Remember when Billy Zane says "honesty!" in Titanic?
That's how I want you to read it
A handful of weeks ago, I was at physiotherapy, and my physiotherapist asked how I was. And I was like, “Fine! I’m fine!” because nobody really asks how anybody is with the intent of gleaming their personal saga. But then she threw me a curveball.
“No, like, how are you? How are you doing? Emotionally. Mentally. Are you still seeing your therapist?”
And I’m sure she could feel every muscle in my back tense up (even more). Was it obvious how fine I was not? Had my laugh been too forced? My greeting a little too high-pitched? Could she tell that I was having one of those days where I would very much just like to cry? And perhaps more pressingly: could she tell I was weak?
I dismissed her ask with a quick summary of why I was stressed and pushed my tears to the back of my head where they could prepare themselves to be unleashed at a more convenient time. Because no, I wasn’t fine. Yes, my laugh had been very forced. And while I desperately wanted to talk about it, I was certain that she didn’t want to listen. So I was fine. And I have always been fine. And even when I’ve not been fine and said exactly that, I have still put forth a bigger and louder message not to worry about me, that I don’t need help, that I never need help, and absolutely I will talk to you about it next time as whatever crisis I’m facing is happening, not after it’s already over. Which has usually been a lie.
To speak of emotional, mental, and physical pain in real time is a nightmare for me. I fear vulnerability the way some people fear snakes. I want to be the friend who has it all together; the one who rushes in to be there for my friends, not the one who needs them to rush in to be there for me. I fear being burden. I don’t want my friends to get bored of me. So to maintain what I’ve felt are healthy friendships, I don’t treat them like a two-way street. My role — according to me — is to be there and to listen. Their role is to come to me when they need someone because I love my friends and I want them to know that love, to me, is an open channel, always. For them. Because for many years it’s been more important to be perceived as together than to admit that in real time, I am desperately flailing.
Of course, if this was flipped and I found out friends of mine wouldn’t open up to me because they were afraid I’d abandon them, I would be crushed. It would break my heart to think that after eons of time together, I was getting only a polished version of the people I would do anything for because they were scared of my judgement or worse: that they believed the world (and me) expected perfection from them and only them. That’s an incredibly lonely feeling. And it’s sad and upsetting, too. Worse, it is a self-imposed type of hell that comes to exist out of a myth made up entirely by a neuroses that keeps fuelling itself. In my case, I didn’t want my friends to know I was human. Because then I would have to acknowledge that truth, too. And I have spent a good portion of my life very afraid of being human, because being human is fucking messy and terrible.
But then I learned that it isn’t always. (I mean, it is. It still very much is. Look at us all! We’re in hell! Hell is our home!) Or, maybe more specifically, it is less messy and terrible when you throw away your mask or “I’m Perfect!” costume and acknowledge that personhood is messy for everyone; that nobody is an exception (especially me, Anne, you fucking moron). That it’s okay to cry and to feel and to answer truthfully when somebody answers “How are you"?” And that when you do the things that make you a three-dimensional version of the smiling cardboard cutout self you’d been dressing up as, the bond you share with your friends (or family or strangers — I don’t know your life) is authentic and congruent and grows even stronger than it was before. Turns out, you will not perish from looking somebody you care about in the eye and saying, “Honestly, I feel like shit right now” and accepting their compassion and understanding. It turns out, being softer isn’t disgraceful. Evidently, being an emotionless hard-ass only makes the moments in which you break down even worse because you feel like you’ve failed some imaginary test that you created in your mind. (Do you know I apologized for being sad/feeling feelings so much that I made friends feel like they had to apologize for crying in front of me? What the shit is that? Friends: cry more! I’ll join you! It’ll be great!)
For the last 11 months (the one year anniversary of my accident is November 6 — please buy me gifts), I have pushed down a lot of the issues that tend to accompany crashing your car on the highway. I have played down how much pain I’m still in, how mentally and emotionally exhausted I am, and how frustrating it is so want to be over a thing you think you should be over and still be working through a shit-ton. But lately, in therapy (physio and with my actual therapist), I’ve stopped trying to push this experience down far enough to smother it. And with the revelation that my life has changed, that *I* have changed, and that my body has changed, it’s been easier and easier to be forthcoming about what else I’m feeling too. It’s been easier to be honest and to answer my pals truthfully when they ask how I am and I ask how they are. It’s been easier to cut the shit and acknowledge that our reality feels like a cruel joke that we’re fighting now with exhaustion. It’s been easier to stop treating social media like some, “My life is great!” infomercial because fuck, dudes, nobody’s life is. It has been easier to be alive. Because even if I am so stressed and so sad and so tired, I don’t have to act like I’m not. Honestly, fuck acting like everything’s fine. I don’t want to see anybody’s flawless house. I want to see the blood, sweat, and tears that’s trying to keep the roof on. And then I want us to commiserate so we know that no matter how fucked everything is, we’re not battling any of it by ourselves.
Which is as frustrating as it is liberating because it turns out I never had to pretend I had my shit together. First, the people I have in my life would never ask me to be perfect because they know that I’m not. But second, they’re not idiots. They never bought into the myth that I was a-okay all the time because they know how people work, but they were all still kind enough to have humoured my belief that I was the most incredible actor on earth who never felt anything but anger or joy. Because that’s what I needed at the time.
But I’m ready to embrace authenticity now. I’m ready to shed the stress of playing pretend and acknowledge ups and downs as they’re happening instead of trying to model myself after someone’s perfectly-sculpted feed on Instagram. (Newsflash: people with perfect Instagram feeds? They’re fucked up like the rest of us!) I’m ready to be a real friend who doesn’t assume her pals would just flake the moment something got a little too real, and I’m ready to engage in conversations that are more than just “looking cute, pal!” lip service.
Mainly because I think this is the only way to survive. And not just now, but life in general. Our friendships, our families, our jokes with the cashier at the grocery store? Those are what will keep us afloat long enough to grab the nearest flotation device. And even then, we’ll share our wardrobe doors because it’s awful and isolating and cold all by yourself, floating away from that incredible feeling of being seen and heard and loved.
At my next physiotherapist appointment, I thanked her for asking me how I was, and she told me she could tell something was amiss. So I told her what I just told you, and how I was ready to start working on my tendency to keep the people who mean the most to me at arm’s length. And I didn’t cry, but I knew that I’d be fine if I did. Which was a big deal to a real Billy Zane like me, afraid to board a lifeboat with anybody else for fear my issues would swamp us.