I think it’s okay to be sad when others expect you to be happy

A friend and I recently discussed how the little stresses of life can wear you down, sap your energy, make it harder to deal with the major traumas that can linger. Work equipment malfunctioning, a pet getting sick, a sudden storm that makes travel impossible. She’s written eloquently about this feeling of not being happy during a societally-decreed happy time here. She understands why I am never entirely filled with eager anticipation when preparing to visit my family (and so do some of my other friends, and I can’t thank you all enough for that, since I know some of you are reading this). I understand why a traumatic event from weeks, months, or years past can stick with you and why it can feel shameful to admit that it still haunts you when seemingly everybody expects you to Be Okay.

It’s hard to be home with family, especially during holidays, when your sibling has medical needs. Sure, it’s a break from work, but now I get to be somewhere where I feel the need to take over as many chores as possible to lift some burdens from my parents, where I learn Lily’s new seizure pattern, where I see what problems are happening with Lily’s day schedule or sleep patterns. My parents love me and try to give me some rest, since they know I’m “on vacation,” but our reality is not like living in a five-star hotel with room service and daily linen service. Sometimes Lily throws tantrums during holiday dinners, some of which are due to her anti-convulsants; sometimes she just has seizures during dinner or gift exchanges or family singing. (Please understand: I am not complaining here – it is my life, and I love my family and my sister and am happy to help and it’s great to be around people who love me and who are interesting, good people. It’s just not the 100% joyful reunion too many of my coworkers envision a trip to visit family to be.)

We bear burdens or carry worries, some of us, whether we choose to or not…but what’s worse is having to pretend that we don’t, having to always hide it – even from those we love, having to capitulate to the desires of a cheerful world that we not bring them down. (Which, trust me, is even less amusing when one does not share the religious practices of the majority of the population; I don’t celebrate Christmas and my sister’s independent living arrangements are suddenly in flux – I’m not going to be very receptive to people wearing Santa hats or wishing me a Merry Christmas today.) This is not to say that I encourage people to be perpetually gloomy or that those of us who are sad not heal or learn to cope, but you know, sometimes it’s okay to let the darkness in. (How else do you know when you’ve found light?) (Or, to quote Captain Kirk: “Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”)

There’s a line from a Mat Kearney song (Closer to love) that has haunted me since the first time I heard it: And don’t apologize for all the tears you’ve cried; you’ve been way too strong now for all your life. I’m not sure how cleanly it fits into what I’m thinking through in this post, but it’s something that I hear in my head when I’m tired and want to find a safe place to curl up and cry until I’m done and am ready to rejoin society. It’s a relief to find someone who understands that we can’t always be happy, that we can’t always be strong, that sometimes tears are the only or best release mechanism we have.

This is particularly true, I think, for those of us who are considered high achievers, viewed as paragons of strength and composure who never show emotion of any sort – we invoke the somewhat peculiar stereotype of a brilliant, focused man who doesn’t show any weakness, having shunted aside the distraction of emotion, or the more rarely envisioned woman who is so tough, so hardened, that she can persevere through any obstacle. (This, by the way, runs contrary to my feelings about earning my doctorate; passionate emotions, both positive and negative, can be indicative of and an integral part of the drive and committment required to make it through a long, tiring process.) If we fit this image of having achieved, we may be denied the ability to express our emotions in public; you can bet I haven’t told anyone today about how worried I am about Lily’s situation, even though I am friends with my coworkers and know they would never want to enforce damaging stereotypes. I don’t feel like I have the ability to be honest about my fear and still keep their respect as an objective scientist.

NB: Stay tuned for a more general post on why being praised for strength in the face of adversity can be tiring, for sibs and more generally; turns out, while writing this, I had more to say than I expected!


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