mental health

A Fool’s Performance

“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.”

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

People attach expectations to different times of the year. When the new year shows up, they brim with (false) optimism for the future. Everything is supposed to be shiny and new, and you need to have a brightened outlook for the horizon. Smile and bounce on your toes, cheering on this “new” future that finally arrived. (Let’s discount the fact that all that actually happened was the Earth circled the sun one more time – something it’s managed to do for millions of years…without any assistance from us) And if you DARE to do less than cheer and get excited, you find yourself inundated with memes and treacle-laced sayings encouraging you to get on the bandwagon.

Because, of course, the majority knows best.

There’s no admission that it’s okay if you can’t manage to feel positive. Maybe you’re feeling frightened about something going on. Right now, COVID-19 is still raging out of control. Numbers continue to climb, medical professionals are exhausted and no longer receiving the support and love they got at the beginning of the pandemic, and the vaccine is trickling out. (I won’t get into the fact that the vaccine will take time to go to work) People have died, are dying, and will continue to die. Others survived, but they’re struggling with long-term complications – some of which doctors are puzzling over. That’s overwhelming for people, and it’s scary. But if they dare to speak up, others shush them and tell them to focus on the positive. Their fears are marginalized or discounted entirely.

Nope – Just keep smiling!

Perhaps you’re still struggling with depression lingering from the holidays. Or simply fighting to get out of the pit, in general. That dark shadow shows up unannounced and without warning. You could look at the horizon and see nothing to feel good about. Whispers in your mind could be telling you you’re stuck in the same rut as always. You know this will pass, and you’re fighting, but, right now, smiling and optimism are too much to ask. And those mindless idiots can’t comprehend that. Oh, no – the future’s shining bright with possibility – can’t you see it?

Get out in the sunshine – it’ll fix everything!

This moronic insistence on being happy and positive simply because it’s the new year is damaging. People need be allowed to feel how they feel – and supported for those feelings. Discounting the emotions in favor of forced cheerfulness is damaging. Sometimes things AREN’T bright with possibility. And whatever idiot dreamed up the notion that you can WILL good things to happen should have been drawn and quartered. Because I seriously doubt the people who died from COVID-19 or lost their jobs during lockdown willed that to happen. (You won’t convince me positivity is willed and negativity is not. All things in balance, people)

Feel how you want to feel. Give the emotions a voice. And if people try to shut you down and throw those clichés down your throat, ignore them. Odds are they’re trying to paint over their own true feelings in the first place.

I LOATHE odd-numbered years. I didn’t step into 2021 feeling bright, cheery, or optimistic. I braced myself for a bomb going off. I’m not saying that I expect everything to go wrong (I’ve had good things happen this week), but I’m not smiling or sharing positive messages everywhere. Hell, I’ve already received word I need surgery, and we’re not even a week into the first month!

Admit the way you feel.

Forced cheer won’t help you feel better. I look at friends who are trying to say they’re frightened or sad, and in tromp the Pep Squad. And when I push to encourage them to vent and pour out their feelings, those Pom Poms descend like glitter bombs. It’s a tragedy. You DON’T have to be happy. You DON’T have to feel optimistic. So what if it’s the beginning of the year? It’s a day on a calendar – nothing more. Feel how you want to feel. Being true to yourself matters more than keeping those idiots happy.

mental health

Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.

mental health

Embrace the Happy

"Just Be"
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Let me set up the scenario for you: something amazing just happened (you choose the amazing because that definition is different for everyone), and you are dancing on air. You can’t wait to share the news with everyone around you, hoping for the same cheer and light to infuse their day, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. You can barely keep still, and the words jumble together. If you battle depression, this moment shines even brighter for you because it means you’ve climbed out of the pit and felt the sun on your face for the first time in days, weeks, maybe even months. Your face feels like it might split wide open, you’re smiling so bright. Your present your news and pause for the reaction.

And they just stare at you.

The entire world falls back around you in shatters, and you feel like a complete and utter fool. If you’re really unlucky, you receive a lecture about having the nerve to be so cheerful during “this time” (I’m not referring to any time in particular – sure we’re experiencing COVID-19 right now, the upheaval of race relations, the trauma of LGBTQ rights being revoked, but there are also individual times that get thrown at you). All of the life goes out of you, and the chasm splits under your feet to cast you back into the pit.

How DARE you be happy?

Because no one on this planet is ever allowed to be happy (well, except for them, of course – don’t you dare ever consider doing the same thing to them). Happiness must be squashed out at every turn, crushed into the mud and silenced lest it brighten the world. You spend 95% of your life depressed and miserable, and – dammit – people want to push that to 100%. What’s the phrase: misery shared is misery halved? Yeah, that’s bullshit; misery shared is misery compounded.

The truth is you have every right to be happy, regardless of when it happens. It’s not like you have a crystal ball to predict and plan out your moments. Happiness is random, spontaneous, and, frankly, the times it needs to be shared are when everything is falling apart. You can’t just save it up until “time is right” – who knows when that might happen? Do you want to wait months to share the news that you got a job? Got engaged? Are pregnant? Bought a house? Finished a story? Will you still feel the same rush of joy months down the road?

Of course not!

Share the news when you have it (not before – you’ll jinx it). Don’t feel guilty about your happiness, and don’t let anyone rob you of your joy and excitement. You’re entitled to be happy! Every person on this planet has that right! If the people around you feel a need to lecture, then they aren’t the people you need in your circle. You should be allowed to be yourself at all times with the people who support you, and that includes being allowed to share good news – whenever it happens.

If you wait until the “right moment” for something…are you prepared for that moment to never happen?