Hope hurts.

I’ve been hearing some version of “Just hang in there, things will get better and stop being hard soon!” so many times in the last 2 years that I’ve stopped believing it. “What if this is just what life is like now?” I often wonder.

Which leaves me in a bit of predicament. I’ve experienced enough loss and disappointment and Bad Things That Are Not My Fault And Are Out of My Control lately that I am having a hard time being as present for happiness and joy as I’d like. To wit:

The first time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was elated. The kind of excitement and happiness that gives you butterflies, has you dancing alone in the kitchen, and flushes you with enough adrenaline that you have trouble sleeping. I was so excited that even the few weeks of morning all day sickness felt like an adventure that I was 100% willing to endure because of the vast hope flowering within me. And then I miscarried that pregnancy.

The second time I had a positive pregnancy test, I felt numb. “Oh,” I thought “Well, I guess it’s too early to be excited.” So I wasn’t excited. And then I was depressed about the fact that I wasn’t excited. Women all over the world get to be excited about their pregnancies, but I was no longer one of them. That experience had been taken from me. And that felt like shit. And then three days later I miscarried that pregnancy.

The third time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was surprised by a small twinge of excitement. A little seed of hope. “I’ve got a present for you,” I told my husband, and I showed him the test. “Oh,” he said casually, “well, I guess we’ll wait and see if it’s worth getting excited about.” My heart dropped a bit, but I knew he was right. Over the next few weeks, each time I told a close friend that I was pregnant they gushed, “OMG congrats! Are you so excited?!?” and I had to admit that neither my husband nor I were particularly excited, and were in fact feeling rather guarded. At that admission, one of my dearest friends said “I know you’re so worried that this pregnancy won’t work out…but what if it does? I don’t want you to have missed all the fun things things about the beginning of your pregnancy.“ And I realized she was right.

I’ve been hurt by people in my past, and yet I’ve never stopped cultivating new relationships because of the fear that someone new might hurt me. I am devastated every time a beloved pet grows old and dies, and yet that doesn’t mean I’m going to put my current dog up for adoption and never have a pet dog again. I’ve had milk that’s gone bad (shudder), and yet I still have a carton of goat milk in my fridge as I type this! So why was I refusing to let myself be excited about this pregnancy because of the fear it might not work out?

And so I decided to give in to the joy and the hope.

And then the following week, I miscarried that pregnancy.

Well, shit.

Just today, I got some good news related to work. And instead of bringing me excitement and joy, it made me feel overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious, because I just don’t trust good news at the moment. “No news is good news” has never felt like a truer maxim. And yet…I am full of hopes and wishes. I hope I get this job. I hope I get pregnant. I hope I am able to find a home that feels like I could live there forever. I hope, I hope, I hope for all manner of things that are outside of my control. It’s awful. Those hopes feel like naked, vulnerable, tendril-like extensions of my heart sent out into a room full of mouse traps, jackhammers, and stampeding rabid elephants with explosive diarrhea.

How do I do this? How do I remain open to joy and hope, and yet protect myself from the looming specter of pain?

I think the answer is that protecting myself from pain is the wrong goal (and not just because it’s impossible). Increasingly, the way I’ve been getting through the pain has been by focusing on the present moment. My initial reaction to bad news tends to be a mind that races, thinking of all of the ramifications of the bad news, the ways that it will impact the future, and what I will have to endure next, and then after that, and then after that, and then…before I know it I am overcome with anxiety and existential depression about what has happened.

Instead of spiraling into the despair of what this event means in the long term, simply focusing on “I feel so sad right now,” or “this is terribly painful and disappointing,” and just sitting with those emotions is incredibly helpful. I cannot predict how an an event will affect my future. I can sit with and honor how an event made me feel—which is a moment I am able to move on from. It deescalates an event from existential horror that I am caught in, to the feelings I am feeling right now, which ebb and flow.

I think really practicing this will also help me believe that I am allowed to feel hope and joy, and not worry about the many “what-ifs” and things that could go wrong. The next time I receive good news and react with fear, my intention is to ask myself “Am I just afraid that something bad might happen?” And if the answer is yes, then to try to release the fear, and to take joy in the present moment.

I will try to trust that things will work out, or that they won’t, regardless of whether I worry. I will try to trust that I will get through it, however difficult or painful it may feel. I will try to feel unmitigated hope, even if it only lasts for a moment.

