Pretending to be “okay”

Photo via Splitshire

“Lately, I feel like a drama queen,” I said to one of my friends over Facebook messenger. “Uh. No. No no no. You are not a drama queen. Good grief,” she said to me. “You are going through some shit. It’s ok to go through shit and ask for help and not be ok all the time.” “Thank you,” I said, “I suppose you’re right.” “You acted ‘ok’ for a LONG time,” she said.

Damn. She was right.

In fact, I’ve spent most of my life acting “okay,” when I really wasn’t okay. At home, at school, at church, at work — everywhere. I’ve learned how to pretend to be okay. With the trauma I’ve been through, and with the toll that my mental illnesses take on me sometimes, I have mastered the art of appearing to be okay. And to what end? To make life more comfortable for everyone else. To protect them from the truth. Because, to really be authentic means that there would be a lot of garbage coming out: a lot of pain, a lot of anger, a lot of hurt. And I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt that they could handle it because, I have learned, sometimes they can’t. I have learned, sometimes, letting it out isn’t safe.

On the other hand, I’ve seen movements to “live bravely,” “live vulnerably,” “live authentically” (I’m looking at you, Brené Brown). But, with all of the applause we give to people who act bravely or vulnerably or authentically, do we actually care about them? Do we really care about their stories and their impact? Or, do we prefer that they share — as if sharing is some sort of trust-fall exercise — and then hope that they’ll move on with their lives?

Our culture is gluttonous for happy endings. In the end, we desire that things be “okay”, that a person magically bounce back, that they become normal again after living through trauma. But, I am here to say that I am a person who can’t be normal again. I can’t go back in time and erase the trauma. I can’t cure my mental illnesses. What I can do, is do my best to cope. Just my best. Which isn’t always so great.

Some days, the PTSD is really bad. Some days, the anxiety is really bad. Some days, the depression is really bad. And, some days, all three hit me like a perfect storm. And what am I supposed to do on those days? Call in to work for a “sexual-assault-survivor-and-not-handling-it-so-great-because-I’m-having intrusive flashbacks” day? If I did that every time, I’d be out of a job real quick. Again, all I can do is do my best to cope. And so, I guess, part of that is pretending to be okay.

Because, what would happen if that coworker in the break room asked me “how’s it going?” and I told them, “well, I have voices in my head telling me that I’m a garbage person, and I saw this article on the internet that triggered flashbacks to this time when I was sexually assaulted, and now I don’t know what to believe about myself anymore.” Yeah…I don’t think that would go over well. So, I pretend. I say, “oh, fine. Just the same old, same old.” And I give them the satisfaction that everything in my life is okay. I let them off the hook. They don’t have to be one of the poor souls that has to deal with the real me.

We applaud authentic lives, but can we actually handle them? In our schools, at our jobs, in our churches: can we actually handle authentic living, or do we only have room for a certain type of “authenticity”? Are we actually ready to be affected by the deep piles of shit that we each carry around with us — traumas and experiences so grim that it might make us feel extremely uncomfortable and helpless? Are we ready to sit with that helplessness?

I’ve seen too much not to know that there’s an invisible line that must not be crossed with most people. You can share some of your life, but not too much. People can handle some of the shit, but not all of it. You have to keep yourself contained within certain socially acceptable parameters. And that means, most of the time, you have to pretend to be okay.

But, what if we didn’t pretend? What if we let out a little more of that shit that we carry around out? Obviously, we’re not going to share our whole lives’ stories with everyone — that’s not the point, and (as I’ve learned) isn’t always safe or appropriate. But, what if we stopped pretending around one more person? What if we decided to be more authentic around one more person, and were more honest with them about our struggles, our history, our worries? Find someone who feels safe to you, and be a little more honest with them. That’s my challenge to you. Let’s work together to stop pretending to be okay.

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