For many of us, humor is our survival kit, loaded with all the tools we need to stay alive and functional. We drag it around with us and pull out various items as necessary, mechanisms we use to avoid making everyone around us uncomfortable. Unadulterated sadness, anguish, and despair makes human squirmy and so we gloss over our fragility with well-timed jokes. We quickly rush past topics that might illustrate our feeble human state. Reach into the kit and pull out sarcasm.
Good thing my car’s in the shop or I’d be tempted to drive it off a cliff with everything that’s going on in my life right now. Ha!
Another person’s vulnerability touches on the raw nerves of our understanding of our own frail human condition.
So-and-so lost their house, I could too.
That person’s parent/sibling/child/spouse died – what if that happens to mine?
She lost her job and now they can’t make ends meet – what if that was us?
He got into a terrible car accident – I was just traveling that road last week.
We are groomed to be perfectionists. We are socialized to guard our weaknesses like precious jewels, to hide them away so no one even knows they exist, lest someone prey on them. In today’s world, we flood social media with smiling, glossy pictures of ourselves as if to say, Look at me! Nothing out of place here! Just your average, uber-happy person with lots of Life Things about which to be uber-happy!
It’s not only obvious circumstances that make us uncomfortable with our own and each other’s vulnerability. Depression and anxiety affect a staggering number of Americans, but we rarely talk about it seriously. Instead, we self-medicate with food and television and drink and overwork and projects and whatever else we can use to mute the responses and characteristics we brand as deficient.
We’re doing it wrong.
When I was seventeen, I had my gallbladder removed. It was the culmination of years of being unable to eat much of anything without becoming extremely ill. For my entire life, I had been a veritable garbage disposal, eating every hour. My lanky frame and my voracious appetite was cause for innumerable jokes about filling up one leg and then the other. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the insatiable beanpole who ate everything in sight. Most of my childhood photos feature me scowling or pouting, except the ones in which I am gleefully stuffing my surly little mouth with food.
And then, when I was about fourteen, things changed. My doctor thought perhaps it was hormones, and then possibly teenage angst. He was a rotund middle-aged man with a ruddy face and coarse, unruly red-blonde-gray hair. He was jovial, but matter-of-fact. Her body is changing, he’d told my mother at first. We were unconvinced. Is it possible this has anything to do with anxiety? he asked. Maybe he’d been thinking anorexia or bulimia, though for a child who was built like Olive Oil and had never had any food related issues, this didn’t make sense.
Eventually the case was passed on to his physician assistant, a thirty-something blonde woman named Anne with an “e” who seemed somewhat out of place in a town of under 3,500 inhabitants. After an attempted “special foods” diet (see: I ate nothing but whole wheat pasta with canned mushrooms and a slight smattering of red sauce for several weeks), she had the presence of mind to run some tests. We were a Medicaid Welfare Family, and tests weren’t always easily accessible, but ultimately a HIDA Scan revealed that my gallbladder was being uncooperative and that I would require a cholecystectomy. It was a whirlwind, and the surgery was scheduled for less than twenty-four hours after first meeting the surgeon who would perform the operation.
My life was fraught with heavy and confusing changes at this time, and most everything felt transitional and unpredictable. My sisters were consumed with their own existences, living with their boyfriends, one of them with a young child. My mom had all but moved away to another state. The one constant was my dad in that he was constantly and consistently unavailable and inaccessible, and usually drunk. My first real heartbreak was imminent, and I knew it was coming. I could sense it in the annoyance of my boyfriend, the first long-term “serious” boyfriend I’d had. Shortly before discovering I would need surgery, he screamed in my face and demanded that I tell him I believed he was going to hell.
My boyfriend was an adamantly self-proclaimed agnostic/atheist, though how one can be adamant about simultaneously espousing mutually exclusive beliefs doesn’t exactly make sense. I was a devout Christian at the time, a fearful and anxious teenage girl in desperate need of stability and certainty in the midst of my formative years when my grasp on anything resembling roots or constancy was tenuous at best. The God I believed in was Love, Patience, Understanding, Kindness. He was not fire and brimstone. But in sixteen short years of life I had no cognitive faculties with which to parse that nuance, and so I’d tearfully admitted to my boyfriend that maybe it was possible that he was going to hell but I couldn’t be certain because none of us could be certain of anything except that God loved us. That was my capital-T Truth, the only truth I had at this point in my life. God loved us. God loved me. That was all I knew, and I clung to it like a life raft in a boundless ocean where horizon stretched limitless in every direction.
