Commusings: Sob Story by Chelsea Harvey GarnerJul 07, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
The etymology of the word trauma is Greek. It means wound.
As children, we sustain myriad wounds. My childhood was riddled with skinned knees and scraped elbows. It was also perforated with psychological wounds. I was chubby and the more Machiavellian bullies on the playground rarely squandered an opportunity to remind me. They dared me to do one pull-up while broadcasting the waistline of my jeans. I generally bit my lip, laughed it off or pretended I didn’t care. But, of course, I did.
You can treat a wound. You can keep it clean, dress it properly and, when befitting, apply antibiotic ointment. When you appropriately minister a gash or cut, it will heal. When you don’t, it may remain agonizing to the touch. Or it may superficially heal and develop scar tissue. The area becomes numb because the sensory nerves are damaged.
My feigned nonchalance in the face of schoolyard torture contributed to the development of emotional scar tissue. My wound never properly healed. I became numb as a means of coping with my pain. And then I heaved the weighty rucksack of my youth into adolescence and adulthood.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
When it comes to pain or grief, humans are often told to just “shake it off.” We should follow this advice to the letter. When animals, such as deer or gazelle suffer trauma, they will literally shake it off, which helps the animal discharge the energy of the traumatic event.
Today’s essayist, Chelsea Harvey Garner, reminds us that vulnerably expressing our emotions is akin to applying salve to the wound, that to grieve represents our capacity to love.
• • •
Excerpted from A Pity Party Is Still a Party by Chelsea Harvey Garner
When I was ten, I told my grandma I wanted to die. While perhaps a bit dramatic (theater kid), I remember feeling like I meant it.
My parents had been in and out of my life, struggling with addiction. The other kids in my neighborhood were bullying me relentlessly after their parents found out about my family’s history. I felt like agony was emanating from me, a bat signal no one answered.
When the ridicule got extreme, the school called my grandma and me in for a chat. Everyone’s advice was the same: don’t let the bullies see that you’re hurting. If you do, they will have won. It took my well-meaning teachers by surprise when I asked: But if I’m already hurting, what good will hiding it do? Isn’t feeling so ashamed that I only cry alone even worse? My grandmother, a fierce woman with a perpetually broken heart, beamed at me with pride, and I’ve been crying in public ever since.
As rough as aspects of my childhood were, I feel fortunate to have landed in the care of a person who understood that feelings are healthy. My grandma, who became mama to me, never told me not to cry. She helped me see that the feelings I thought were too big to feel were just too big to feel alone.
Her affection and even her company weren’t contingent on my emotional state. Whatever mood arose, she tried to find a way for us to explore it together. When I had panic attacks at school, she picked me up for special lunches. When my mom overdosed and went back to prison, she encouraged me to write about my feelings, then scratched my back as I read my bad poetry aloud.
If I wanted to be alone, she respected that. She drank coffee nearby as I blasted the Titanic soundtrack, performing sad operas to my reflection in the mirror. Years later, when her death threw me face-first into the feeling I feared most, I trusted I could handle it. Not saying it was easy, or that I didn’t lie prostrate in the hallway of my university on several occasions, but I had some deep faith I’d be okay. I knew I could recover, so I felt free to fall apart.
Ironically, this permission to feel bad made me feel better, and I was surprised to find a strange, primal pleasure in the rituals of grief. There was something affirming about loving someone so much that their death ravaged me. The grief was a testament to the love, and I felt grateful I knew how to feel both. So while I wouldn’t jump at the chance to go through it again, loss did help me learn that any feeling we lean into is easier to manage.
Predictably, the kids who bullied me in childhood want to be friends now. (Fuck you, Jamie Cruise.) Looking back, I see that their cruelty was as much confusion as disapproval. Most of them had been made to feel ashamed when they expressed vulnerability. They’d been told to suck it up by their parents who’d been told to suck it up by their parents. Because I didn’t see them expressing their emotions, I assumed I was the only one hurting as much as I was. Now I know many of them were hurting, too.