I will try.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The “Bad Memories” Fallacy*

*Note: there will be footnotes. 

There’s a big mistake almost everyone makes when it comes to comforting people who are going through a hard time. I’ve made it. You’ve probably made it–probably more than once–without ever meaning to or realizing it.

Here’s the scenario: you are are worried about a friend, family member, or colleague that has recently gone through/is going through something really awful. You think “I’d like to reach out and offer my support.” But then you follow that thought with “Oh, but I don’t want to stir up any bad memories for them, so I probably just shouldn’t say anything.”

First of all, I am happy to say that I have good news for you. If you’ve ever had this thought, it means that you are a kind person who is concerned with the wellbeing of others, and that you care enough to want to help and not make things harder for someone having a hard time. And that is admirable.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking often results in the opposite effect, and makes people who are already having a hard time feel even worse. Avoiding talking to a person about something that has disrupted their life in a big way–even when it’s well-intentioned and coming from a place of care–results in further isolation, loneliness, and emotional pain for the one who is suffering.**

Speaking from personal experience, when truly painful and upsetting things happened to me, I was, on some level, never not thinking about it. I have not have a single day go by recently during which I forgot that my mom died, that my friend died, or that I had a miscarriage. It’s always there, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. And when someone approaches me and brings it up with the intention of offering comfort and support, my emotional reaction is almost*** always “Oh thank goodness, I get to say  all these things I’m feeling out loud and have them acknowledged, what a relief.” Never ever not once has my reaction been “What are you talking about? My mom didn’t die, she’s at home right now…wait, oh god, it’s all coming back to me…I had it all wrong, she did die…oh dear god no…why…Why?…Why did you say this!?!?! THIS HAS BROUGHT UP HORRIBLE MEMORIES FOR ME THAT I’D TUCKED AWAY LIKE A SQUIRREL HIDING NUTS FOR THE WINTER AND NOW I CAN NO LONGER ESCAPE THE AWFUL REALITY BECAUSE OF YOU!!!

Okay, so now you’re thinking that you’d like to stop falling prey to the Bad Memories Fallacy (™ pending) and start offering words support to someone that you care about who needs them. You might now be having a few different reactions to the thought of this undertaking. You might be thinking, “I am great face-to-face with folks and always know what to say!” or maybe, “Oh god I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I want to say something and please dear god don’t make me do it in person. Or on the phone.” So here’s a handy-dandy list of suggestions to fit a range of strengths and preferred methods of communication:

  • Schedule a phone call or hang-out with the person and then say something like, “Hey, I know something’s been going on and I’m worried about you. I’d be happy to be a listening ear, or just to provide some distraction. Whatever you need in this moment.”
  • Approach the person during a private or quiet moment in your workday and offer a simple, “I just wanted to say that I heard about [insert what happened] and that I’m so very sorry. You’re in my thoughts.” And if you’re feeling extra capable and fancy you can add a, “If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”
  • Send a card to their home or leave on one their desk, on their door, etc. This option has a bonus: you don’t even have to know what to say because you can buy a card that already says it for you. There are lots of sympathy cards that are really well written and great. I myself have deployed the sympathy card option on many occasions to great effect. Added bonus: cards can be kept, and re-read whenever needed (I have a stash of particularly meaningful sympathy cards that I re-read when I’m feeling blue).
  • Send the person an email, Facebook message, DM on any other platform, or text. There are people who will tell you that it is inappropriate to express these kinds of things via electronic communication. Those people are wrong (and probably say things like, “Kids these days!”). Reach out with a message or text that says something like, “Hey, you’ve been in my thoughts so much lately, and I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me and that I’m here for you if you need anything.” Getting texts like those have, at times, been a life-line when I felt like I was drowning.
  • Still overwhelmed by the idea of making words of any kind to express your feelings? A small token, like some flowers, a gift certificate to a bar they like or for a luxury service, a little piece of art or poetry that made you think of them, or even a mini muffin is a fabulous offering. You can add a card that says “Thinking of you” or just has a heart drawn on it if you want. Or you can even give it anonymously! No matter what, I promise you that it will be appreciated and that you will have a positive impact on their day.****

What I’m trying to say is, no matter how you express your concern and your care and condolences, express them. It doesn’t matter if you know what to say, or if you feel awkward, or out of your depth, or afraid of making things worse. And I guarantee that you won’t be bringing up Bad Memories™ because they are not memories. They are just that person’s reality. And that person could use a little love and support. Couldn’t we all?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

**Before I go any further, I need to put in a big caveat: not all people are the same. And I’m sure that somewhere there is someone for whom the best and most loving care and attention would be to ignore whatever has happened to them and to carry on like everything is normal. But it is my experience that these people are in the vast minority. In fact, I’ve never met them. (Which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist! It takes all kinds.)

