Who Are You When No One is Looking?

On private pain, public tears, and owning our vulnerability

Image for post
Image for post

I am not even surprised when an impossibly tall Dutchman materializes in front of my eyes and starts waving.

I realize I’m too exhausted to experience any shame or embarrassment even though I’m a mess, all swollen eyelids and wet face. Hopefully my glasses conceal the worst of it but I take them off and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand the minute I spot my unexpected visitor.

There’s no hiding my distress and there’s no point in trying to hide it either. I’ve been crying on and off since I got up and playing the same song on a loop at maximum volume on my noise-canceling headphones so I can focus and get work done.

Despite the tears, I’m swaying to the music and occasionally singing along between sobs in a desperate attempt to conjure up joy. Or at least grit, which is a good substitute for joy when your heart is breaking a little more with every beat as your life disintegrates into tiny pieces

And there’s nothing you can do to stop the process but you have to keep going regardless of whether you feel capable or not.

“Blame the willpower that lives within me and only dies with age when it’s my time to go” goes the song but it sounds infinitely better in Portuguese. The language that has been instrumental in helping me come back to life is holding me together today, as it does most days.

It is the language my heart speaks and I’m quite incomplete without it.

I take off my headphones and greet the impossibly tall Dutchman, whose name is Rob.

We’ve already met, he’s familiar with my family situation, and he’s as direct as I am because bluntness is very much a Northern European thing.

“Bad news?”, he asks, no doubt thinking my stepmom’s health has taken a turn for the worst.

“Oh, sorry, no, not at all. Everything’s under control in Paris, I’m just having a tough day. Human being human and all that,” I reply by way of explanation.

“Ah, no worries. And those headphones are good so apologies for walking in on you like that, I knocked on the door but you couldn’t hear me. And I think your friends sent you a text. I came to get the vacuum cleaner,” he says and we laugh.

And then I show him my headphones, he tells me about the ones he bought recently, we locate the vacuum cleaner, he says he’s off on holiday for a week, I ask him where he’s going.

In short, we have a friendly conversation about Austria, where he’s traveling to, and our shared humanness. It is the most normal thing in the world although we only met a few days ago and this is only our second chat.

The moment reminds me of being in tears in Amsterdam Centraal station only a few weeks prior, and on the Paris Métro some months before that as a song unexpectedly unlocked grief. It allowed me to mourn my late grandmother years after she passed away as I released the guilt of not having been able to say goodbye or attend her funeral.

It’s as if being back in Europe had given me permission to be a whole human again instead of the self-contained, emotionally repressed ghost I was in the US.

During the five years I spent incapacitated by depression in America, any outer sign of distress was perceived as an embarrassment, a burden even.

There was scant compassion for my predicament in my household and I was left to hold my own hand as my illness became a source of ongoing resentment.

This is how I learned to keep myself to myself, going against my nature as I am a consummate communicator. At the time, I could no longer access my writing voice and music was torture so I sought solace in the words of others to keep suicidal ideation at bay.

Books kept my brain on life support despite isolation and hardship because I lived in Seattle, whose public library system is one of the best in the US.

Reconnecting with my family in France after six years away has helped me relearn how to be a human in the world. As I threw myself into the languages and cultures I had set aside upon immigrating, I began to rediscover the self that went missing in America.

There were pieces of my heart scattered all over the EU; I haven’t retrieved them all yet but I’m working on it.

Since landing in Paris at the end of 2018, I have been moving back into my head, into my heart, and into my skin. The process is ongoing and fraught with setbacks and yet I’m a little more in love with life every day.

We all do human differently and yet we’re all human the same.

Whenever my stepmom breaks down because cancer treatment leads to many physical indignities, I remind her of this. Whenever Dad tells me about the conversations he had with various medical professionals to try and improve his wife’s quality of life, I remind him of this. Whenever my friends battle their inner demons because seeing me in pain hurts them too, I remind them of this.

And whenever I can feel tears well up again, I remind myself, too, and then I have a good cry.

Nothing human is shameful.

Our shared humanness is never not at the forefront of my mind and if depression taught me anything it is that all emotions want acknowledging. Parsing what they’re trying to tell us is paramount to mental balance.

Emotions and feelings are data, intelligence we need to be able to handle life and all it throws at us. When we repress, dismiss, or discount our reactions, we close the door to necessary self-inquiry.

Worse, denial means we aren’t processing difficulty; without understanding, we cannot move on and end up locked into self-destructive patterns. No wonder then that some of us become completely disconnected from peers and prone to self-delusion and solipsism.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is good mental hygiene. If you’re not used to it, you might want to isolate at first so you can deal with what comes up without interference and in your own time.

Vulnerability has become a habit for me and this alone allows me to bounce back quicker and get a little stronger with every challenge.

In the age of curated appearances, personal branding, and instant experts, being and knowing oneself bucks the trend. With a little curiosity, humility, and consistency, it is within everyone’s reach and everyone benefits.

Ask yourself who you are when no one is looking then dare to be that same person when everyone is looking. Not only will you immediately feel more comfortable but your behavior will signal to others it is safe to drop the mask.

Therein lies the secret to forging deep, meaningful bonds with fellow humans.

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store