Live Through This

Hello, Darkness

The sad parts of life are just as important as the happy ones.

Collage by Emma D.

Collage by Emma D.

For my fifth birthday, my parents drove us down to Disney World in a borrowed car with a cracked windshield. The whole time, even when I was sucking cotton candy off my fingers, giving my stack of quarters to Mickey Mouse–hatted employees to try and win a stuffed Minnie (only to have my father buy one for me—“This way, it won’t cost me hundreds of dollars worth of quarters”), and hugging Donald Duck (my favorite because he sounded like a fun-ass baby with too much saliva in his mouth), and throughout so many joyous firsts—seeing palm trees, wearing a T-shirt in December, sticking popcorn in my nostrils and yelling, “Look! A new kind of eating!”—I had one disturbing thought that wouldn’t leave me alone: We are all going to die.

Not like right then and there (although this was a possibility—riding Space Mountain made me think I was going to drop straight down to the last rung of hell). I was concerned with the idea that I would have to die eventually, and so would everyone I loved. My father, who carried me on his shoulders whenever I got tired? He would have to die one day. My mother, who smelled so much like flowers that I would think of any excuse to make her bend down close to me (“Is there something on my face?” was a favorite ploy) because sometimes, as she did, her long black hair would fall over my face and I could pretend it was my own hair? She too was going to die. Whether it happened now, soon, or later didn’t matter. Once someone died, time was irrelevant, time was useless, time was over.

Other thoughts I had on the weekend of my fifth birthday in Disney World, Florida, included:

  • I need more candy.
  • Why do people have to die?
  • Why did I have to be born into a loving family who will all die?
  • Why do I have thoughts?
  • I WANT TO WEAR CINDERELLA’S DRESS OH PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEASE LET ME.
  • Is my mom afraid of dying, too?
  • I wonder if we can have McDonald’s for breakfast AND lunch AND dinner!

Thus began my lifelong tendency to see the bad, dark, scary, and sad parts of life just as vividly, at least, as the good ones.

I slept over my best friend’s house for the first time when I was 10 years old. Instead of being elated that my parents were finally allowing me to stay the night somewhere else, I was wracked with guilt. Why did I want to pull away from my parents? They’d say, “We wish you didn’t have to grow up. We wish we could stay like this, as a family, forever,” and it gave me tons of anxiety. My parents were so incredibly loving that I couldn’t have fun with my friends without stressing out about making them unhappy by leaving.

“Do you ever feel guilty doing things without your parents?” I asked my friend. “Like, when we go to the mall, and they drop us off and go home and wait for us to call them so they can pick us up—does that make you sad at all?”

“You think way too much,” she said. “I highly doubt our parents care what we’re doing. They’re probably excited to have some time away from us.” But the idea of taking joy in their loss was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep for wondering if they couldn’t sleep, and worrying that they might be worrying about me.

My mother’s motto was “Be happy. Don’t worry.” She said she woke up happy every single day. She trusted everyone and claimed that no one had ever lied to her in her entire life, and even though she knew that wasn’t possible, she still believed it. In pictures, her smile was always so huge and uncontained that it appeared to be bursting at the seams, like she couldn’t smile wide enough—like she could spend the rest of her life smiling, and it wouldn’t be enough to express how happy she was to be alive.

“Your mom is a happy-go-lucky type,” my dad said when I asked why she smiled like that in photos.

“I see that,” I said, even though I didn’t totally believe it. If she was so happy, why did she snap at me whenever I refused to pose in family photographs? “Smile with your teeth,” she would tell me whenever the camera came out.

“Just because you smile like that,” I said, “doesn’t mean everyone has to.”

“Yes, you have to smile like that,” she would say.

She also liked to say, “You will be happy if you strive to live a normal life.” When I started high school, it angered me how her version of happiness negated mine. Her happiness seemed to work only when other people did exactly what she did; it left little room for other ways of being. Why did she insist that what I really wanted wasn’t to be a writer, but to find a stable job as a dentist or a pharmacist, when I had never even once expressed an interest in cleaning teeth or learning about the chemical compounds in medicine? If she really valued my happiness, couldn’t she let me decide for myself what sort of life I wanted?

Like other self-proclaimed optimists I knew, my mom made it sound like happiness was a choice, and anyone who was unhappy was simply choosing to be miserable, even though it was clear as day to me that if anything, she was choosing to ignore the things that did not fit neatly into her idea of happiness, and that was its own form of tyranny.

My father, for his part, saw my stubborn refusal to submit to happiness as a waste of energy: It was self-defeating, self-pitying, and utterly boring. Whenever I bitched and moaned about the trials and tribulations of the life of a teenage girl, whether it was how I didn’t like or respect a single one of my classmates, or how some of my teachers were just as shallow, superficial, and popularity-obsessed as the kids were, or how unfair it wasthat the boys in my class shouted out the answers and talked over people like me, or how every other person my age was allowed to go to prom afterparties except me, his sympathies were limited.

“You love to feel bad,” he told me. “It’s your favorite feeling. Most people like to feel good, but not you. You love to make life hard for yourself.”

