Stifling the stigma – and not ourselves

We love the drama of the cinema, but can’t confront it once it comes off the screen.

by Kate Nelson

Orgasms, attitudes, emotions: We’ve all faked something. As hers did before her, my mother trained me at an early age to be Miss Susie Sunshine and to always feign happiness.

While I see the necessity in not being completely overcome by emotion, a total stifling thereof can be downright debilitating.

Last weekend, I gathered with members of my mother’s family at my grandparents’ home. True to family (dys)function tradition, we weren’t coming together for celebratory reasons.

My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. Time and time again, doctors have told him not to expect much more time. And time and time again, he has proven them wrong. Turns out their predictions are now much more plausible than they’ve been in the past.

My grandfather has lived a long life. He has lived a full life. And now, at almost 82, he is close to death. And everyone is terrified to articulate it, lest that set off the process.

After we all sat, smiled and silently examined just how tired my grandfather’s mind and body are, my mother pulled me aside to tell me the reality of the situation, to tell me what you couldn’t see just by looking.

Her father’s body is failing. It is too old and exhausted to bear those processes that were once involuntary. As she spoke in hushed whispers, my mother’s eyes glazed over with tears – but not one fell.

The silence and inability to acknowledge reality was sickening. I wanted to scream out the facts: My grandfather is dying, and that makes us sad. Such simple words no one can seem to utter.

There are no doubt times it helps to pretend. Feigning confidence might help you ace a job interview. Faking appreciation for a gift that isn’t of your tastes shows its giver your gratitude.

But an absolute masking of pain or unhappiness doesn’t allow you to experience the completeness of your personhood.

It also adds to the stigma attached to these emotions, which, sadly, somewhere along the line were deemed unacceptable and something of which to be ashamed.

But why? We love the drama of the cinema, but can’t confront it once it comes off the screen. We can sympathize with the agony people are experiencing in foreign lands, but can’t bear to acknowledge the presence of negativity in our own, immediate lives.

I recently started to become more comfortable being fully human, allowing myself to recognize and feel these “negative” emotions.

It is a terribly arduous process unlearning something I was taught as a budding youth and have used as a coping mechanism ever since. And it can be outright scary to allow yourself to acknowledge your full range of emotions. But it is a necessary step toward full personhood and a step I encourage you to take.

My mother, like her mother before her, still smiles when she’s devastated. This saddens me. And while I’m comfortable admitting that, I don’t know if she’d want to hear it. After all, is Susie Sunshine ever blue?

Kate Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]