***Yes, there are moments when having an emotional moment and crying with someone aren’t preferable. For example, I would not welcome the “Heeeeey, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. How are you doing?” right before, say, walking on stage to present a slide deck to a thousand investors or something. It’s important to pick an appropriate time to offer condolence (or, more accurately, to avoid doing it at an inappropriate time.)

****Okay so there’s one instance in which I can’t actually promise this: if you are super creepy and/or give a gift that’s overly extravagant or otherwise inappropriate and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Giving someone a bar of chocolate or a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers with a, “You’re in my thoughts” note? Lovely. Buying them a Tiffany’s diamond necklace or a new refrigerator with a, “This reminded me of your sadness” note? Confusing and weird. If you wonder whether your gift is a good idea, jut run it by a couple other people. If they look at you with confusion and horror, get thee to a therapist immediately.

“Have a Good Cry.”

The first time I heard the phrase was when I was 14, visiting my older brother at college. His girlfriend at the time (who was about 22 years old) was making plans with her bestie to put on sweatpants, watch a sad movie, eat ice cream, and “have a good cry.” I was very confused. Why would anyone want to make themselves cry? Wait wait, is crying a good thing? I thought it was just for little kids? And what does it have to do with sweatpants and ice cream!?!?

I felt like these were deep mysteries of the Secret Society of Womanhood-ness, into which I had not yet been inducted.

Years later, I now understand all too well the concept of making time to schedule having a good cry, and the concept of crying as a leisure activity. What I didn’t understand as a 14 year old was that our reasons for crying change, expand and become more complex as we age. Ad Vingerhoets, a Dutch psyschologist and leader in the field of crying research, puts it this way on his really cool website about his work:

“…whereas [with crying] physical pain and hurt is important for children and even adolescents, for adults and the elderly they are less relevant. On the other hand, when we grow older, we come to cry more often for the suffering of others (empathy, compassion) and for “positive” reasons.”

The older we get, the more life experience and understanding we have of the world, the more empathy and compassion we accrue, and the more “positive” reasons we experience that move us–such as weddings, births, and other profound moments like when you are hiking in Grand Canyon by yourself and it’s so fucking majestic and then it starts to snow and there’s a raven swooping by on the wind and WTF it’s too much you can’t help but blubber.

But then, while we have more and more reasons to cry as we age, we often feel we have less and less permission to cry–for introductions to this topic check out my other blog posts here and here. So for those of us who are very sensitive and emotional people, creating space for crying as a leisure activity can be a really helpful way to blow off some emotional steam that’s been building up as we repress outward signs of emotion in our lives every day.

Are you looking for an emotional outlet and to have a good cry? Here’s a handy-dandy Buzzfeed list of 56 Movies Guaranteed To Make You Ugly Cry that I link to on my resources page. Go ahead. Slip on those sweatpants, grab a box of tissues, and knock yourself out.

I have found, however, that I have moved through the stage of needing to spend my leisure time manufacturing reasons to cry, into a new era where there are eleventy million things to cry about a day, and so I’m like “Enough! No sad movies! I just want a break from crying.”

These days I often seek movies that are ridiculous and that I know will not pull at my heartstrings nor inspire any sort or emotion, because sometimes I just need a holiday from feeling EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME…which is how I ended up seeing Why Him? in a movie theater a couple weeks ago rather than watching Rogue One for a second time with my dad and husband. Yes, Rogue One is by every metric a better movie and definitely worth a second viewing, but I knew from experience it was full of feels, and I just wanted to be full of sweet sweet oblivion, and a ticket to a stupid Rom-Com is cheaper and less dangerous than prescription opiates. MOVIES NOT DRUGS!!

And luckily, whether you are in need of a good cry or a good vacation from any sort of complex emotion altogether, you can go ahead and get your fix. The movie business has got your back.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

You’re Crying in Public: Now What?

