Someone is sad and I'm going to give advice about it.
MIDWEST IS BEST
I am sad
Hi, yes. Sadness is hard. I don’t even know what to say. First, I guess, anybody who has advice on sadness is probably annoying. What are we going to say about sadness here. Sadness happens for a lot of reasons. Some of us are just sad. I am sad a lot of the time.
When I am sad, I like to think of myself as someone else. Someone that I am protecting. I like to think of myself as a small person I draw with a bunch of rings around me. These rings are protecting me and they are holding my sadness. I used to think I was drawing them to represent my calmness (or selfhood?) that I don’t want interrupted (by men). Then I thought maybe they were boundaries, bracing me from sadness. But what they really are are the containers that fight for me to be able to feel sad.
Sometimes when I’m thinking about these rings I think about that character in the Incredibles who is able to make a force field, Violet. Violet is anxious and intense but she is able to create a force field around herself and the ones she loves to contain them. It doesn’t leave out the problems, but just keeps everyone safe.
I am working hard to create an environment for myself where it is safe to feel sad. Safe from people saying “don’t feel sad” or people who, with good intentions, attempt to put an optimism sticker on top of my sadness. Fuck everybody who does this it's so exhausting. I'll be okay eventually, I just need space to feel my sadness.
Glennon Doyle has this great chapter of Untamed where she talks about her sister’s divorce. Her sister lived in her basement after her divorce and would come up every day to eat dinner with the family then go back downstairs and cry—a scary cry. Glennon said it sounded primal. Glennon says in her book that she knew the room was not somewhere she could go—her sister needed to experience that sadness and go to that place on her own. But Glennon sat outside of the door, protecting and holding and sending her force field around her sister. This is how I think of myself when I am at my most self-compassionate—sitting in the room, the sister, but also outside the door, the protector.
It’s hard to do this. I don’t know why it’s so hard to protect your own sadness. I don’t have an issue standing up to bullies. Sadness is something softer.
I think of the times I have experienced profound grief. One of the saddest nights of my life was when my friend Jordan died. I was a sophomore in college, sitting on the couch at my friend Jake’s house when my camp director called Jake’s dad. My mom and my best friend Rachel were coming to pick me up, to be with me, because what is there to do besides that. I came out of that experience someone new. Life felt tragic, pretty much constantly, like we were all fighting to stay alive. I felt like I was fighting for reality to stay put, muscling through.
I am myself, still, but I was someone new after that.
Sometimes things happen in life—grief, trauma, depression, where your sadness becomes so heavy and lopsided that it changes the shape of you forever. When this has happened to me I have thought “who the fuck am I going to be at the end of this? What will I be?” Sometimes I’ve really resented these changes, or I think “will people want to know me on the other side of this? Will I ever been able to access joy and fun again without being cynical?” But that’s not true, or real.
We are always changing and re-introducing ourselves to people.
When my friends were so low in grief I held them. I didn’t try to fix their sadness, I held it and I held them, held their hands and confronted their grief with openness. I want to be open to people doing this for me and also do it for myself.
People are scary to me but my own sadness is the scariest. I’m scared to feel my sadness completely, but on the good days, I can feel myself outside the door when I am in the basement. I know I am there for me, I am strong. I have done it for others, why can’t I do it for myself? I’m trying.
Sadness for me, often, sits hand and hand with anxiety and being unkind to myself. I am never going to feel fulfilled, I want too much and therefore can never have it. When I am sad, and experiencing these thoughts, I forget about anything I’ve ever made that felt good. I’ll lay in bed, sad, unable to use my brain or pick up a phone to call someone, text someone, or hold a guitar that’s just 3 feet away. I think, if I can just get up and get to the shower, then I can do it. But I can’t get up and get to the shower, the shower is too far away. I cannot leave the bed. These moments feel like wasting time to me and lead to a cycle of perceived unproductivity—that I’m disappointing my 16 year old self and my current self by not working hard to be an artist. I can sell a painting on a Sunday and feel this way on a Monday. The answer to this is not better productivity, it is self-respect and self-compassion, both of which I would like more of. When I’m in bed I’m sometimes grieving, or just sad, and sometimes that just takes time.
Sometimes, when I am sad, I am very embarrassed and also don't like a single person. I don’t want to get on the phone with anyone—I am ignoring calls and am even embarrassed to be crying in front of my therapist. Slowly, though, talking about my sadness with other people who I trust does make me feel more understood and more at ease. I can see the other side of the wave because I’ve fully experienced more of them. I am able to move slower through the day and notice things like how my plants are doing or how the light hits the flowers on the table. To be honest, when I’m talking to people about my feelings and sadness it doesn’t always feel good in the moment. I feel out of control and I’m distrustful already of who I am talking to.
