10 January 2012

Permission to Cry

"If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that."
-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene I)
Shylock was speaking of Jews, of course, but the soliloquy has been taken out of context and adapted by many a group in the last five centuries. I invoke it now to describe those of us with emotional or mental health issues. It seems that once we begin treatment, there is an expectation that we will henceforth be emotionally invincible. Rather than fall apart at trivial things, we are now expected to be superhuman and plow through the gravest scenarios in life. "You're on those happy pills now; can't you handle this?"

This pressure comes at us from outside and within. There are always family members, coworkers, classmates, neighbors, even Facebook friends who seem to redefine their sense of what we can handle. Before treatment, we were too fragile to handle even innocuous events; once we fill those prescriptions, though, we're expected to be emotional rocks. It's as though there are people who keep an eye on us at all times just to challenge whether we're really healthy. "Ah, ah, ah! No getting upset, remember? You're better now!"

This is, of course, absurd.

Life is full of events that provoke visceral emotional reactions. Are we to never again feel anger, or sadness? My marriage is disintegrating, for instance. Am I to shrug it off? Perfectly "normal" people are overwhelmed by something like that with a wide range of reactions. Am I not entitled to them? Can I not want to lash out in anger one minute and fall to my knees crying the next? Did I forfeit my right to those feelings by having problems controlling my emotions in the first place?

Our greatest critics are ourselves, but for someone with emotional or mental health issues, there is another critic just as powerful and inescapable: the abstract "They" who lurk just out of our sight, waiting to pass judgment on us for every gaffe and faux pas we may commit. I could give myself permission to get worked up over my situation, for instance, but I couldn't stand the thought of giving "Them" evidence to use against me. I couldn't bear to think of proving "Them" right, that I can't keep myself together. So I've clung to a false poise and stoicism whenever the issue has arisen in conversation. I've refrained from discussing it in this blog.

I share this now not because how I'm handling this needs attention or anything, but rather as a real life example of the greater issue of how those of us who are managing emotional or mental health issues can and will continue to face events in our lives that can "legitimately" overwhelm the average person. We're no different. We have the unique problem that we can be more easily overwhelmed, of course, and that can be dangerous. But we are not, and cannot be, exempt from such events. We will lose our jobs. Our marriages will fail. We will attend funerals.

We must be allowed--by ourselves, as well as those around us--to experience our genuine reactions to these events when they occur. We must be vigilant and not allow them to get out of control, and of course that requires a lot of honesty on our part. But we cannot be held to a higher standard for reactions than anyone else. We still have emotions, and as human beings, we are still entitled to feel them.


  1. Derek Armstrong1/16/2012 3:18 PM

    A powerful reminder of an absolutely true phenomenon. It's clear that when confronted with friends who are having problems, most people, perhaps unconsciously, are trying to find a defining moment after which they can treat their friends "normally" again. Many of us have such a difficult time processing how best to help friends who are struggling -- I myself go into "here are ten suggestions to possibly fix this problem" mode -- that we are eager to latch onto anything as a sign that the problem has been "fixed."

    It's tricky, though. On the one hand, you are probably eager to convince your friends that you ARE doing much better, if only so they won't handle you with kid gloves. On the other hand, sometimes you still DO need to be handled with kids gloves.

    It's such a common human phenomenon that it applies to many other, more innocuous situations. For example, I have one friend whose MO is to bust people's balls. It's what everyone knows about him, but one time, when he was focusing on my status updates for a couple weeks straight and taking the piss out of me at regular intervals, I confronted him on it and things got "serious" for awhile. Things are mostly back to normal now, but he doesn't comment on my status updates at all anymore. So if he ever does go back to busting my balls, I have basically forfeited the right to ever be upset about it again.

    Like I said, that's small beans when compared to mental health issues, and I don't mean to be insulting by making the comparison. But I guess it's just to get at your point in the Shylock quote that people are all the same -- they have reactions they may not be proud to have, but NEED to have in order to be human.

  2. There's nothing so trying as a change in status quo in a relationship. Inevitably, someone feels cheated, someone has buyer's remorse and there's never any way to really revert to the way things were. In the case of your ball-busting situation, it's a matter of finesse. You should be big enough to take a joke; he should be respectful enough to not push your boundaries. Having recently revisited The Sopranos in its entirety, I would suggest you handle it by publicly busting your friend's balls until he begs for mercy. Laugh it off in front of everyone else, and then privately tell him to never again push your buttons. It works best if you literally get in his face with his back against a wall. If he's bigger than you, loom over him while he's seated.

    Now that I think about it, someone really ought to get a wise guy to write an advice column. Like, forward letters from "Dear Abby" to Paulie Walnuts. Who wouldn't read that?