Fake it, ’til you make it?

When I walk into a public bathroom, I use the stall on the end because it’s safer to be next to a wall. It leaves me exposed on less sides.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I only get up if I have to go to the bathroom so bad it hurts. There might be something in the dark I can’t see.

When I go to a store or anywhere where there are other people, I don’t make eye contact because someone might say something about what I’m buying, how I’m dressed, or (and here’s the really paranoid part) what I’m thinking.

I don’t go/walk places where I might end up alone, because then I would be vulnerable to assault.

Sometimes when I’ve been sitting in the same place for a long time, I’m afraid to get up because I don’t know what could have changed while I was sitting there.

I am afraid almost all of the time – of things both possible, but unlikely and ridiculously impossible. This fear is part of what stops me in my life. It is part of what holds me back in relationships. I am hardly ever honest with anyone about these fears – not even myself.

I spent some time “in the rooms” as a teenager in Al-Anon. One of the things they tell you in 12-step programs is, “Fake it, ’til you make it.” I never really understood this. It teaches that we should be false with each other, pretending to be something we’re not. And while this might work for someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, it is terribly advice for someone who lives with near constant fear, pain, anger, sadness, grief, etc. In this case, “Fake it, ’til you make it,” is dangerously and completely isolating. But it has taken me until now to realize that. I have spent so much time pretending that I am okay – putting on a happy face for other people – that I frequently forget that I don’t have to be alone with my personal brand of pain.

I was reminded of that this weekend. I spent the weekend at a women’s retreat. The third or fourth such event that I have attended in the last three or four years. In the past, I have experienced these retreats as being uplifting, heart opening, positive, and life-affirming. But this last weekend was the most difficult couple of days I have had in a while. We were invited into our pain – to experience its grief and depth in a way that we are almost never invited to do in front of other people. It might have been cathartic for someone who has never admitted their experience to anyone else.

For me, it was an alarmingly quick and steep descent into the bowels of depression. I started crying Saturday morning and with very few reprieves, cried until late Saturday evening. I tried, at first, to pull it together, stem the tears, participate in normal conversation, even laugh. But this time, I found it to be actually impossible. I could not get outside of myself long enough to do anything. By Saturday evening, I was actively berating myself for not being able to, at the very least, stop crying. Other people seemed to have moved on with their day; they were dancing, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. And I was sitting outside, by myself, sobbing. And I was angry.

I went on this way for probably an hour or two, before drying my tears and determinedly marching back into the building to “enjoy” some time with the other women before the night (and the retreat) were over. The next day, I woke up feeling (big surprise) not well. I was nauseated and headache-y. I went through the motions, showering, getting dressed, packing up, hugging people, helping to pack cars and get people on their way. But I was not doing okay. And finally, as I was on my way to church, I gave myself permission to just not be okay. I dropped my sister and the stuff I had in my car off at church and went home – where I promptly got into bed and fell asleep. I didn’t do anything for the rest of the day except sleep, watch TV, and snuggle my husband. And then I asked him to stay home from work the next day, as part of my own “mental health day”.

I still apologize (to my husband) on my bad days or when I can’t stop crying. Most days, I keep my feelings to myself – I pretend to be okay, especially when I’m not home. But when it gets really bad, I have learned to let my husband in, tell him what I’m feeling, and let him help me from feeling alone. (I have an amazing husband, for which I am grateful every day.)

I hope you’ll remember that “fake it, ’til you make it’ isn’t always good advice. Let someone in or be there for someone who feels alone.

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