, our immediate instinct is to try to “solve” it in some way. And so we “knee-jerk” a simple response to a big problem. Or don’t say anything at all.
The truth is that when someone is struggling with something big they aren’t expecting you to solve anything. They just want you to know what they are going through. They want to be able to talk about the “big” thing with as much ease as the little things that are more socially acceptable to bring up. They want the right to make their struggle real.
Don’t shy away. Don’t offer the simple solution. Just listen. Acknowledge that something terrible has happened. That the something awful cannot easily be fixed. And that’s it’s okay to not be “okay.”
It’s time to get more comfortable with the cringey, uncomfortable darkness. Darkness is as much a part of the human story as the light. It’s when we acknowledge and honor that darkness, instead of burying it, that we can begin to process and heal. We can write the dark chapters in our books. We can discover and decide our own how those dark chapters shape the story of our lives. I’m writing those chapters through this blog. It allows me to pour out the things that cannot easily be articulated into conversation.
In my first post, I boldly declared that life is too short and time too precious to hold back. And I meant it. That doesn’t mean that this is easy. There is a reason why I first only shared it with a few people. What I have done here is the emotional equivalent of stripping down naked. I had to first try it out in front of a few “safe” friends before slowly expanding and letting other people join this party. Because I have made myself vulnerable.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment- Ralph Waldo Edison
Some of the thoughts that have gone through my head:
- What happens if I put the real “me” out there and that “me” is rejected?
- What if it makes people like me less because they don’t think that I am handling this the right way?
- If the focus of this blog is the psychological and emotional toll that this diagnosis has brought to me, will people think that this is all I am about?
- Will they think that I haven’t still been able to function through my day?
- Will they think that I don’t still have a sense of humor? That I don’t, and can’t still have fun? And that I don’t see all of the light interspersed with the darkness?
This week, one of my entries got re-posted on a major blog-site. It felt good to have it selected and published; as if my most vulnerable self had been submitted for review and validated. At the same time, I felt immediate relief that it stayed on the cancer page. I’m up to my shoulders now, but still wading. I think I’m ready to swim, but still hesitant to fully dive in.
However, it’s still brought increased exposure and now I’m standing naked in front of a larger audience.
It’s been a relief that- so far, at least- I’ve not received any criticism, outward eye-rolling or disapproval of my disclosures. Now, I’m pretty certain that some people DO disapprove, but they’ve so far stayed in the background.
That leaves me with a deep sense of gratitude. I am thankful to everyone who has ventured into these blog postings, and who still hasn’t run away. Thank you for seeing me at my most vulnerable and accepting me anyway. Thank you for understanding while these posts are in some ways the most real and sincere part of me, they are not ALL of me.
Thank you for being “my” people. Thank you for getting uncomfortable with me.
And thank you for making it okay to not be okay.