Can’t We Just Be Allowed to be Sad?

“Don’t you wish you were happier? More productive? More at peace? More energetic?”

“For just $27.99 you can learn all the secrets I’ve spent years developing…”

I see this shite all the time lately. Ads aimed at making people happy and productive. “Make your bed when you get up. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Eat breakfast. Go for a run. Make an entry in your gratitude journal…” And all will be well, allegedly.

I’m sure that everyone’s $27.99 makes those people happy, but the people buying their “tried and true secrets…” Probably less so.

There seems to be a lot out there aimed at eradicating sadness. For a price, of course.

We don’t like sadness. We don’t like the weakness, the helplessness, the pain.

But…

Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Unfortunately, pain is part of the human condition. It’s what tells us something is wrong, it’s what challenges us to change, to grow.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve had to come to terms with my deteriorating health and abilities. Because of that, I lost a job. Lost my independence, my income, my self image. I saw myself as a fighter, a hard worker, dependable and independent. I feel like none of those things now. My uncle passed away, and the circumstances surrounding that were complicated and so my grief is complicated. I’ve lost my relationship with my brother, having to set that boundary for the sake of my own mental health and well-being. I’ve lost financial security, as many of us have, because of a worldwide pandemic. Much of the ability to freely socialize, which is a loss of support.

The other day while cooking, I cut my finger, deep. And the next day when I took all the painkillers I take for my shoulder, neck and back pain, and for my regular joint aches and pains… suddenly I realized my finger felt better. And it was the strangest feeling to me, that I took painkillers and they actually completely took away some pain – because I can’t remember the last time that happened. I’m worn down by daily, chronic pain, fatigue and brain fog that disrupts my life and my plans – I don’t know day to day how I’ll feel. I struggle with making any commitments, if I say no and I feel well that day I’ll feel wish I said yes, if I say yes and I don’t feel well that day, I’m flaking. I hate flaking, so instead I just often end up secluding myself. I get tired of trying to explain to people that I’m foggy, confused, and tired because I have a chronic illness, not because of lack of sleep or proper diet or new meds.

Which brings me back to my original point. It’s abnormal to feel happy in the face of losing people, security, jobs, independence, social lives, health. These aren’t happy things and the normal response is sadness. Maybe anger sometimes. Definitely frustration, and anxiety for the future.

I was referred to a psychiatrist who had tweaked my meds in the spring. For anyone new, I have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety and complex PSTD. I got a shiny new diagnosis in the spring to tack on, borderline personality disorder. So yes, I take meds to get through life because without them, my life falls apart.

I recently had a follow up appointment, by phone of course – it’s all by phone or video these days isn’t it? He asked how I’m feeling. I said I’m feeling awful. I’m irritable. I’m sad. I’m stressed. But I also said that I feel this is situational. That I’m in a lot of pain, there’s a lot of financial stress, lots of uncertainty… And he agreed. It’s not that my medication doesn’t work, it’s that this is a normal reaction to the dumpster fire that is 2020.

So much has gone wrong this year and yes, I’m struggling to cope with it all. And yes, that’s normal. This is not a matter of mental illness telling me things are awful when they aren’t, this is real life right now. This is what we’re dealing with. It’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of struggling, a lot of loss of in person support. I haven’t seen my therapist since January, and I’ve desperately needed to, that’s the one thing I feel would help me get a handle on things better.

The other day I was mulling over this topic, I thought about people who are unfailingly optimistic and positive, even in the face of extreme hardships. And of course, I wondered what their secret was. As I googled for answers, it slowly dawned on me that these people are anomalies. Do they stuff down their “negative” feelings? Do they cry when they’re alone so they can put on a happy face the next day? Are they just blissfully ignorant? What is their private life like? Do they ever feel sad?

I don’t know what you call it when a name in literature becomes a descriptor in pop culture, but here’s one I stumbled on: pollyannaish. “When you put a positive spin on everything, even things that call for sadness or discouragement, you’re being pollyannaish. The word comes from a 1913 children’s book by Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna, about a young girl who tries to find something positive in every situation.” I came across this word when I plugged in the search term, “unfailingly optimistic.” The key point, however, is not that being pollyannaish is something to strive for, but that it’s a denial of appropriate response. Even things that call for sadness and discouragement are embraced with positivity.

There’s a condition that’s so rare that it affects only about 100 people worldwide, called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), or congenital analgesia. People with this disorder, though they appear physically normal and healthy, have an inability to feel physical pain. It seems that there are two basic branches of this disorder, in one, the individual feels no pain at all, even though they can feel sensations of touch; in the other, they feel lesser pain but there’s no reaction to it. It doesn’t bother them.

Sometimes I wonder if such a thing exists emotionally. Are there people who simply don’t feel stress or strain, sadness or worry? Are there people who feel these things but simply aren’t bothered by them? I don’t really know. In CIP, the real danger comes in the form of unknown, unfelt, and untreated injury. If a person couldn’t feel sadness or anger, would they know to leave dangerous situations, or to strive for more?

I can’t find any evidence that such a thing exists mentally or emotionally. There are people, like me, who dissociate and shut down emotions in order to protect ourselves from what we can’t handle, but that’s not a lack of feeling, that’s a coping mechanism. Speaking for myself, I often get upset and I don’t have any idea why – or something that has bothered me has been automatically shut down by my brain and so I don’t feel it until I’ve suddenly had enough and it comes as a shock to me just as much as to those around me. But again, that’s not a lack of feeling, it’s just what my brain has been conditioned to do to keep me safe.

Bottom line though is that there aren’t really good or bad feelings. They all exist for a reason, and we need them. Sadness might feel negative, because we feel down and we don’t like it, but it’s not a bad emotion. It’s got something to tell us, we just have to stop trying to push it away and listen.

We’ve bought into this notion that what we deserve is happiness, all the time. And that when we’re not happy, there’s something wrong with us, or with life – that it’s not fair, it shouldn’t be, it’s all wrong. It’s an unhealthy view of life. We were never promised fairness, lack of suffering, or absolute euphoria. That’s not what life is, and fighting for that is an exercise in futility and frustration. The real truth is, we need to be healthy and well rounded individuals, able to cope enough when things go bad, able to know it’s not the end of the world, able to ride it out and make the changes we need to. That’s real strength. And without the bad, would the good really feel so great?

It’s okay to not be happy all the time. It’s okay to feel down, stressed, anxious, or angry when things are hard. It’s normal. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed and things seem dark, and you just hang on until it goes away. And sometimes it doesn’t go away, and then you get help.

But if you’re having a hard time, and you feel down, defeated, tired, stressed, anxious… well, me too. If you have a day where you don’t get dressed and you watch TV eating ice cream and feed the kids cereal for dinner, cut yourself some slack for that. If you have every intention of getting so much done tomorrow and tomorrow comes and you just… deflate, be okay with that. Nobody dies because the floors don’t get swept today, or because your little goblins didn’t do anything productive, or nobody ate a vegetable. Look at your overall average, not just your tough days.

If you’re happy, be happy. If you’re not, don’t force it.

It’s real life, and it’s okay.

Let’s normalize that.

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