“Forget you, Dad,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Go ahead. Keep feeling bad. Let me give you some more things to feel bad about. You can take some from me, since you love it so much.”

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27 Comments

  • CBM July 15th, 2014 4:02 PM

    I’m loving all the “live through this” articles! Great job Jenny, I really related to this.

  • mimsydeux July 15th, 2014 4:08 PM

    Jenny, I’m on a train that’s stuck somewhere along the Hudson River in New York. I’m on my way to visit family in the States I haven’t seen in 5+ years. Thank you for expressing so beautifully what I’ve felt over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling. I haven’t always felt like the bubbliest person in the room, and I feel like there’s so much pressure to “prove” myself with relatives I don’t see too often. You’ve made me feel better about staying my authentic self and letting my light shine that way.

  • alexithymia July 15th, 2014 4:31 PM

    this is really inspiring and the tough week I am having just got a different view. thank you.

  • catharinerf July 15th, 2014 4:42 PM

    I’ve thought about this so much, especially dealing with anxiety etc.. I’ve given up the idea that happiness is the ultimate goal and I’m trying to just experience being a whole person

    http://www.chassagnewaterfalls.blogspot.ca

  • leighann July 15th, 2014 4:52 PM

    I think most of us think this way.
    I believe if we are good in our hearts we never die completely. I have a deep hope to see everyone again after I leave this not so perfect world

  • Estelle July 15th, 2014 7:54 PM

    I LUV YOU JENNY

  • JGrace July 15th, 2014 9:01 PM

    THIS IS FANTASTIC. I really, really love this. Thank you.

  • Abby July 15th, 2014 9:35 PM

    This is amazing. AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING. Thank you. I feel like I get a lot of flack for being sort of like this… I’m really passionate about social issues (as a soc/psych major it comes with the territory), and people always tell me I talk about bad things too much, or bring up the problems with the world too often, or just am a “downer” in general. But it’s not that I like to be miserable or anything, it’s just that I see a lot of problems that I think we need to work to fix, and my passion is to talk about these problems and their solutions.

    Also, that part about Jenny’s friend who wanted the flag tattoo really resonated with me. My dad works for the government, and he gets annoyed when I criticize America, because he thinks I’m attacking like patriotism or the american dream or some shit like that. But seriously, America has done some really fucking bad shit. And we’re STILL doing some really fucking bad shit. And I can’t say I’m proud of my country for the good things without acknowledging the bad things. I guess I’m that way with everything. I don’t really LOOK for the bad in everything… it just seems to stick out to me the most.

    Anyway, thank you sooo much for this article, Jenny… it means so much to me.

  • kimchi July 15th, 2014 10:06 PM

    It is weird how being dark or introspective is often perceived as being negative or antisocial. Sometimes I just won’t feel like talking to anyone at a party and then I’ll end up taking pictures of pretty lights for a few hours. A lot of times people will come up to me and ask me if I am okay because they think there is something wrong. There tends to be a misconception that certain people are shy and have low self-esteem, when really they are just thoughtful and extremely in touch with themselves and their emotions. Jenny’s piece makes me think of the first episode of Daria. It is important to be true to yourself and your emotions, but I suppose it can also be useful to show the world the fake grin they want to see to in order to get them off your back sometimes. Recently I’ve felt very weird about volunteering too. Certain types of volunteering such as working in kitchens or charity shops are pretty accessible to everyone, but the types of volunteering which involve travel often seem to only be available to those in positions of relative privilege. Volunteering itself is a noble thing to do, but in this new realm of social media it often seems like travel volunteering is often done to get on the radar of others more than anything else. I’ve come to know many people who have done volunteering, but it seems like travel volunteering is only available and accessible to a specific demographic of people which really sucks.

    http://glitterous-clitoris.blogspot.com.au/

    • Catrine July 16th, 2014 3:03 PM

      “There tends to be a misconception that certain people are shy and have low self-esteem, when really they are just thoughtful and extremely in touch with themselves and their emotions.”

      I love how you just said that. That is one of the most spot-on assessments of quieter people I have ever seen. Speaking for myself, I am not shy or intimidated easily, but there are times when I feel like being quiet and in my own head.

  • TessAnnesley July 15th, 2014 10:54 PM

    how do i find another way to say that everything Jenny writes is amazing

  • cestlaviee July 15th, 2014 11:40 PM

    this article was OMG SO AMAZING!!

  • juliamaine July 16th, 2014 12:26 AM

    This is honestly so beautiful and I can relate to it so much. People often tell me I spend too much time thinking about things that others tend to just ignore. I am always wondering if anything we’re doing on earth right now has any real meaning, because I know we’re all going to be dead eventually. As depressing as that sounds, it never makes me sad. I just see it as another fact of life. It does, however, hinder my ability to just GET THINGS DONE (“things” dealing with school, money, jobs, etc.) I am still trying to figure out how to function in society when, in the back of my mind, I am always asking myself, “What’s the point? I’m going to be dead one day.”

