It has been a longstanding dream of mine that someone in my life would look at me and say, “Elyse, you are way too depressed and overwhelmed to be working full-time. Especially a stressful social work job. You should take a break.” This was the stuff of fantasies and daydreams. I had long, wistful talks with myself (particularly when I was not wanting to get out of bed in the morning). I had chats (with myself) about how much good a break would do me, how I couldn’t keep waking up terrified to face my busy, intimidatingly full days.
And then my therapist told me essentially that. That I should consider taking a leave from work. Suddenly, I didn’t like the idea so much. I don’t quit things.
Simultaneous to hating the suggestion though, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Because I really can’t keep waking up and simply forcing myself through the day. I have reached a point where that is no longer sustainable. Something needs to change.
However, I am scared to death of both myself and of the idea of being vulnerable. Not even the act of being vulnerable, just the freaking idea of it. I have built a complex facade (also know as my entire life), which is built around me being a functioning and capable individual. I’m depressed? I think I’ll take on a new project at work. Working through childhood trauma? I’ll start a new volunteer gig and offer to lead a youth group at church. I will fucking function my way beyond my emotions.
Only, this does not actually work as a method for being a whole and healthy person. It requires living as a shadow of who you are meant to be, voluntarily killing off parts of yourself in order to keep everything under wraps. In order to keep moving forward in this way, you must slowly and steadily shut yourself off.
Which means that you shut down not only the hard stuff, but also the good stuff. And eventually you just die. If not literally, then internally. But sometimes literally too.
Intellectually, I recognize the value in feeling my feelings. I am somewhat envious of those seemingly more healthy people who actually face their emotions. But I am torn. Pulled both by the desire to live more authentically and the long-standing habits and rules I have lived by for twenty-eight years.
I am realizing how tightly my identity is intertwined with my vision of what is “tough.”
Emotions are not tough. Emotions are weak. Emotions are vulnerable and fragile and every other similar word in the thesaurus. I, on the other hand, am not weak; I am a tough girl.
This has been a hallmark of my identity since I was a little girl. When I was six and taught myself not to cry in front of people. When I learned that I got praise and attention for being strong and fast and stone-faced. When being a girl who didn’t cry when she got hurt, who didn’t mind getting dirty, and who could beat the boys at most things, was worth my weight in social currency (with both kids and adults).
I was a “tough as nails” six-year-old. That persona repeatedly got me admiration and affirmation, which worked to solidify my view that “tough” is better, and “tough” means the less emotion you demonstrate the more kick-ass you are. Which remains my perspective today. Despite the more logical side of myself that can now see the harm in this way of approaching life. Because I can see how vulnerability is courageous. How wearing your heart on your sleeve is brave and risk-taking. How being openly emotional in the world is authentic and inspiring. Innervating. For other people. For everyone else but me.
And sometimes not even for other people. There is a part of me that is judgemental and superior, that says things (in my head, not out-loud) like “why are you crying about that? You whiny little bitch. I would never cry over something so stupid.” Or “seriously? That screaming person is making you nervous? Grow a pair.” Because my unemotional-robot-self does not fucking get flustered in public, does not cry unless you freaking murder my grandma or something equally serious. I save my emotions for “real things.” And I am suffering because of it. I am dying.
I am terrified of myself and everything I have buried inside. I have filled the nooks and crannies inside myself, the hollow corners and tight crevices, with shame and secrets and all the feelings I never wanted to feel. I am frozen in trepidation.
There is a haunting line in an obscure song by Bobby Bare Jr. which goes: “when you’re afraid to cry, because you’re not sure what’s inside.” Which is exactly how I feel. How I have felt for so long. I am desperately afraid of what I am not even sure is inside. I am held hostage by this fear and the sense of shame I bear at all times. I am afraid of what happens when I slow down, and all my feelings catch up with me. I am afraid that I might drown in them. I am afraid they will run me over like a train and leave me crippled. I am afraid of things I can’t even name exactly. Afraid of the unknown. Of change. Or that things might never change. Of the secrets I buried long ago. I am afraid of never having answers to certain questions, but I am also terrified of what those answers may be.
I am unsure how to let go of my tough girl image. It is held in place by fear and habit. And it is well rooted. I am so tied to how I see myself in my ability to “handle” things. I am reminded of a quote from W.H. Auden, who wrote:
“We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
I am bound to my illusionary image of myself; only, it has become a heavy anchor and I am drowning. I want to free myself, but I am also convinced that I can continue to hold my breath under this water. Honestly though, I can’t. I really cannot.
I want to gently invite myself to find strength in my brokenness. I know it is there.
Honey, this fight you are fighting won’t be won this way. Drop those fists you are holding in front of your face. Pick up your wounds and your hurts, they’re dragging at your feet. These cracks and scars make you beautiful: complex and intricate. What you see as you falling apart is really just the beginning of getting better. You don’t need to hold your breath anymore. It’s ok to breathe. It’s ok to need. It’s ok to cry.
Let your tears wash you clean.