it’s okay to feel sad sometimes

Last week, for whatever reason, I found myself in a bit of a funk.

I typically wake up feeling excited to face the day, raring to go on my projects. I typically feel focused and motivated about my daily tasks. I typically look at the clock and can’t believe how late it’s gotten. Where did the day go? Is it time to start dinner already?

But last week, I was dragging. Last week, I felt stuck. I felt lonely and restless and, most of all… sad.

And I couldn’t pinpoint the reason. Everything was the same as it had always been.

It makes me feel vulnerable to write these words to you right now. It scares me a bit, to admit to feeling sad. Especially because I know that I have so very much to be grateful for. I used to feel guilty anytime feelings of sadness crept in. Like I wasn’t allowed to ever feel anything less than joyful and blessed. I wanted to be strong and self-reliant and cheerful, always. I wanted to comfort other people and never need comfort myself. I liked to think of myself as a giver, not someone who needed to cheering up.

But I realized that pretending to never feel sad is simply another way of building a wall around myself, pretending to be something I’m not, refusing to let people truly see me. I was trying to be “perfect” instead of trying to live wholeheartedly and authentically. I can be grateful for all the bounty and beauty in my life, and still have hard days and still feel down sometimes. I can hold both gratitude and sadness in my heart at the same time. And, I realized that never wanting to need anyone else is just another way of never wanting to be vulnerable. I like being able to give comfort to others. I need to trust that others like being able to give comfort to me sometimes.

Last week, I cried more than I’ve cried in the last six months put together. It seemed anything could set off the tears. Listening to a podcast about an empty-nest couple, the bittersweet pride in their voices as they talked about their youngest child heading off to college. Thinking about Mr. Murray, sleeping on the rug by the front door, and wishing that I lived in the same town as my parents, that I could walk right in and surprise him with a ginormous hug. That commercial with the ostrich who learns to fly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” playing in the background. It was like I walked around with this constant lump in my throat, just waiting to see what would cause the tears to spill forth.

It was so weird. It was so not the version of myself I have come to believe in over the past three decades. I have never been a crier.

One afternoon my brother called to say hi—a routine thing for us—and after a few minutes of talking, I started crying. Like, ugly crying, the kind when you can’t fully catch your breath, and you stay quiet on the line because you know as soon as you try to talk your voice will break again.

My brother was so great, as he always is. He sat on a bench outside the bar where he was meeting some friends for happy hour, and he patiently stayed on the line and talked to me for a little while until I was ready to hang up. He didn’t sound alarmed by my weepiness. He didn’t rattle off a list of things I should do to feel better. He didn’t tell me all the reasons I shouldn’t be feeling the way I was feeling—all the reasons I should only feel joyful in my wonderful life. Instead, he told me that it was okay to feel sad sometimes. He told me to let myself feel what I was feeling. He reminded me that, even though I was feeling genuine sadness in that moment, that the sadness wasn’t going to last forever. That I would begin to feel better soon. And, in the meantime, he told me how much he loved me. He said that multiple times, and each time he said it I began to cry again—but out of gratitude and love for him more than sadness. When we hung up the phone, I still felt sad, but I felt so much better than I had before he called me.

My wish for everyone reading this is that you have a friend in your life like I have my brother. Someone who knows you, at times, better than you know yourself. Someone who isn’t afraid of your ugly crying. Someone who says exactly what you need to hear, exactly when you need to hear it.

{This photo was taken shortly after another time I cried with Greg, when I was visiting him in NYC. It was shortly after Celine died and I was hit with a huge wave of missing her.}

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I don’t tend to get angry or annoyed or frustrated very easily. I don’t yell or snap at people very often. When I get tired, I don’t get crabby. I get sad.

Growing up, when I would feel weepy, my mom would say gently, “Dallas, honey. Go to sleep. You’re tired. You’ll feel so much better when you wake up.”

She was pretty much always right. I would feel better after a nice nap.

So that’s what I still do, if it’s a possibility, when I notice myself feeling “off.” I take a nap, or I sleep in late, or I go to bed early. And I do usually feel a bit better when I open my eyes again. Like the gray film over the world has been swept away. The light seems a little clearer, a little more sparkly.

