You Don’t Need to Pretend Everything is OK
The teacher’s face was blurry. “I really need to go to the nurse, I said. I don’t feel so…”
I slumped forward then fell to the ground. I regained consciousness while getting wheeled off to the nurse's office.
I fainted, I realized later, because I had a poorly understood medical condition called POTS. The condition meant that I felt light-headed and nauseous on a daily basis.
After diagnosis, I was immediately told not to tell anyone. This was perhaps my first memory of being told to hide any form of weakness. I was in middle school.
Even after I outgrew POTS, I continued to pretend everything was okay — even when it wasn’t. The people around me were mostly the same way. Keeping closed off seemed like the normal, masculine way to act.
When I was diagnosed with severe Crohn's disease, I continued keeping everything inside. I was in pain on a regular basis and often spent much of the day in bed due to intense fatigue. I feared for my life as medication after medication failed. Yet, I’d still hang out with my friends like nothing was wrong.
I was suffering greatly and never shared my burden with another human (besides limited contact with immediate family). And so, I became more and more isolated and more and more miserable.
The cab ride that changed my life
“So what are you up to? Are you studying?”
Usually, I’d say “yes.” Sometimes I’d say I was a long-distance runner to account for my low weight and that I had a cold to account for my ghostly pale face.
But this time, seemingly out of nowhere, I told the truth. I told him that I’d been diagnosed with severe Crohn's disease and was having a tough time right now.
We didn’t have a deep conversation. He didn’t pry. But finally admitting I had an illness lightened my load. Suddenly, the world became a little less grey.
I realized then that maybe hiding a “weakness” wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe I didn’t need to pretend everything was OK.
So, I continued opening up. To other taxi drivers, to friends, to girls.
I spent a considerable amount of time in hospitals. Usually, I’d lie in bed in a depressed, catatonic stage — speaking to people as little as possible. After that cab ride, I started talking honestly with the nurses and staff.
Opening up reignited me. I had regained my strength, my humanity, my desire to live.
Additionally, opening up seemed to have a positive impact on others. I was told my experience gave them perspective and strengthened their own resolve. Sometimes, they would open up to me and thus lighten their own load.
I learned that what I’d been told starting in middle school was wrong — weakness shouldn’t be hidden. In fact, sharing weakness can make you feel strong and positively impact other people.
The light of truth in a dark world
Privacy is important. I’m certainly not advocating putting out details that could, for instance, harm your professional life. And there’s definitely a line between being open in a positive manner and oversharing unnecessarily. Context is important and so is your level of comfort with sharing personal information.
That being said, if you feel like I used to — that you should “always put your best foot forward” and that “weakness should be hidden” consider revaluating.
You don’t have to conceal your personal struggles from the world. People really are much more accepting than you think. We all have things that we’re ashamed about and parts of ourselves we wish were different. Even if people are dealing with completely different issues, they can often relate and sympathize.
In my experience, people actually respect you more when you’re open about your “weaknesses.” It takes real strength to say “I’m not OK right now and I’m not going to pretend everything is going perfect.”
So, next time you think that you should conceal something that makes you feel weak and alone, try opening up instead.
You may be surprised at how much better you feel. Sometimes, the truth really does set you free.