The first time I didn’t feel sad about feeling sad was on Sept. 17, 2013. I was in my therapist’s office. More specifically, I was lying on a table, faceup, in my therapist’s office. Maybe it sounds simple, but it was a trick I’d spent years practicing and trying to learn.
I do not mean that I take sadness lightly. Four and a half years ago, after a work-related immersion in sexual violence, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Subsequently, I was diagnosed with comorbid major depressive disorder. Comorbid to all that, I was diagnosed as alcoholic and suicidal. More than $20,000 worth of treatment later, I am no longer those things, but, as an evaluating psychiatrist put it in a report last year, I have “chronic,” “recurring,” “residual psychiatric symptoms” serious enough that she ruled me permanently disabled. I’ve been an emotional gal since always — “She has a lot of feelings,” my best grad-school friend would chuckle by way of explanation when I got worked up about some topic or other in front of strangers — and my emotions now are enormous. Frustration over a failed attempt to buy a sold-out rug online ends in so much yelling and foot-stomping that my neighbors complain. The intensity of a pop song lands like a blunt punch to my chest and explodes any grief nestling there; the very day I’m writing this, Nicki Minaj made me cry in my car.
Sincerely: I do not take sadness lightly. But after a lot of retraining, I do take it wholly, life-alteringly differently than I was raised to, and than almost anyone else I know. Now, sometimes when I’m not sad and I think about sadness, that thought is accompanied by this startling one: I miss it.
Pre-therapy, this is the only thing I was ever taught, implicitly and explicitly, about sadness: It is bad.
You do not want it. If you’ve got it, you should definitely try to get rid of it, fast as possible. Whatever you do, don’t subject other people to it, because they do not like that.
Sadness can be legitimately problematic, absolutely. If your sadness comes from seemingly no place or even an obvious place but keeps you from participating in life or enjoying anything and refuses to abate no matter how long you go on letting it express itself, you of course can’t keep living like that. But culturally, we aren’t allowed to be sad even for a little while. Even when it’s perfectly sensible. Even when, sometimes, we need it.
This is reflected in our entertainment. Watching Bridesmaids, I shake my head over how Melissa McCarthy slaps Kristen Wiig around and tells her to stop being sad, though she has recently lost her job, her savings, her home, and her best friend. (Miraculously, this solves Kristen Wiig’s attitude problem.) In the third episode of MasterChef Junior’s second season, judge Joe Bastianich tells a contestant who has ruined her shepherd’s pie and possibly her dream of winning, the biggest dream she’s had up to this point in her life, “When things are as bad as they can be, you gotta pull it together. Wipe your tears.”
The contestant has been crying for mere seconds. She is 8 years old.
What does it say about our relationship to sadness that Joan Didion — who we can all agree is a pretty smart, educated, and worldly cookie — had to write an entire book about trying to learn how to grieve? This ethos was fine for me when mostly nothing bad happened and if it did, the accompanying sadness didn’t linger for too long. But post-trauma, it turned out to be a massive impediment to my recovery.
I had a lot of symptoms. They all alarmed me, but equally so the most straightforward one: sadness. Sometimes I cried from uncontrollable, overwhelming, life-swallowing sadness. And all the time, the sadness and crying itself freaked me the fuck out. I would start crying, and then immediately hate myself. Why was I crying? Why couldn’t I get this sadness to go away? What was wrong with me?
I got into therapy. I’d gone before, casually and occasionally, for support with some huge changes — a new city and new job and fresh divorce years earlier. Now, it was a therapy emergency. I considered myself decently good at self-care in general, but sure, I let it slip when I got too busy, when work was too demanding, when there were things I had to do that I knew I was getting too burned out to but did anyway. But taking care of myself was not optional anymore. As a matter of survival, I had to make as much room for it as it needed.
And so, I started intensive treatment — during which my therapist had to spend incalculable amounts of time trying to convince me that it was OK to be sad. The alarm I experienced over my sadness was another terrible feeling on top of my already terrible symptoms. The energy I spent panicking that I was sad could have been better spent on coping with the sadness. It was true that I — like many people, people with clinically depressed, never-ending, or life-threatening sadness — needed a lot more assistance than just a big philosophical hug, but if I could accept sadness, my therapist kept suggesting, I would be able to experience it (long and hard as that may go on) and then it could pass. The alternative — being sad, plus condemning yourself for being sad — only heightens the suffering. And, likely, the time it lasts.
“Sadness is a legitimate emotion,” my therapist would say. “There is an acceptance you can get to with it where it’s just a sensation, and without judgment, that sensation can be exquisite.”
“LIES,” I responded to this sometimes. Sometimes I called her a hippie. Nobody accepts sadness. Everybody knows that crying girls are silly and weak. Hysterical, and overdramatic.