Other things that made me feel a bit better last week: reading for pleasure; drinking tea and eating dark chocolate; texting with family and friends and Allyn; doing some yoga; going for a walk outside; working on my novel and surprising myself with the story; watching silly videos online; going to the dentist {I was worried I had a cavity, but I didn’t!}

This week, I’m back to feeling much more like myself. The waves of sadness I felt last week seem almost like a strange dream. But I know they’ll be back at some point, because that sadness is a part of me just as happiness is. My varied emotions are all puzzle pieces that fit together into the beautiful, complex mess of being human. As Brooke Castillo reminds us in many of her podcasts, life is about contrast. We wouldn’t have light without darkness. We wouldn’t have happiness without sadness.

In order to embrace my deepest, truest self, I have to be brave enough to acknowledge all of my emotions, not just the ones that make me feel strong and comfortable. I’m learning that embracing my sadness does not give it power over me, as I once thought it would. Just the opposite: only by opening up about feeling down—to myself as well as to others—am I able to move through the discomfort, and, eventually, to move past it.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following questions to spur on some “free-writing”:

  • When was the last time you felt sad, or angry, or frustrated, or “off” in some way? Was there a certain reason, or was it harder to pin down?
  • What helps you feel better when you’re feeling down?
  • What advice would you give a friend who calls you feeling upset? What might happen if you shared those same gentle words and generous spirit with your own self and your own heart?
  • What is an emotion that makes you uncomfortable? How might you take small baby steps to embrace this emotion in your life?

fred

One of my fondest friendship memories is from one of the hardest periods of my life. It was my final semester of grad school and I had broken up with my fiancé two weeks before. I was waiting outside the public library near campus, feeling alone and numb, watching for a familiar red car. Suddenly, there it was, turning the corner and pulling up to the curb. The woman driving was my beautiful friend Holly, with her dark curly hair and tan skin and colorful sunglasses. She smiled and waved, reaching over to open the passenger door. I grabbed my backpack and slid into the car. I couldn’t quite believe she was here, my dear sweet friend who I think of as my sister. She hugged me close and my numbness dissolved into hiccupy sobs.

“Oh, baby girl,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I’m just so happy to see you,” I choked out. Which was the truth. Yes, I was crying with sadness, but mostly I was crying with gratitude and relief that Holly had driven all the way from Nashville to Indiana to spend the weekend with me. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” she replied.

We drove to the apartment I was subletting until graduation. {I had moved out of the apartment I’d shared with my ex.} Holly set down her duffel bag and, without a word, we flung ourselves across my bed, lying on our backs and gazing up at the cottage-cheese ceiling. Holly and I lived together in college, and whenever we see each other it feels like we are living together again. She knows what brand of crackers and yogurt and cereal I buy at the grocery store; we use the same type of hair products; we both listen to Taylor Swift when we get ready in the morning. When other people visit, I often feel like I should plan out an itinerary of Fun Things To Do so they won’t get bored, but visits with Holly tend to include everyday activities like errands and coffeeshop work sessions and doing each other’s dishes. With Holly, it is not uncommon for us to put on a movie, pause it to talk about something, and never finish watching the movie because we’re still talking two hours later. Her friendship is like a comfortable pair of well-worn jeans that I can slip into and be exactly myself.

“Someone wants to say hi,” Holly said, rummaging in her duffel bag. She pulled out a small stuffed animal, a monkey with a well-loved fuzzy body and a wise stitched smile.

“Fred!” I exclaimed, hugging him to my chest. Back in college, Holly’s mom sent her Fred in a care package. Ever since then, Fred has been lent out to me in emergency situations, like when I broke up with my college boyfriend and wanted something to hold as I tried to fall asleep. After college graduation, whenever Holly and I visited each other, Fred was a part of our visits: Holly would bring him on trips, and when I visited her I would fall asleep holding his soft squishable body. For my birthday card one year, Holly took a picture of Fred wearing a birthday hat.

I smiled at Holly. “I can’t believe you brought him!”

“He insisted,” Holly said. “You’re his girl.”

