On Suffering Silently

Inspired by Nora Gayer’s excellent piece.

We are all daily liars. Well, most of us are anyway, and some rather worse than others. It’s not quite our fault. At some point, we agreed (in that pesky social contract no one really remembers signing) that pain is personal. It’s unbecoming to admit your own pain and it’s rude to ask about another’s. This is rather inconvenient given life’s propensity to be quite painful a lot of the time. We are left in the dodgy business of the half-truth; in our daily conversations we amplify the unremarkable and omit the unfortunate. We suffer silently.

My own daily deception has been the same for the last year and a half. Over this time, I’ve carefully perfected the technique of withholding no information per se while still not at all making myself vulnerable. I’m quite forthright about the fact that I’m suffering from a neuromuscular condition. I openly share that I’ve canceled my summer internship to go seek full-time treatment and have had to drop majors, classes and extra-curriculars in the process. I’m honest about my symptoms (limbs sometime become immobile, severe migraines and back pain), the ways these progress (sudden flare-ups that last for a couple of days) and the success of the treatments I’m using (effective in easing, not preventing). On the face of it, I am being totally open, but that is the treachery of the deception. Sharing everything while revealing nothing. Facts carefully sanitized of any sign of pain before being handed over.

It took me a while to fully realize I was doing it, and by then I couldn’t stop. I grew accustomed to the security of my half-truths and couldn’t be vulnerable even with those closest to me. The naked truth was too ugly, too obtrusive, too difficult to share. But sharing was hard only at the moment of. Not sharing was another beast altogether — seductive and comfortable but poisonous, eating away at my insides and severing my connection to the world. And so, I’m releasing my truth unfiltered, and with it, hopefully the beast.

I call it a “neuromuscular condition” because this is easier to say than “it feels like my body is betraying me.” I’d worked relentlessly toward anything I thought would help me pursue my dream of building a kind, thoughtful business, finding the perfect internship and looking for people and opportunities that could help me along my way. I now find myself having to cancel the internship, and I am much too tired to engage with the incredible people and opportunities I found.

I have absolute faith in the doctors I will see full time in the summer, but this makes my pain in the meanwhile seem even more senseless.

I used to be a triple major, had planned my thesis since I was a first year and would beg to be allowed to take six and a half classes. I may have to leave with a single major, sans thesis and these days, I fill out permission forms to be allowed to take three classes. I used to look for the most challenging classes I could find, but have been reduced to finding the ones that will be doable when I’m beholden to my flare-ups. I attended a program abroad that should have been a dream, but I was in no condition to take the challenging courses it was famous for.

I’m at expert at disembodying myself, speaking of my body dispassionately, almost in the third person because it is how I cope. My mother had to remind me to cry so my doctors would realize how much pain I really was in. I say that my limbs are immobilized but leave out the dismay of having to stop typing midsentence because my hands can no longer comfortably move, the horror of walking home in the snow and realizing I have to drag my feet against their will. I say severe migraines, instead of how terrifying it is to not be able to think clearly, especially as someone who defines myself by my thoughts.

I say I have periodic flare-ups, but not how each time is like the first time and brings me to tears of frustration and pain. I don’t talk about how they keep me up at night, and how I mindlessly binge watch shows on my computer to numb any feeling and thought whatsoever.

I don’t talk about these things because they are hard. It took quite a while after realizing the toxicity of holding things in to even consider sharing them. Brené Brown’s famous work on how vulnerability is hard for the person doing the sharing is part of this, but there is also the fact that sharing your pain with someone places a burden on them. It is difficult to help someone else carry their pain, especially when you have no help carrying yours. Vulnerability is hard on everybody involved, and you can’t simply decide you are going to start being vulnerable when you are in a community that doesn’t support this.

It needn’t be this way. We shouldn’t have to be polite about our suffering and hold in our monsters. We should be able to have a community where we can really enquire about and express concern for one another, untainted by an apology about “not wanting to pry.” We can only get there by being honest when people ask us how we’re doing, and also making them feel like they too can be honest, and will be heard and supported. The imperative to constantly be upbeat is exhausting, and one of the kindest things you can do is to no longer require it of yourself or others. It’s only when we can honestly share our suffering that we can honestly share our joy, because the two are irrevocably intertwined. And it is only when we allow ourselves to lay it all out — joy, sorrow and everything in between — that we have any hope of forging human connections.