I was fairly certain then and I am positive now that my boyfriend wanted to end the relationship at that point, but my seventeenth birthday was coming up and then I was facing complex medical issues. He was probably also fearful of change. So he reluctantly stayed for the surgery, wearing his exasperation and irritation on his sleeve as he sat in the waiting room through the procedure, picked up my post-op prescriptions, and drove me home from the hospital. I was doped out of my mind on morphine and shameless in my vulnerability. I babbled happily about how I knew that everything was going to be okay no matter what because God was Love and he’d made the Universe that we all lived in and even though that Universe could be confusing, we were going to all be okay because Love existed and somehow we’d always find our way back to it. My boyfriend’s exaggerated and sustained eye roll could be felt on all seven continents.
The surgery was successful, but my recovery required a couple of different medications. One of these was Compazine, an anti-psychotic that was prescribed to combat the intense nausea my surgeon predicted I would face after having a semi-vital organ plucked from my body. At the time, my bed was a mattress on the floor, but there was a pull-out couch in the bedroom that I’d shared with my sister. We set it up so that I could sleep there without being jarred, and I slept fitfully, anxious about my precarious and unpredictable life now that the ecstasy of morphine had worn off. It was replaced by a gnawing physical pain that matched my emotional state. Within a day, it was obvious that something was amiss with the drugs I was taking. One of the side effects of Compazine is involuntary movements and severe muscle spasms. I experienced both, specifically in the form of extreme involuntary muscle movements of the face. My mouth twisted into an eerie pseudosmile that I could not control.
After having an organ removed, there is an empty feeling within your midsection because you just had a fucking organ removed. For me, there was also the unmistakable and universal abiding emptiness that is a byproduct of abject apprehension – the knot in your gut, the hollowed-out vacuity of feeling entirely out of control and at the mercy of a seemingly imperious universe where you’ll certainly end up alone, destitute, and broken no matter how grand your efforts at being a decent human being. It was my God, my bible, my prayers that I typically used to quiet this restless desolation, but the effectiveness of that potion had begun to wane in the weeks leading to this moment.
I sat, face contorted into an unnatural grin, perched on the edge of a pullout couch, doubled over in pain and nausea, softly crying. Sobbing was out of the question, as it would require movements that were way too painful after abdominal surgery. I mourned the changes swirling all around me, the loss. I bemoaned the ending that I knew was coming, the broken heart that I had managed to stave off to this point. I lamented the realization that the only salve I’d come to find effective for my persistent fretfulness was now seemingly losing its efficacy. My tears flowed steadily with an artificial smile smeared across my face.
Metaphors do not have to be so blatantly obvious as this one, but I often cannot resist thinking back on this experience as a perfectly apt image for so much of what we must manage in adult life. We deliberately and willingly force smiles onto our faces to belie the turmoil that churns below the surface.
Sometimes we do it because we just don’t have the emotional energy to be honest. We don’t want to talk about the fear, loss, and pain that devours our vitality. We don’t want to admit that we have no idea how to navigate the treacherous and terrifying terrain in front of us, but that we’re navigating it anyway.
Other times we don’t want to be That Person who always seems to having something wrong, the aura vampire who is always audaciously being honest about their troubles. Because being That Person means eventually people stop wanting to be around you, and they look at you sideways, with unease and misunderstanding. That Person gets talked about, with a shared tsk among those who objectively evaluate the pitiful state of the sad life of That Person. There is also often a collective sigh and a glad it’s not me moment of reflection.
But I have to believe that – no matter what our life circumstances, regardless of how charmed or accursed we seem to be – we are all That Person. Not that we have to spew all our hardships in a woe-is-me monologue of self-pity. On the contrary, it is imperative to be able to talk about our problems without ascribing some cosmic meaning to them, as if God or the Universe or some other unseen forces have conspired to make our lives difficult.
Being able to talk with each other about our vulnerability, though? Being able to speak openly and honestly, sometimes without the toolkit of humor as an agent of mitigation, is something I think we are terrible at and something I think we owe to each other and to ourselves. How much better off might we be if when a friend asks, How are you? we could answer by telling the truth? And then we could help each other work through all the complex layers of what might be contributing to the truthful answer being less-than-great.
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with humor. But as one of those humans who has a vast collection of tools in my humor toolkit, I wonder if maybe we would all function a little more effectively by not being so afraid of melancholy and frailty – two unarguably prevalent and global attributes of being a person.