Walking by a bookstore that’s around the corner from my work, I looked in the window and saw that one of my favourite authors had written a new book. This sort of event is one of few that garners any kind of excitement and I almost always give in to my compulsion to buy the book immediately. This time, I saved my money and instead went back to the office and googled it. This is How by Augusten Burroughs. I felt a pull from the cover alone and when I got to the Amazon website to see how much it would cost me I saw that I could read an excerpt, which I spent the next few minutes doing. In just the few pages I read, I was hooked. I must read this book, I must read this book now. I could already tell it would be a life changer. His familiar speak made me feel at home.
Anyways, the little blurb about how people react to uncomfortable situations made me think about all the ways he was able to put into words the things I have been feeling. Cliched yes, but that feeling of solidarity is still the main reason I am and have always been drawn to reading in the first place. He writes the exact thing that I wish every single person I ever came in contact with was thinking when it comes to empathy. He writes the exact thing that I wish even I sometimes was able to think in those moments when I just can’t empathize with another human beings problems. What do you do when another person is distressed? How do you act? What’s the proper etiquette when faced with a situation you are unfamiliar with? Burroughs wants us all to stop faking it.
Lately, I’ve been in a downward spiral. Getting worse and worse and destroying everything good around me. I don’t know how to get out of it. I don’t know how to feel better. I don’t know how to cheer up. I certainly and absolutely do not know how to get out of my head. So why does it feel like everyone expects me too? Like everyone thinks I should? Like they believe I can with just the snap of my fingers? I believe in Harry Potter, but that sort of magic unfortunately just doesn’t exist.
Even by making these words concrete, I feel bad. As though I can’t express myself the way I want without coming across as petty and ungrateful. I know that people say these everyday platitudes because a part of them thinks it helps. I know they mean no malice. But to me, it feels like further proof that no one I care about gets it. To me, it feels like the easy way out. No one says “Just be happy” because they truly believe you can just stop what you’re feeling and be happy. They say it because it’s easier than dealing with the truth of the situation. It’s easier to distance yourself from the sadness and fear as quickly as possible without getting sucked into it.
In one sentence, Burroughs writes, “Is the act of making an effort to remain positive and speak in familiar, nonthreatening cliches better, healthier for us, emotionally? I don’t think so.” I feel as though that is all I have been trying to do. Every moment. When I’m at work, when I’m out socializing; it’s all an act. It’s always me trying to act the person I think I’m supposed to be, the person I know I need to be in some situations. At work, there needs to be professionalism, there can’t be tears. When out with friends there needs to be laughter and fun, there can’t be awkward truths about what’s really going on in my sordid brain. So I try. I force. I fake. I do the best I can. But then there are all those other times when I break. Times when the facade doesn’t hold up anymore. And why should it? I believe what Burroughs says, it can’t be healthy to live wearing a mask all the time. So I break and I cry and I cry and I cry. I mean I’m scared. I’m just so fucking scared all the time.
And then? That’s when I’m told those famous platitudes, the ones that take me from sad and scared to sad and scared and angry. “Just smile” they say, “if you don’t want to be sad, just stop being sad” they tell me, and always, always, always: “it’s all in your head”. Actually, these new ads featured all over the subways stations capture it best:
And honestly, I can’t take them. I can’t take another single one. And I know they are born out of frustration, at no one knowing what to do just to make the tears stop. But when all I do is try, all these trite remarks do is make me feel as though I gave up long ago.
What I really need is Burroughs next great line, “Truthfulness itself is almost medicinal, even when it’s served without advice or insight. Just hearing true words spoken out loud provides relief.” Just tell me it’s okay to feel sad. Please just tell me that it might get better or it might not but that despite that you’ll be there for me. Just tell me you’ll be there for me even if it gets worse. If you can. If you can’t, then tell me that truth too. Tell me that it’s too much for you. That you can’t deal with what’s going on inside of me. Tell me to fuck off if you need to. Because at this point, I think that would still feel better than those banal stereotypes that mean nothing to you and make me feel as though all this time I’ve spent trying to survive has been nothing but a waste.