{Fred and me circa blurry cell phone camera, 2013}

It was amazing how happy and comforted I felt holding Fred in my lap. He made me feel connected to earlier versions of myself. I thought of my college self, devastated over the breakup with my college boyfriend. I thought of all the other heartbreaks I’d been through along the way: the dates that never called again, the budding relationships that fizzled out, the guys who wanted too much too fast, the guys I liked but didn’t love. With every heartbreak, I always held out hope that it would be worth it in the long run; that the temporary pain and disappointment were actually stepping stones leading to the eventual joy and fulfillment of finding the person who was right for me. I realized that I owed it not just to my current self, but also to my past selves to keep looking, to keep hoping. Never to settle.

“One day,” Holly said, as if reading my thoughts, “Aunt Holly is going to tell your kids about how their mom was engaged once before she met their dad, and it’s going to be this mysterious tidbit about their mom’s life before she became their mom. And I’m going to tell them how brave their mom was for listening to her gut and her heart, and how it’s so good she did because then she met their dad.”

I squeezed her hand. “You really think so? I’m going to meet him one day?”

“I know so,” Holly said. “And you’re going to be so happy, and you’re going to have absolutely zero doubts, and you’re going to call me up and say, ‘Oh Holly, THIS is what it’s supposed to feel like!’ ” {Side note: When Allyn and I got engaged, I called Holly and that is exactly what I said.}

Over the years, Holly and I have often joked that we live “parallel lives” — it seems that things tend to happen to us simultaneously, whether big things like a new job or small things like a bad haircut. The same week I broke up with my fiancé, she ended things with her boyfriend at the time. We were both in deep pain, but there was also joy buried in there too because at least in the midst of such pain we got to be together. We spent the entire weekend talking and crying and processing and laughing and speculating and crying some more. We went out for dinner and ciders at an Irish pub. We went to the movies. We went to the grocery store because Holly wanted to make sure I had enough food, that I was eating enough. We went to the mall and each found perfect dresses: me, a white lace dress to wear to my thesis reading; Holly, a flouncy gold dress to wear to her school’s formal dance.

Then, all too soon, it was Sunday. Time for Holly to hit the road back to Nashville. We always do goodbyes quickly to keep from crying too much. Holly hoisted her duffel bag onto her shoulder… but she left Fred sitting on my pillow.

“Don’t forget Fred!” I said, grabbing him for her.

“I want you to keep him,” Holly said. “Just for these next few weeks, until I come back for your thesis reading.”

“Are you sure?” It was all I could say at the moment. I felt overwhelmed.

“Yep,” Holly said. “Fred wants to be here with you right now. I wish I could stay with you, but since I can’t, he is staying in my place.”

“Are you sure you’ll be able to come back for my thesis reading? It’s so much driving — I didn’t realize you were coming both weekends — I thought you were just coming this weekend instead —”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Holly said, pulling me in for a hug. I buried my face into her curly hair and let myself cry a little, wondering how it was possible that my heart could feel so broken and yet also so full.

{Holly and me at my thesis reading}

The other day, one of my students was writing a piece about a beloved stuffed animal they had received as a baby, and it made me think about Fred. About how, sometimes, an object can add up to more than its individual parts. Because Fred is not just stuffing and fabric and thread. He is more than that. He is imbued with the memories of my friendship with Holly.

His name has always suited him. He just seems like a Fred. Maybe because — as it struck me the other day — if you take FRED and add IN all the memories and laughter and tears and time you spend together, it adds up to FRIEND. FRED + IN = FRIEND.

When I think of Fred, I think of all the joys Holly and I have celebrated together, and also all the storms we have supported each other through. All the ways that Holly has been there for me and all the ways she has made me feel understood and loved. All of our meandering and silly and heartfelt conversations that Fred has been privy to. Fred, like Holly — and like all beloved stuffed animals and beloved friends — is an outstanding listener. He is patient, and he never judges. He is soft and warm, but he is also tough and durable: made to last. If I were to pick a symbol of true friendship, it wouldn’t be joined hands or friendship bracelets or hearts drawn in the sand. It would be a well-worn, well-loved, stuffed animal monkey with a wise stitched smile named Fred.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” without any self-editing or judgment. Just see what flows out of you. Feel free to use one or more of the following questions as inspiration.

  • Write about a time that a friend was there for you when you needed them the most.
  • Do you have any memories that hold both sadness and joy? Write about them.
  • Describe a beloved stuffed animal and the memories and values they hold for you.
  • What is most important to you in a friend?