    Anyway, this made me feel a lot less weird about my own thought process. I’m also a lot more hopeful now that one day I will find someone to discuss these darker thoughts with. Thank you so much!

    • Abby July 16th, 2014 4:53 PM

      I totally feel this. Like… I constantly think, “why am I doing this?” when I’m doing something for school. I’m studying hard in college so that I can find a good job and get into grad school so that I can get a better job so that I can pay off my debt from grad school and have money to live so I can exist in society for so many years until I die. Like literally everything I do is so that I can just… function in society until I die. That’s so fucking shitty.

      Whelp, I just made myself feel bad lol. Anywayyy… Thanks, and I feel you.

  • Kal July 16th, 2014 1:42 AM

    Jenny I related to this so much. A lot of the times I feel like my ability to find some sort of darkness in everything is not an ability but a major character flaw. Although I agree with what you said about there being some sort of clarity there entirely.

    Such beautiful writing.

    Kali
    zymurgyprocess.com

  • Sophii July 16th, 2014 10:22 AM

    This is one of the most beautiful things that I have read on Rookie (and there have been a lot of wonderful articles.) Whenever I talk about the darker parts of life or call out casual racism/sexism/transphobia, the people around me just laugh like “here she goes again…” It’s kind of disheartening to recognise how terribly cruel human beings can be, but being aware of that is a benefit when it comes to recognising the great love and tenderness that people can show to each other. Seeing the bad makes the good appear even better, I think.

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blospot.co.uk

  • Knee-KeyK July 16th, 2014 3:18 PM

    I find “to love despite all that she has seen” quite difficult.

  • Me_Magalloway July 16th, 2014 5:14 PM

    My dad says that he likes to maintain a constant level of emotion. He describes it like a spectrum: While normal people go up and down, there’s generally a “line of best fit” (he’s a scientist, so you know). He likes to remain just slightly below that line, constantly, so that he doesn’t have to drop as low as other people do.
    And all I can think is, why would you want to give up those highs? By making your world “dim” you are missing the dark and the light. Cliche, I know, but still.
    Dark thoughts have permanent residence in my mind, and I’m always the one to share bad news and get in heavy political debates. You can’t ignore all these bad things, because nothing will ever change if you do.
    And the part about the American flag- to me, the worst thing is when a person is blindly patriotic. Those people who see images of freedom, equality, and bald eagles when they hear the national anthem.
    It just doesn’t seem honest. That type of optimism seems like the surface of an ocean- all you get is the reflection of the sky. I would prefer a deep sea, because you can swim in it and accomplish things, and see the whole picture.
    Thank you, Jenny, for writing these thoughts so eloquently.

    http://navigating-fairyland.blogspot.com/

  • Lillypod July 16th, 2014 5:25 PM

    The last few paragraphs really resonate. And it’s so true — I find these “happygolucky” people flake out in a crisis, too emotionally immature to deal with the reality of life. These people are literally scared of the darkness. Its not a good way to be and it makes you a crap friend.

  • Berries July 17th, 2014 11:06 AM

    I can relate to this a lot. I also thought a lot about death and dark things when I was younger, and I still do. I can look like a pessimist, when I think I am just more realistic than most people are. My mother keeps saying that other people are cheerful and deny their problems ‘to keep their heads up’. I was never like that and I think I can never be like that. I don’t even know how to do that, actually. I don’t understand that ”naievity” (though often it’s more a choice to see things ”too brightly” I guess, than actualy naievity).

    However, I think it also brought me beautiful things. I can appreciate things – not because they are PERFECT or JUST WHAT I WANTED or GORGEOUS but because they are beautiful, a sparkle of light when I need it, etc. I don’t take shit for granted, ever. I can write poetry, feel deep love for my friends and can experience compassion for about everyone because I too experience such a wide range of emotions. I also often think ”it could have been much worse”.

  • RobinF July 17th, 2014 1:01 PM

    I looove reading your writings, Jenny! You seem like such an interesting person.

  • hazylenses July 17th, 2014 5:57 PM

    I love the way Jenny examined living in a balance between pessimism and optimism–a difficult challenge for everybody. The very last sentence in particular I found to be extremely powerful.
    Beautiful article.

    hazylenses.tumblr.com

  • maggiehab July 18th, 2014 8:47 PM

    I relate to this so well. Didn’t know that anyone else felt the same way… Love this piece.

  • IrieJane July 19th, 2014 6:30 AM

    Jenny, I really love this article. I thought i was alone when it came to feeling this way. This article really helped me. Thank you so much.

  • calinash July 23rd, 2014 1:57 AM

    yes. thank you.

  • xomarielorene August 12th, 2014 9:17 AM

    OMG this article is amazing. I kept copying and pasting paragraphs to that sticky note thing on my desktop because YES. I’m going through a (mildly) dark period – I just broke up with my first boyfriend and it has made me aware of my own darkness and just the complexity of the world – nothing or no one is ever 100% great or 100% terrible. So YES. Thank you.

  • The Wandering Bird August 16th, 2014 10:13 PM

    I honestly think like this all the time and I never thought anybody would or could ever think the same way. Thank you.

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