Sometimes when I am in a patient’s room, I hear the news of a good report but there might also be some signal of sadness, such as a furrowed brow or a frown. Or a glance into the distance. Sometimes I ask about this, sometimes not. The conflicting emotions are everywhere.
Sometimes the conversation gets interrupted by other staff, or sometimes it’s me. Sometimes I feel too vulnerable to help them explore.
I see the conflicts in others because I see them in myself.
How I relate goes something like this: for a season, about 12 years ago, I went to a very dark place, and thought about ending it all. So I tried to work my way out, and downplayed the difficult things I was feeling because I was afraid, afraid like facing 10 monsters in the darkest alley you can imagine.
Others named the changes in me before I could, which is sometimes how depression works. (also denial. “Nothing amiss here! Time to move along!”) And besides, I can easily fall prey to the strong message in the South that women smile and laugh all the time, and we’re always nice and we learn to hide our struggle behind things like frantic entertaining and praying sweetly composed prayers and wearing just-so clothing.
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” said the Dolly Partin character in Steel Magnolias.
What a weight.
For the record, I very much honor humor. But for me it can also be a crutch, a way to hide.
What emerged after those dark nights of the soul: I’m learning to be more honest, with myself and with others. If I find something to be sobering and harsh, I try not to minimize it. I try to pay attention, sometimes compulsively so. If a patient tells me this is the worst experience of his life, being shackled to a hospital bed, I want to honor that honesty, give his words room to breathe. Life is not hopeless, of course. Thank God there is hope.
But the frowns are often there, too, in plain sight.