Smiling on the Outside and the Soft, Slow Shattering of the Human Psyche

The wall I have around me isn’t new. I laid the first row of “bricks” over a decade ago when my marriage was in trouble. The rows grew over the years and the wall did a good job of keeping people out and preventing them from knowing what was really going on.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, I began Phase 2 of the wall. (If you missed that post, you can find it here.)

Despite my public persona, I’m a very private person. I was raised to keep my problems to myself, so I do. Besides, negative people are such downers. Nobody wants to listen to you gripe, right?

I am not unique or special, in that regard—generations of us were raised like that. But, what we’re starting to see now is that keeping things to ourselves and not talking has gotten us into big, big trouble.

Our silence is killing us.

Today, on June 25th, social media feeds are overrun with articles about Anthony Bourdain, an incredible man who committed suicide a year ago. What remains are unanswered questions as to how the signs of his mental distress went unnoticed and why, for the love of God, didn’t he reach out for help? He had resources at his fingertips. He could’ve asked for anything.

Because depression is selfish, and people going through it don’t reach out, that’s why. It’s a terrifying, dark place and not one where you’d invite company.

For many of us wall-builders, inviting people in means letting go of the death grip we’ve kept on our emotions and feelings. It means exposing ourselves and presenting a different image than the one we’ve so carefully crafted. It means people will try to zoom into the No Fly Zone we’ve built around ourselves and try to help and stuff, and we’re not weak, dammit, we’re tough. Grrrr.

So instead, it’s easier to act like everything’s fine; keep showing up, keep laughing, keep smiling and no one is the wiser…until it’s too late.

It takes courage to be honest, that’s the truth. When I finally made people privy to my pain, I hated every second of it. I felt naked and vulnerable.

Being across from someone who loves you, watching their face when you tell them you have cancer, man, it’s brutal.

My job, forever, has been to keep people happy. I’m that upbeat person people rely on. Staying positive is my go-to, my autopilot—and that, my friends, is where the trouble lies.

Staying positive keeps you smiling on the outside while cracks on the inside spread to the edges.

I have no thoughts of suicide, but I can tell you straight up, my mental health has had the boots put to it, that’s for sure. I am aware enough to realize that I need to treat it with more care than I have in the past. I *try* to stress less, I’m an A+ deep breather now, and I actually have boundaries. I put myself ahead of others (that’s a big one) and yes, I try to stay positive because that’s what I know how to do.

But, staying positive takes precious energy that majorly stressed people don’t have. When psychological pain is so intense, so deeply personal, so egregious, that when you look out and all you see is darkness, how do you manage to stay positive?

In his book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” Mark Manson writes, “While there is something to be said for “staying on the sunny side of life,” the truth is, sometimes life sucks, and the healthiest thing you can do is admit it.”

Honestly? Sometimes you just want to flip positivity the bird.

Yesterday, I received an email from a friend who wrote, “Be brave or not. Be strong or not. Whatever works for you. You will survive this.”

The power in those words leapt off the page and right into my heart. I’d been hanging on so tight for so long, that the thought of giving myself license to not be brave or not be strong was foreign but freeing at the same time. It gave me a little bit of a high. A hell YEAH.

This morning, as I sat down to write on the aspect of positivity and mental health, I came across a poem I wrote in the midst of divorce proceedings in 2017.

I should listen to myself.

I am stronger than I think, in fact, we all are, but until you crumble and work through the pain, you’ll never know just how strong you are.

I will keep positivity close, but I will also allow myself to rage against the Fates. I have earned that right.

Making it through whatever it is that constitutes your hell—cancer, divorce, depression, grief, death, infidelity, addiction, abandonment, abuse, injury—takes more than staying positive. It requires energy from people to check in on you. It takes selflessness in a time when self-absorption is at an all-time high. We all need to get out of our bubbles, off our couches and away from the mind-sucking state of being connected to things instead of people.

When someone is going through a hard time, tell them it’s okay to be brave or not, that it’s okay to be strong or not, and that it’s okay to doubt if they “got this” because the most important thing they need to know is that you got them, no matter what. Let them know you’ll be their safe harbour, their anchor, their landing pad, whatever it is they need to hang on to, so they know they’re not alone.

And, remind them that they are stronger than they think, even when they’re positive they’re not.

#letstalk #mentalhealth #suicideawareness #bourdainday #warriormode #breastcancer #herestothegirls #strongerthanyouthink


Author: Twyla Campbell

World-wide wanderer, CBC Edmonton AM Restaurant Reviewer, Member of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, oenophile, epicurean explorer and a freelance writer whose works have appeared in several magazines and newspapers including More, Above & Beyond, Avenue (Edmonton), Up Here, Northern Flyer, Opulence, City Palate, the Edible Prairie Journal, The Edmonton Journal, Slow Food Canada, Lifestyle Alberta, and on Slow Food Edmonton’s website. Grant MacEwan University (Professional Writing Program) Bachelor of Applied Communications Degree (in progress). I’m a Tweeter @wanderwoman10

8 thoughts on “Smiling on the Outside and the Soft, Slow Shattering of the Human Psyche

  1. Excellent article. Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts, experience, and your wisdom.

  2. Excellent article. It’s so true but I believe we need to share our burdens. Its hard to go it alone. That’s what friends and family are for. I know many of us try to carry the load ourselves and don’t practice what we preach. But it is healthy to vent so you get it off your chest and so that you don’t crumble. But if you do crumble or feel like you are about to, please know that I’m only a phone call or email away.

    1. Yes, this is what I’m saying — “going it alone” isn’t healthy. And also, instead of feeling like you have to “chin up”, “keep it together” or whatever, having a rage session is not unhealthy providing you are supported because feeling pressure to stay positive all the time can actually be detrimental to your mental health.

  3. So well written!
    We are constantly told to portray positive happy feelings, but we are seldom taught to acknowledge the bad. I think the big mistake is that we suppress those sour feelings and don’t want to or simply don’t know how to confront them. But all emotions are human emotions. We are messy beings! We need to change this poor narrative surrounding these VERY NORMAL feelings of guilt, shame, anger and depression and understand how to navigate them in a healthy way. I think that is when we really start to learn about our true selves!
    Much love xoxox

    1. Exactly. Understanding how to navigate these feelings is huge. Feeling safe to navigate these feelings with someone is part of it. You can’t resolve/accept/deal with the difficult feelings if you get shut down come the time you do try to navigate. It takes SO much courage to deal with the uglies. Much love right back to you xoxoxo

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