I don’t blame anyone from back then for hiding how they felt. We all have reason to fear opening up. But whether we embrace tough feelings or not, life is hard. I’m convinced that everyone’s life sounds like a sob story if you listen long enough.
For this reason, I raise an eyebrow whenever I see someone sporting Good Vibes Only gear. Sure, life is beautiful, but good vibes only? In this economy? Demanding good vibes only from ourselves is like demanding Good Smells Only from our bodies. It just doesn’t work that way.
To be alive is to experience a smorgasbord of vibes every day, starting on day one. If you’ve ever witnessed a birth, you know what I mean. In the best of conditions, life gets off to a weird start. Everyone’s crying, each for different reasons. If birth were a party and your friend got there first, they’d tell you not to come.
Alas, birth was the first party any of us attended. A bloody, spectacular party, and we were once the life of it. We shot out of that slippery flesh canal screaming and crying. Our wailing made bystanders cover their ears, but we were unconcerned, so complete was our faith that our bad vibes mattered.
Birth involves just about every emotion smashed together in a seemingly random order, and really, that’s a pretty accurate preview of what’s to come. As adults, we may feel boredom and relief, elation and terror, sometimes in the span of a minute. As babies, we went from giggling to weeping without even thinking to apologize for the shifts. But somewhere along the way, Jamie Cruise or someone like her told us that screaming every time we feel bad is “rude” and “disruptive” and “scaring the customers.” The more we concealed our struggles, the more we started to wonder if everyone else was pretending, too, or if they’d learned something we hadn’t.
Let’s get one thing straight: pain is part of the human experience. In the words of R.E.M., everybody hurts. Pain is not a sign of failure, weakness, or spiritual disfavor. Likewise, happiness is not a reward. It’s not proof that you know some ancient secret or have made good choices. It’s not necessarily even evidence of mental health.
Every feeling has a function. A healthy, fulfilling life involves a wide range of emotions. Rather than trying to exist in a state of perpetual calm, we’re better off accepting that we’re going to experience a lot of emotions in life, some of which will suck. This attitude makes us more resilient. Our efforts to avoid feeling bad often make us feel worse and amplify the emotion we’re trying to avoid. When avoidance is our default strategy, we also fail to learn the skills to manage stress well. We become fragile. Basically, the whole thing backfires.
A more effective attitude is seeing suffering as a part of life. The Buddha put it something like: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I’m not convinced that suffering is optional, but regardless, I think his point is that resisting a feeling makes it worse. Feelings are our internal weather; they naturally come and go. If we learn to see them less as good or bad and more as ever-shifting responses to our inner and outer environment, we’ll develop a more realistic view of wellness.
None of this means we should turn a blind eye toward abuse or injustice, of course. Suffering may be intrinsic to life, but oppression doesn’t have to be. When we’re being mistreated, reflection is not the answer. Turning inward is important, but so is turning outward and saying no, that’s not okay. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Not only does embracing our emotions make them more bearable, it helps us savor life more fully. The greater the variety of feelings we can welcome, the greater the likelihood that any given moment will be enjoyable. We don’t have to stop at tolerating our experience. Rather than wishing bad feelings away, we can learn to explore them, celebrate them even. The key is curiosity. We must become fascinated by our experience, regardless of its quality.
When we’re sad, we can throw our sadness a party. We can build an altar to our agony and decorate it with objects that are the color of how we feel. We can create rituals of sadness, like watching sad movies or taking a walk in the woods. We can sing songs to our sadness and celebrate its particularity.
The goal is not to fall in love with our sorrow, but to fall so in love with ourselves that we don’t prefer our joy over any other feeling.
Chelsea Harvey Garner is a writer, psychotherapist, and director of Big Feels Lab: a nonprofit promoting collective mental health. In her clinical work, she specializes in helping misfits, survivors, and unconventional families turn their pain into purpose and connect with each other more deeply. Her debut book A PITY PARTY IS STILL A PARTY: a feel-good guide to feeling bad is out July 2023 from HarperCollins. She is based in NYC.
From the book A Pity Party is Still A Party by Chelsea Harvey Garner. Copyright © 2023 by Chelsea Harvey Garner. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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