My friend Dillon, for example, is a person I trust. Sometimes though, I even forget that I trust him. We have been friends for years. It’s not logical that I react this way-- I will have not talked to him about my feelings or sadness for a while and when he asks me how I am, my response is “how am I? what the fuck?” I have no idea why I react like this. Defensive, scared. Distrustful and feeling like no one could possibly understand how I feel. How am I? What the fuck? Dillon knows me though, knows that I react this way and he will say “what is happening right now” and eventually somebody laughs and we talk about it. I’m wary of allowing people to sit outside my door, but I am trying. I am particularly impressed by people around me who are able to do this. My friend Caroline is a role model for this—she is open and vulnerable and very strong. She’s strong in a way that is really striking. She’s sad and feels big but she is very alive. Mom!
It is hard to be a sensitive person. I don’t know if that’s you, but I often find that people who are sad are more sensitive. People love to tell me that I am too nice—I am not too nice, I am just feeling.
Sometimes when I am sad I can write about it, but wow is that scary to look at. Being sad, to me, feels like being somewhere far away that in the moment, feels like reality. When I’m sad, the far away place becomes the real place, a double image pasted over my life and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not. It’s like the Truman show of my life when I’m in my bed feeling sad and not able to do anything or feel okay. Or like being in a dream where something bad is happening and I’m searching for clues that it’s not real, that the ground isn’t being swallowed up around me by the matrix space actually, it’s just a dream.
I remember being 15, 16, 17, and going to concerts in St. Louis and feeling like I was going to float out of my body. I was so happy and felt so alive. I loved music so much and I felt so sad feeling like someone was going to take it away someday when I grew up. Eventually, someone did take music away from me (I thought) but then I found it again. It’s not the same though. I knew music would make me sad just as it made me happy, and my shape was different after that.
One time, I sang at this open mic in college and my friend Jakob sent me a kind email the next morning telling me how moving it was. His feedback was so nice. But other people felt differently. I remember this girl in the front row I knew whose eyes were so uncomfortable at my sadness. I don’t remember seeing much of her because I sing a lot with my eyes closed but I just remember thinking “fucking yikes” and I did see her differently after that—thinking that maybe she can’t wade into the deep of someone else’s sad.
But also I’ve been that. I remember doing this show when I was 17 and this eccentric lady named Pooki who sang quasi spiritual songs with her husband and sometimes an adult choir was there. She walked up to me afterward and told me how important my gift was and how sensitive she could tell my emotions were and I was so uncomfortable I felt like I was going to die. I had, up until that point, never told anyone about my sadness, and I was not ready to be seen. I felt bad that I couldn’t embrace her. Pooki wanted to be outside my door in that moment but I couldn’t let her. When I was younger, and I guess by young I mean 15-20 really, singing sad songs on stage was the only release I had. I do other things now to express how I feel. I don’t know what is best for you, really, if you’re sad. I go to therapy, that helps me a lot. I go on long walks in New York City and that really helps. I try to remember there are other people around and not to isolate myself.
There’s this song I really like by Prinze George called Lights Burn Out. Lyrics go “you can’t keep my pace, and you can’t see the flesh beneath my veins, but you’ve got time for days to watch me drift and sink and swim in a hundred different ways. When my lights burn out, you’re the only one left I will answer to” I think we need to allow people to call us in like this.
Recently I was listening to an episode of Working It Out with Mike Birbiglia where he interviews Natasha Lyonne. Natasha is talking about her relationship with Fred Armisen and their dynamic as a couple. Mike brings up this time they were out after his show The New One (very good) and at the restaurant Mike asks why their relationship works and Natasha says “Fred won’t let me leave.” She talks about how when she pulls away, Fred steps forward. She talks about how she doesn’t really have a family, how she is a generally sad and morose person and so she surrounds herself with these people who can lift her out. Her chosen family.
It’s important that we allow people to show up for us. I think it’s not about avoiding our sadness or shoving it away, but is more about not allowing ourselves to leave, to isolate and dig a hole far away from everyone who loves us. We need to allow people to create the rings of safety to feel sad. To stay near the light people are creating for us, right now. I think this is how we find joy again, real excitement and aliveness.
Have you ever been to a fourth of July on a lake? In the Midwest people will tie their pontoon boats together. It’s dangerous and everyone is drunk but they tie the pontoon boats together so people can watch the fireworks and hangout on the water. Where I’m from, it’s usually an unnatural man-made lake for the purpose of cash cow residential communities. So they float on top of the deep toxic dangerous night time man made lake together in 25 year old pontoon boats, tying together their boats for "safety" (it's not safe) to observe something beautiful in the sky.
Floating in the sad, together, to see something beautiful. Tomorrow everyone goes back to their jobs and pays down the mortgage.
I don’t know. I also think that anyone who wants to take anti-depressants should absolutely fucking do so (in consultation with a doctor). Thanks for writing.