None of us enjoy bursting into tears (or just having tears slide silently down our cheeks, unbidden) in situations that feel inappropriate or awkward. And yet for a person who cries, it is a scenario that is sometimes unavoidable. Some examples of places I have found myself unable to keep from crying that felt inappropriate:

  • In the cheese isle of a gourmet grocery store, because I had enjoyed buying cheese there with the man I broke up with 5 months prior
  • In front of a group of 5 year olds, because they “Weren’t taking Aladdin rehearsal seriously”
  • At work at a summer camp, because one of our campers, a 3rd grade boy with a twin sister, died tragically the day before
  • At the chiropractor’s office, because I was in so much pain, and he was an asshole who was telling me that failing to treat my misaligned back by seeing him for 12 sessions (which I couldn’t afford) could result in my death
  • SOBBING in a movie theater, after the credits for “Captain Philip” have finished, and the lights are on, and the employees are trying to sweep up popcorn because, as I kept repeating to my date: “It’s so complicated, there are no easy solutions!!!”
  • In front of a group of high school students I was teaching, because I was sad that my mom died
  • At a bar, because my husband and I saw a homeless kitten on the way there.
  • Checking people in to a yoga class because I was sad that my mom died
  • Silently sobbing in the back room of a tax office I worked at because my mom died.
  • In the radiology lobby of Kaiser, where I was waiting to get a “I had a miscarriage” ultrasound
  • Buying shampoo at CVS because I was sad that my mom died.

The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the idea. The reasons may be completely stupid or profound, but the result is the same: you are crying when you really don’t want to be crying. You are horrified, and would like to make it stop, and yet that just makes the crying happen more. Sometimes also with snot running down your face.

In the aftermath of my mom’s death in February of 2016 I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve (almost) become comfortable with it. At the very least, I have accepted that it is a part of life. And here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

1. Leave. I’ve left in the middle of yoga classes. I’ve abandoned shopping carts in grocery stores. I’ve just quietly excused myself and left the room. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to quickly get yourself somewhere that you feel less awkward crying. Just go. No need to explain yourself (because you’ll probably just burst into tears AT the person). You can always tell them later that you had to step out for personal reasons.

2.If you can’t leave, don’t try to fight it. The more I try to resist crying, the worse it gets, and the longer it drags on (and sometimes results in that AWFUL sound that is a cross between a ragged gasp and a snort that results from trying to hold back sobs and that is roughly the same volume as a sonic boom). So if I feel those tears building up in a place that is awkward and I cannot leave, I just accept that it’s happening, cry some cries, and then move on.

3. Warn those around you that crying might happen. This one is a biggie and, frankly, my personal favorite. I’m a big fan of transparency and disclosure. There are some days when I wake up knowing that I will not get through the day without multiple cry-fests, and that I will have no control over when they happen. On those days, I give my students, friends, or co-workers some version of the following heads-up:

            Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a really emotional day. I’m fine and everything is okay, but you’ll probably see me cry at some point. And I want to assure you that if that happens you don’t need to do anything to fix it. 

And then, when the inevitable crying happens, I once again reassure them that I am okay, and continue to work/teach/hang out. And when I do that, something magical happens: people stop caring about the fact that I am crying, because they see that it is not a problem that they need to fix. They see that I am just a person, and that having visible emotions doesn’t interfere with me going about my day or being competent at what I do.

4. Phone a friend. Do this literally or figuratively. If you are alone, call someone that you can talk to through the episode. The time I was crying in the cheese isle, I called one of my very best friends who had been roommates with me and my ex boyfriend, and told her about my emotional breakdown at the sight of dill havarti (it was his favorite!). Walking down the street with my husband in downtown San Francisco one day, I had a panic attack because the sight of a man’s leg injury brought on flash-backs of my mother’s emaciated body in the hospital when she was dying. I tapped on my husband’s shoulder and managed to squeak out that I needed a minute, and we stopped walking, stepped out of the way of other pedestrians, and he just hugged me for a few minutes while I calmed down. If you are by yourself and you cannot hug or call someone, put on music that is familiar and comforting to you, find something nice to look at nearby, or just buy yourself a hot chocolate. These are not suggestions intended to help you avoid crying, but rather to provide comfort and support, so you can feel the feelings, cry the cries, and then move on.

While these tactics have been incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Do you have a go-to trick for when you start crying in public? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe