Even at 12 years old, I knew not to milk my situation. If I exaggerated the pain I was in, cried unnecessarily, or complained too much, it would come back to bite me in the butt later. I was right, of course. Even without all of the theatrics, some doctors and teachers suggested my pain wasn’t real, that I was just trying to get attention. Assholes. The thing is, this idea that I shouldn’t exaggerate anything boomeranged, and soon I was pretending I was ok even when I wasn’t.
Sometimes that’s a good thing. For me, faking it until I make it can help. And I hate having people constantly ask me what’s wrong, so looking like nothing is wrong can help to prevent that.
But then, sometimes it’s not so good.
Today a friend stopped by unexpectedly. I was NOT in a good place. I’ll probably right about that another time, but basically, I’m in rough shape. The pain has been worse lately, and it’s spreading to more parts of my body for some unknown reason. I’m worried about the future. I might have to move out of the apartment that I love. I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and, mostly, very scared.
I started to talk about some of this with my friend. I could feel the start of tears in my eyes. But I didn’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole. If I tried to explain everything, it would just lead me to focus more on the thing I’m trying to get off my mind for a while. So I said I needed to stop talking about it. And a second later we had changed the subject and I found myself smiling.
Now don’t get me wrong, smiling is a good thing, especially when you’re happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was smiling because I am used to plastering that smile on my face, even when I don’t want to. It’s what made the LTD and SSDI trials so hard: I was supposed to let them see how I really felt, and I didn’t know how to do that anymore. After so many years of fake smiles, how could I stop?
Before my friend showed up, I was definitely not smiling. I wasn’t smiling after he left, either. But with him here, I smiled. I thought to myself, “I should stop smiling. He knows I’m scared and in pain and he’ll be here for me. I want to stop.” But I couldn’t.
When my grandmother died just a few years ago, I cried during the funeral. Later, at the shiva (a Jewish tradition where friends and family gather to console the bereaved) I found myself smiling a lot. One relative I didn’t know very well even commented on how great it was that I could focus on the good parts of my grandmother’s life and remain so cheerful. Little did he know. I wasn’t cheerful. It was an act. I was smiling, I had a bounce in my voice, and I was miserable.
My fake smile was helpful today at the grocery store. I looked and acted normal, so no one asked any questions. But with my family and friends, sometimes I want to stop smiling.
If only I knew how.