When I stopped pretending that everything was OK, my life got better
My name is Scarlet. I’m twenty-four years old. I’m two years out of college. I’m an unemployed comedian living in NYC. I’m living off my dangerously low savings account. I’m overweight. My dad is going to prison. I’m really sad about it, and switch between doing okay and being a total mess about it on any given day.
That is the bare bones truth about me. I used to be afraid of writing that all down in the same place or saying it out loud. And for the most part, I’m used to keeping it completely to myself. It’s not anything I talk about when I’m catching up with acquaintances, when I’m in interviews, and definitely not what I post about on social media, even though it’s the foundation of my every day life.
And when I do get brave enough to talk about all these problems I feel the need to make at least half of it positive spin so people don’t get too concerned for me. I’m two years out of college, but I love being an adult! I’m living off my dangerously low savings account, but I’m lucky to have it! I’m unemployed, but I’m confident I’ll find a job soon! I’m overweight but I feel secure in my own skin at any size! My dad is going to prison but we’re a strong family and we’ll get through it! I’m really sad about it, but I’m trying to stay busy and positive!
In the last year I’ve learned that the cruelest irony about having any sort of major hardship in your life is that you’re going to feel obligated to spend half of your time making other people feel better about it. You would think in times of tragedy that you’re the one who need to be comforted, but I find that most of the time I’m looking back at other people telling them that it’s all going to be okay. Partially it’s because I need to believe it. And partially it’s because I know if I’m a 100% unadulterated bummer no one is going to want to talk to me.
But the truth is sometimes it’s not okay. Sometimes I am that 100% unadulterated bummer. Sometimes spending energy trying to hide how badly I’m doing is just making me worse. And I know I’m not the only one. I have countless friends who are going through similar problems, and I only hear about them when I bring up what’s going on with me. It’s almost like we need to prove to each other that we’re in the “sad kid club” before we can talk honestly about what’s really going on in our lives. Illness, death, abuse, homelessness: there are so many of us on the frontlines of adulthood trying to make it day by day while hiding huge tragedies from the rest of the world. But the truth is, hiding is not healthy.
I came to this revelation through a conversation with a friend. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she happened to be in my neighborhood. We made some coffee, sat in my kitchen, and caught up. In the middle of our breezy, casual conversation she blurted out her concern for a mutual friend of ours. This mutual friend was in an abusive relationship. I was shocked. I had no idea about this situation in our friend’s life. We discussed it and we figured out a plan to let her know that when she was ready to get out we’d be there for her. And then I felt compelled to blurt out my own problem. I told her about my dad’s upcoming sentencing, and all the drama my family had been through in the last few years. I had never really told anyone. And too my surprise I felt a million times better. Having that weight lifted off of me and having her be able to see me for who I truly was and what I was going through made me feel better than I had in months. And then she in turn told me a secret of her own. She had cancer, and she hadn’t really told anyone yet.
This was wild to me. In the space of an hour we had revealed major turmoil within our lives and within that of a close friend. Although the situations were very different, the uniting factor was that we all felt the need to hide big scary secrets from the world. And the crazy thing was that they didn’t need to be secrets. We were already dealing with so much. Why did we feel the need to spend energy covering our tracks and pretending that everything was okay when it clearly wasn’t? That afternoon I learned that instead of pretending I’m fine, I can choose to tell the truth and have allies instead. Because of that conversation my friend and I can be real with each other. We know that no matter what, we have each other’s backs. If I can’t hang out because I’m out of town for family stuff or having a day where I’m too sad to go outside, I can let her know. If she’s feeling too stressed or overwhelmed for a hang out, I know why. It’s remarkably refreshing to have someone I can be honest with, and she’s let me know that the feeling is mutual.
Since then I’ve worked really hard to be honest with everyone I meet. I’ve found that it does nothing but benefit me to tell the truth about what is going on in my life. When I tell people what I’m going through, they understand me more. Something I’ve struggled with in the past was people holding me to a normal standard. Friends who would get frustrated at me for little things like flaking on plans or being grumpy. Bosses and coworkers who would get mad that I was low energy or acting distracted. They didn’t realize they were doing it, but when someone reacts to you badly when you’re already dealing with so much, it feels all the more awful. But when I tell people the truth, they understand me more. They offer me help. They’re there for me. Telling the truth while I’m struggling has helped me not only feel better, but feel more in control of my situation. I won’t lie, it hasn’t been easy, and sometimes I mess up. In a world where everyone seems to want us to be happy, upbeat, and succeeding all of the time it can be really difficult to be someone who is truly struggling. And I still sometimes falter in the face of those expectations. I recently skipped out on a friend’s birthday party. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be there. It was because most people from the college I graduated from don’t know what’s going on in my life. Despite how much I love all my former classmates, the prospect of catching up with 50+ people and having them ask, ‘so what’s new with you?’ seemed like a circle of hell that I wasn’t ready to deal with. But now I’m realizing I probably have to get around to telling them too if I ever want to have honest friendships with them. Writing this is a big part of that.
So to everyone who is struggling, reach out to your friends. It’s okay to be feeling what you are feeling, and there is nothing wrong with you. It’s okay to not be perfect, it’s okay to be sad, and it’s okay to be having a hard time. Resist the need to cover your emotional tracks, because it won’t help anyone in the long run, least of all, you. Reach out to your friends, your teachers, your classmates, your boss, a therapist, whoever. It might seem scary at first, but all it can do is help. And if you feel like you don’t have anyone to reach out to, remember that you have friends where you least expect it, you’ve just got to activate them.