But as much as I didn’t — I couldn’t! — really believe her, I still really wanted to learn how to do that.
I can’t explain, in a tight little essay, how I finally did it. It would take an entire book for me to describe how I got even most of the way there. I can sum up that it took three years to the DAY after the events that started my symptoms, and that it cost a lot of money, and time, and time off, which cost more money, and was so painful that the very memory of how painful it was sometimes makes me need to go lie down in my bed. I can point out that most people are not given the opportunity to go through this process, even if they desperately want to. Unfortunately, healing is a luxury in our society, not a right; so many who could benefit from treatment simply can’t.
And I can tell you about the moment, that September. It was sunny and in the 60s. I was in my therapist’s office in San Francisco, which had fairly bare walls, industrial carpet, and windows that let the light in. I was lying on a massage therapist’s table, because that was normal in my somatic therapy; the treatment addressed the physicality of one’s symptoms, the places and ways trauma lived in one’s body (last year, a hero of my therapist’s, the very brilliant Bessel van der Kolk, released a book about this called The Body Keeps the Score), which was often explored with eyes closed, lying down. The first umpteen number of times I got on the table and was prompted to breathe, to feel into where my tensions and disconnections were, I resisted the falling apart this awareness and reconnecting could lead to. I feared starting to cry and never stopping. I feared never being able to put myself back together, ever, sometimes metaphorically but sometimes literally writhing and kicking and screaming with my resistance to just relaxing. Feeling. To be clear: Sadness was far from my only issue. But by Sept. 17, 2013 (around which point my insurance tallied it had so far given my therapist $18,000), I was taking feeling it in much better stride.
“How do you feel?” my therapist asked.
“Sad,” I said. I was extra sad that day because I was in the middle of a no-fault eviction, and it was turning out not to be practical or affordable to stay in the Bay Area, where I’d lived for a long time. “I feel sad because we have to move.” I cried as I talked about this. I loved California. “I have to grieve a state.”
I cried harder. “It’s a bummer.”
My therapist was very calm. “That is a bummer,” she agreed in soothing tones. She told me to open my eyes and when I did, asked me what sensation I noticed. Instantly, I pictured a kid lying in a yard.
That’s me right now, I thought. A kid lying in a yard, feeling sad — but not feeling sad about feeling sad. It was what it was. It was fine. It was a peace. Me, or a kid, being just what she was: alive.
“I’m not bummed out about feeling bummed out,” I said.
The significance of this moment was clear to us both. My therapist was speechless for a second. Then she smiled — we were often smiling, because we joked through even the hardest and ugliest moments together — and said, “People pay a lot of money for that, Mac.”
They shouldn’t have to. I hadn’t panicked over being sad every time it had happened in my life, say over a breakup, but I had never had that level of acceptance of it, peace-spreading, unrushed, cell-deep, certainly not as an adult. And as a person with PTSD, I had completely lost any trust in my own emotions, fearing them constantly, sadness included — or perhaps especially, as it was the most persistent. Now, I was finally embracing it.
Which is how I could come to be in a position to miss it. The interestingness of it. The difference of it from other emotions. I remembered the sensations of it: the weight. The way it slowed things down and took the space of everything else up. It was exquisite, objectively but also as evidence that I could feel, that I was open and not shut down, capable of having a whole gamut of emotions rush in, and maybe overwhelm, but move through and move me. Not everyone can. Or does. I am occasionally jealous of people whose emotions come more softly, or quietly, or less often. I assume they have more time and energy, with those not being taken up by sensitivity that makes even the widely considered “good” emotions like joy feel like they’re making their heart explode. But for the most part, I’m not. Some people are born, and then they live, and then they die, one of my doctors told me once, in an effort to comfort. You, you die and are reborn sometimes 10 times in one day. Lucky.
The next time I felt sadness after I missed it, I was reminded why it was so hard to feel it all the time. Oh yeah, I remembered. It hurt. It was difficult to work. To cook, to eat, to play. To take care of others. Exquisite it may have been, but painful, and not invigorating, and quite tiring. Still I trusted that I needed it at that time, that it was expressing something necessary. I didn’t hate or judge it. I did not feel silly or weak. They say it takes a big man to cry, and I think — unfortunately, given our collective feelings about sadness — that’s true. But it takes a bigger woman still, to feel the strength of a sob, without apology or shame. With pride. I’m the biggest I’ve ever been, the way I let my emotions run, sadness included: the way it cleanses me, tears washing my face, resolving me to continue to feel with abandon.
Mac McClelland is the author of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story (out this Tuesday, February 24th) and For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She has written for Reuters, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the Online News Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Association for Women in Communications. Her work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing 2011, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Best Business Writing 2013.
To learn more about Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, click here.
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