Being Earnest: It’s Not Just Important, It’s Vital

I fell in love with Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest when I was 15. My mother’s extensive book collection contained a tattered copy and I read it over and over, adoring every wordplay and clever turn of phrase.

The word earnest is now permanently associated with this play to me; a pairing firmly wired in my brain. If someone says ‘earnest’, my brain lights up with joy — humour! Fun! Wit! — like some sort of Pavlov’s Dog, which is funny in itself as the word literally means humourless.

I’ve noticed when people use this word it is often preceded with an apology. “Sorry for the earnestness, I just wanted to share something.” We are quick to downplay any serious emotion by quickly adding a disclaimer or apology. “Hey friends, sorry to be all serious but I did a thing.”

I recently attended my first National Young Writer’s Festival in Newcastle, and was overwhelmed by the passion and talent showcased in the events. Poetry readings, in particular, highlighted a display of earnestness that deserves no apology.

It’s admirable and inspiring (gah, those words are so frequently overused, I know) to see people sharing themselves and their words so openly.

People like me make jokes when we feel any sense of vulnerability creeping in. Uh oh, conversation is getting heavy, better make it light. Uh oh, I just messaged a friend something serious, better quickly send a meme to make sure they know I’m joking!

I’ve had therapists comment, “You know you use humour as a defence mechanism, right?” and there’s little I can do in response other than confirm their statement with a bad joke or maybe do jazz hands and jump out the window.

But holy fuck, have I learned something this year — the payoff of occasionally being earnest and real and authentic is invaluable.

I’ve spent the entirety of my adulthood trying to process, accept and treat my mental illnesses. My mental health has been on a slow but steady decline over the last few years and reached a breaking point in December.

I had to take 12 months leave without pay from my job, and move back in with my mum. I’m on a waiting list for therapy that all my clinicians attest is going to change your life, just hang in there. It’s due to start in February 2017 so I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping, sitting, and trying not to do anything stupid.

Like many people with ‘treatment-resistant depression’ (alongside three or four co-occurring mental illnesses, depending on which psychiatrist you speak to) I’ve tried many different treatments over the years to rid myself of this dark, painful fog:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Group Therapy.

Art Therapy.

Medications.

So many medications.

Doctors.

Psychiatrists.

Psychologists.

Social Workers.

Dietitians.

Mental Health Nurses.

Inpatient.

Outpatient.

Day Programs.

I am so, so tired.

But lately, I’ve been trying something new, and on my own. It’s more abstract, and isn’t found as a standard treatment option in any DSM. So far, it has been significantly helpful.

Vulnerability.

There’s a reason Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability is so popular and recommended by countless mental health clinicians, social workers and weirdos on the internet like me. Opening up to people and allowing yourself to be seen — really seen — is terrifying. But it’s vital in helping us move forward.

You know how motivational Instagram accounts and your mum’s friend Barbara always post quotes like ‘No Risk, No Reward’? Yeah, I hate Barbara too, but dang… those quotes have a point sometimes.

I’ve slowly allowed myself to be open to people, to let them see inside me. It feels like peeling back a layer of skin and asking people to touch the wound.

I’m fighting desperately with the thoughts that scream They don’t like you, they’re just being polite when people extend their friendship and kindness. I’m fighting the thoughts that bark You are a waste of space and everybody knows it whenever I’m out in public.

I’m learning to share feelings with close friends who are holding my vulnerability with such gentle and tender hands it makes me weep.

It’s both terrifying and exhausting. But with the exhaustion comes a sense of calm when you have allowed yourself to be real with another person, and they’ve accepted you.

Attending the writer’s festival was enormous for me and I had a wonderful time, meeting such amazing people. I felt the discomfort and fear and went anyway.

This week is Mental Health Week, and my social media has been filled with people opening up and sharing themselves and their experiences. It demonstrates how many of us are silently going through these battles, but how would we know if we didn’t talk about it?

My hands are shaking as I write this — I’m much more comfortable writing bad jokes than being serious. I’m still learning the importance of being earnest, and how vital it is to let yourself feel vulnerable.

Maybe I’ll delete this entire post and replace it with a photo of a pigeon wearing sunglasses.

I hope I don’t, though.