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O'TOOLE: Faking it isn't making it: authentic over being stoic

• Nov 7, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Last month in this space, I gushed about turning my suckfest of a life into an amaze-apalooza. I waxed euphoric about toughness and excellence, about being a queen and a bad, um, lass.

And how’s that going for me, you ask? Oh, it’s about as fan-freaking-tastic as the birthday a few years ago when I fell down the stairs, smacked into the wall and sat in the plate of hot pizza I’d been carrying. I sprained and bungled everything in my foot. My ankle swelled to the size of a grapefruit and I ended up on bedrest for two days and walking with crutches for a week.

The painkillers were nice, though.

Funny thing, those painkillers. They only masked the pain. The hurt didn’t go away until the sprains and bruises completely healed.

Emotional pain works the same way. It has to heal completely or the pain keeps coming back. We may have coping mechanisms to numb it, but that’s all they do.

I learned this the hard way recently. October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In past columns, I’ve shared some of my experiences of abusive relationships and sexual assault. I’ve gone to therapy on and off for several years and I considered myself in a healthy emotional place. But last month, I felt myself unraveling.

Because I blocked him on Facebook, the man who sexually harassed me at my former job created a new profile and used it to send me a friend request and message me repeatedly, despite promises that he would never contact me again. His behavior was obsessive, stalky and creepy. It violated my boundaries, which created a fresh wound and reopened the old wounds of sexual abuse I’d suffered in childhood.

Then there were all the “Me Too” posts on Facebook. They were so validating at first. Then they got to be overwhelming as more and more people I knew and loved posted those words. It was just too much, though I already knew that if statistics were accurate I had to know many, many women and men who suffered sexual assault.

I couldn’t eat, sleep or concentrate. I was always on the verge of either bursting into tears or into a rage. My digestion was disturbed, my migraines uncontrollable.

What was wrong with me?

All these years, I’ve been faking fine. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Our culture encourages us to fake fine, to keep a stiff upper lip, to smile through our heartache, to “suck it up.” But when we suppress our emotions and fake fine, “we fake our way out of authentic relationship with God, others and ourselves,” writes Esther Fleece in “No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending.”

Not only do we miss out on honest relationships, but we deny ourselves full healing from trauma and loss. “If we minimize our suffering to a 3 on the pain scale,” says Fleece, “then we will only heal at a 3, as well.”

When I fell down the stairs on my birthday, I picked myself up, wiped off the pizza sauce and hobbled back into the kitchen for more. I could walk and nothing was obviously broken. That meant I was OK, I reasoned.

But the next morning, I awoke in excruciating pain. My ankle and foot were swollen to the aforementioned grapefruit size and deeply bruised. I could walk — if I dragged my injured foot. Just because I got up right away and kept going didn’t mean I was fine, as much as I wished it.

The emergency department doctor ordered me to stay off my foot as much as possible. I was given a brace to wear over the ankle to keep it stabilized. I was told to stay in bed with my foot elevated for two days and to keep ice on it. I needed crutches until my foot could bear my weight again.

An emotional wound is the same. It requires rest. It requires mending. But the first step is to talk about it.

Fleece says, “One of the most effective ways to process pain is to honestly speak it aloud. Pain just sometimes needs to be heard.” Sometimes just putting our hurt into words helps us find our way out of it. Other times, speaking our pain invites others to comfort us and tend to us. It also gives others permission to speak their own pain aloud. “Our suffering can grow us into people of compassion who have the ability to empathize with others,” Fleece writes.

It’s important that we not judge those who are suffering, that we not try to fix them, or offer them platitudes or solutions. That implies that if they would only do the right things, their sadness will disappear. That isn’t true. We should feel privileged to listen to them and offer encouragement and support.

Our culture defines strength as stoicism in adversity. I would much rather be authentic than stoic. And I prefer people who are authentic.

So what if I’m a hot mess? At least I’m real.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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