I spent three or four solid hours of yesterday sitting on the couch, feeling sad. And I spent those same three or four solid hours cruising the internet for distraction: blogs; Facebook; Twitter; Instagram. Picking up books, reading a page, and putting them down again. Opening Netflix and scrolling through the options, before deeming them all unsuitable for the task of leeching the sadness away.
I am sad.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to say this without really using the words. I am melancholy, for example, or maudlin. I am mainlining Smiths songs and weeping into my hands. The joy of being a writer is that there is always a fancier way of saying things, edging towards the things you’re feeling without saying it outright.
Ways of feeling without really feeling, admitting without saying a damn thing out loud. Deploying irony as protective colouration.
But the truth is, I am sad. I know this because words like melancholy do not hurt so much, creates too much space between what is said and what is felt, while writing the words I am sad is close enough to the truth that admitting it sets me crying for twenty goddamn minutes.
I’m always amused when people you’ve just met ask so, what do you do? I get the logic of it, the societal ritual and the invitation to share information with a new acquaintance, but there’s never been an answer that didn’t feel like a lie. I write, is not entirely accurate as a summary of my life. I work for a writing-focused non-profit only covers half my week.
The real answer is simple, and thoroughly impolite: I cope.
I’m great at coping. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I do not let things bother me, because everything bothers me and the moment something comes to the surface it brings everything else with it. Given enough time, I can hack my feelings and figure out what’s really going on.
Given enough time, I can figure out how to present as though nothing is bugging me, and that will slowly become the truth.
Until, of course, it’s not.
I used to fantasize about the day when I no longer needed to cope. About breaking down and no longer giving a shit. About turning to the world and going, well, I hurt. I have lost things that matter. I feel, and I no longer know how to hide it.
What stopped me was always the fear that it wouldn’t really help. The fear, in the end, that I had just made things so much worse.
Twice, in recent weeks, friends have contacted me to ask if I was okay. I wasn’t, but when directly confronted about sadness, I tend to lie through my teeth. I’m fine, I told them. Just having a frustrating week. I will be okay again, soon.
Frustrating is temporary. As is stress. They’re transient states, even if they can linger for a long goddamn time. They’re external pressures, not internal.
Sadness is all about loss. The big losses make sadness comprehensible and obvious, but the little ones accumulate and they’re far harder to explain.
I tell myself that the problem with talking about sadness is that it’s never entirely yours. Any admission of sadness opens you to questions about the cause, and any discussion of the cause means talking about other people. Sadness exists at intersections with other people’s lives. When connections to friends, colleagues, and family become painful in unexpected ways.
Right now, I am sad because of things going on at work. I am sad because of things that are happening to my family. Sad, because of things happening to friends. Many things that are important to me are going all kinds of wrong, and there is little I can do to stop any of this from happening. Some of it is recent. Some of it has built up, hurting more over a period of weeks or months or years, and starting to tell any part of it involves unpacking the whole damn thing.
I don’t know how to begin starting that conversation. I don’t know how to keep the secrets that need keeping.
And I don’t want to say things that will make the sadness worse, because it already hurts to the point where I cannot cover it as well as I’d like. Sadness begins with loss and helplessness, and it is easier to pretend you are not losing if you do not acknowledge the sadness is there.
I write about coping a lot, in fiction. Miriam Aster copes, in Horn and Bleed. Keith Murphy copes, all through the Flotsam series. Pick a short story, out of the forty or so I’ve got out there, and there’s pretty good odds that coping, or the lack thereof, will be bound up in the theme.
I write about coping because it fascinates me, and because it’s what I know. And because the great promise of every story is the disruption of equilibrium; stories are powered by the moment where a character’s current state cannot be maintained. Where coping is no longer an option, because that is what stories are.
Fiction ends with a moment of decision, and for a character whose primary attribute is coping, those decisions are usually simple: keep coping, or break, or begin the process of change in which things get better.
There is comfort in that, as a writer. A sense of control that does not apply to the real world.
It’s funny, the things that break you. This week, it was a Facebook comment, someone responding to something I’d said when talking about a link. A moment where I felt like I’d had a feeling denied to me.
I had to shut the computer down and walk away for a few minutes. I had to stop myself from getting angry at a friend, because it was not their fault I did not have capacity to deal with the thing they had said. I had to ride out the rush of feelings that followed the anger, and none of them were pleasant.
I do not cry often, but I’ve cried a lot since then.
I don’t talk about sadness because I do not want sympathy. I do not want to talk about it. I do not want to share. People ask, because they care, but I do not want to be a bother.
But we care, people tell me. It’s not a bother.
The truth is, it bothers me.
I did not write yesterday because I was sad, and because I had to suck that shit up and get through two hours of workshop in the evening where people were paying good money to see me act like a real goddamn human being capable of teaching them things.
And strangers are easy, when I’m sad. The version of me that deals with strangers is disconnected from the things I’m feeling. It’s a performance, pulled on to get through the experience, and it goes away once things are over with.
Its friends, I find myself avoiding. Often, without explanation. Or with a series of half-truths, that are never really fleshed out. I’m busy. I’m tired. I’m worn out and burnt out and I just don’t have the energy.
Never I am feeling sad, and being around you is too damn weird for me until I am done with these feelings.
I am sad, and that’s okay. I will retreat into my bunker and I will grieve for the things I am losing and I will make sure the things that need to be done get done, one way or another.
I am sad, and I will be okay. This is not depression or cause for alarm; it’s not a request for sympathy.
(Empathy, yes, because that is different. Because some things are harder than they were and I am making decisions differently than I would when I am happy. I will say no to things I would ordinarily say yes too, and I will do things that ordinarily I’d avoid like the plague).
I am sad, and I will lie to you and tell you I’m fine, except for the times when it is not actually a lie. I do not feel sad twenty-four seven. It ebbs and flows, fills up the quieter moments and sneaks up on me during some louder ones.
I am sad, and it is everything right now. And, also, it’s no big deal. I am sad and I exist in between states; I am okay and I am not okay, at the same time.
I am sad and it’s annoying me, but I have hit the point where pretending I am not is going to annoy me more.
I am sad, and it will pass, eventually. That’s what sadness does.