Resilience Alone Won’t Get Us Through—We’ll Need To Open Up To Each Other

I’ve always tried to be stoic, but sometimes, the real power comes from showing people that you’re hurting.

Early on in our relationship, my husband slipped while trying to peel a potato, caught the knife in his hands, and brutally severed most of the tendons in his fingers. When we returned home from the emergency room that night, I watched him calmly return to the sink, scrub his blood off of the potato with his other hand, cook it, and eat it. “I couldn’t let it beat me,” he announced in between victorious bites.

This is how we came to use “eating the potato” as a catch-all description for any resilience/fortitude/devouring of enemy hearts that we were trying to accomplish in our lives. Every time a combination of life, a tenacious anxiety disorder, and my various other issues conspired to make me feel more like a tendon than a knife, I would try my hardest to live up to the “eat the potato” ethos.

Recently, in the comparatively utopian era known as “three weeks ago,” I had to go outside and do some banking. So I attempted to eat the potato.

This shouldn’t have been a particularly complicated or daunting task. I am able-bodied and relatively healthy. I have, in the past, been perfectly capable of grabbing a coffee, going to a bank, doing bank things, and then going home again. But going outside gets a little more precarious for me in the winter. Cold urticaria — a rare allergy that causes my body to break out in burning hives when exposed to the cold — leaves me stranded inside for long periods of time. My autistic brain starts to get a little too comfortable with my low-key hermitage and makes everything outside of my apartment feel increasingly unfathomable and daunting — which, in turn, makes my necessary re-entries into that world feel like Herculean efforts.

It took me a solid day to gird my loins for this particular outing, and I still walked out of the door with a heart rate and sweat production level more common to high intensity cardio than a stroll to my local branch. As I started to get back into the rhythm of life on the outside, though, I started to fear it less. I grabbed a cappuccino at my favorite coffee shop and had a thoroughly pleasant social interaction with the barista. I even liked the music they were playing. Then I did my banking and had another pleasant passing social interaction with the teller.

Just as I found myself thinking ‘Hey, maybe venturing out of my apartment isn’t a nonstop parade of pain and humiliation,’ I spilled cappuccino all over the floor.

But just as I found myself thinking “Hey, maybe venturing out of my apartment isn’t a nonstop parade of pain and humiliation,” I caught the bottom of my coffee cup caught on a pen chained to the bank counter, sending a good 14 ounces of steamed milk and espresso splashing all over the bank floor.

In stunned horror, I asked the closest teller if there was someone I should speak to or some cleaning materials they could give me to deal with the spill. After a long, drawn-out pause, the teller said “Well, I think they’re changing the floor mats soon.”

I asked if there was someone I should speak to or some cleaning materials that they could give me for the 90% of my coffee that hadn’t fallen on the floor mats. Again, the teller told me that someone would be picking up the mats, so I could probably just leave that part.

The rest of my bank visit unfolded like a Kafka story reimagined by Richard Ayoade: a dark, wryly hilarious nightmare. I was eventually handed one sheet of paper towel (I later found and commandeered an entire roll), and set about wiping my coffee and my pride off of the floors, in front of an audience of three staring bank employees and two Statler-and-Waldorf-esque old customers who sat and picked apart my cleaning skills the whole time. I tried to ignore the criticism and not dwell on how fantastically wrong my tiny adventure in adulthood had gone, and I almost made it. But as I wiped the last off my mess off of the floor, one of my observers spoke up: “You missed some on the mat.”

Instead of reminding her of my special non-mat-wiping dispensation, I looked at her — I even made eye contact with her — and declared “I HAVE AUTISM AND CHRONIC ANXIETY AND I HAVEN’T LEFT THE HOUSE IN DAYS AND I AM ABOUT TO LOSE IT.” Then I immediately fulfilled my promise and ran out of the bank in tears.

I stumbled homeward sobbing. I was humiliated by what had happened but, more than that, I was viciously disappointed in myself. I hated that leaving the house had been an issue at all, and I loathed that it had taken so little to throw me so completely off balance.

About halfway home, though, I realized that I was also upset about the loss of coffee. That one, I could actually fix. So I turned around and took my tear-stained face and hollowed-out ego back to the coffee shop and ordered another cappuccino.

“You’re back!” the barista noted, and because I’d pretty much lost whatever filter I usually have that makes me respond to superficial polite neurotypical queries with superficially polite answers and I just didn’t care anymore, I decided that I was going to explain why — every darkly humorous detail. She was sympathetic — she offered to make me another coffee to go throw all over the bank floor in vengeance — so I kept talking. It turned out that she had anxiety, too, so we traded coping tips and gallows humor, and tried, with moderate success, to get each other to give ourselves some credit for what we had accomplished by leaving the house that day. And then I went home with a new coffee that I didn’t drop and a willingness to once again consider that venturing out of my apartment isn’t a nonstop parade of pain and humiliation.

“You ate the potato,” my husband declared when I told him about my day. But I’m not convinced that this is a story about resilience at all. The thing that really saved me, besides a desire for more coffee, was a willingness to admit I wasn’t okay. Being openly vulnerable in public — even just a little vulnerable to a friendly near-stranger — was what helped me at every step of my post-spill day. I let myself be miserable and embarrassed and admit that I felt that way to another person. I didn’t try to shrug it off or minimize how disproportionately hard it felt for me, and I didn’t try to put a more positive spin on it. If she hadn’t responded in anxiety-ridden solidarity — even if she’d laughed at me or made that mildly polite face normal people have been making at me and my unique verbal tangents for most of my life — I still would have felt relieved that I wasn’t holding onto that shit by myself any longer.

The thing that really saved me was a willingness to admit I wasn’t okay. I let myself be miserable and embarrassed and admit that I felt that way to another person.

Three weeks later, most of this feels embarrassingly trivial. I would gladly endure multiple coffee-based bank humiliations to escape the overbearing existential dread that I feel now, and I’d suffer through even more if it could spare anyone from the racist, dangerous, and vindictive policies that are rapidly tearing apart America and threatening to destroy the world. The lesson I took from that day still sticks with me, though.

Resilience isn’t what is going to get anyone with any empathy through this. The onslaught, which has been designed to demoralize and break us, is too powerful to ride out on internal strength and potato-eating alone. We’re all going to need breaks. We’re all going to break. And I believe that allowing yourself the space to do that, and to do it together, actually does have the ability to sustain us.

Even if it doesn’t end in a moment of bonding — although there’s a good shot at that, given how fucked up so many of us are right now — the simple act of admitting that you’re not okay still has benefits. Forcing yourself to be strong, to appear like you have it all together — and beating yourself up when you’re not — takes a fantastic amount of effort. If you allow yourself to stop doing any of those things, even for a few minutes, you can save that energy for more important things, like taking care of yourself and preparing for the fight ahead.

The world, as I understand it today, is in fact an almost nonstop parade of pain and humiliation. But when I allow myself to step outside of it with whatever combination of panic, fear, frustration, and heartbreak that knowledge brings me — and admit how I’m feeling in a way that neither attempts to prioritize other people’s comfort over my own, nor expects any specific response or support from those people in return — I sometimes have just enough left in my psychological tank to feel like there might be a break in the parade. And that’s something I can work with right now.

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