You might say that I’ve always been lonely. Rarely alone, but always lonely. I experience some difficulty in letting people get close to me. It’s a weird dichotomy that I’m constantly straddling in my social situations. I’m very all or nothing when it comes to sharing with others. I have plenty of amazing friends, but most don’t know about anything that occurred in my life before the age of 19, really. In my youth, I was an avid over-sharer and I’ve spent the last 3 years of my life desperately trying to overcompensate in the opposite direction. To accomplish this, I smile…a lot.
When you’re a woman, and you’re smiling, somehow most people just assume that’s your natural state of being. All is right in her world, nothing to see here, move along, folks! So, people ask less questions…and if you’re so busy smiling, you’re generally not offering up a lot of conversation, at least not the deep stuff. Nothing about betrayal by the church. Nothing about abuse and addiction in your childhood. Nothing about numerous episodes of date rape. So, I smile.
Sometimes, I muster up the nerve to nod in apathetic agreement and other times I simply adjust the width of the smile in reply to their statements. “I just don’t understand this whole feminist thing, ya know?” *quick, narrow smile* “Moms are just the greatest. They just don’t get the respect they should.” *Wider smile accompanied by blank stare* That’s my routine these days. So far, it has led to quite a bit of success; both professionally and personally (whatever personal success looks like, I guess). This really could be neatly tied in with what a lot of folks refer to as white privilege. Blonde, femme, cis, pale white, woman, smiling and gently nodding…I’m not here to lie to you, that privilege is social credit, a “card,” if you will. Actually, that’s like having two Discover cards, a Mastercard, and a Visa card to whip out in case of emergencies. It’s like my whole social existence is run on credit. People giving me shit I haven’t quite earned, but asking for me to give something back in return, something I usually don’t have…maybe with a little extra on top. What do they want to fill their pockets with? Some want silence, inaction, and obedience. Some want validation, adoration, and a bit of envy.
You know what having and using these cards won’t get me? Cash. Cold, hard, cash. Sure, you can hold a card; feel it rest lightly between your fingers. Cash though, numerous bills, mixed with germ-ridden change…that’s different. It’s much more tangible. You have to earn it or take it and sometimes that is a thinner line than most folks are comfortable acknowledging. It’s fluid, risky, and honestly, becoming less common in our society.
The exchange of cash as social currency looks a lot like being honest. I don’t mean the kind of “honest” people perform when leaving comments on some controversial YouTube video…or attaching a hashtag to their truth, which inevitably gets lost among the other 10’s of 1,000’s of hashtags going viral that week. I mean the kind of honesty you get when you are riding in a car with a friend and gradually, you find yourself comparing stories of experiencing depression. I won’t say suffering from depression, because maybe that’s not really the case for them, but it’s an experience. They tell you about their own self-harming tendencies and you remark about the fine, white scars left behind from your own. Neither of you are smiling. There is no nodding. There is just a yearning to truly listen and understand someone and what they have gone through, find the differences and similarities within yourself, and give back to that encounter an equal measure of authenticity, honesty, and empathy.
This is not the sort of thing that I can bring to a potluck with friends at the end of finals week, not the kind of thing I can pick up at the mall, not the sort of thing that will land me a promotion. This is the sort of thing I’ve been told should be kept caged until gently and appropriately released from it’s cage into the captive environment of my therapist’s office. For 50 minutes, every 3 weeks, I get to express my humanity. Still though, it comes from the swipe of a card. There is no reciprocation. No comradery. Although my smile and nod has been replaced with truth and courage. What I receive, what I get in exchange for my social (and literal) currency, is an ever so professional smile, nod, and “that’s our time for today”.
I leave feeling as though my emotional piggy bank has just been smashed, my crumpled bills and loose change swept into someone’s pocket, and I leave. I report back to my social station, put on my smile, and nod for the next 3 weeks. I’m not trying to discredit the field of psychology or the professional and emotional burden of mental health workers, but what I’m trying to say is that it is not enough. It’s not even close to enough. Sure, we all need a presumably safe, sterile, environment to unleash some of the more feral of emotions, but what about the other 167 hours of the week? It’s like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall. It doesn’t mean I’m not falling, we’re not falling, but I’ll be damned if anyone can hear anything through the smiles.
Next time you catch yourself smiling blankly, maybe offering nothing more than a gentle nod to the conversation; feeling the distance between you and the other people fill with polite apathy, take a moment of mindfulness. Ask yourself, do you want to live your life on cash or credit?
*Author’s note: This article is not about economic inequality and unless explicitly described as “literal”, I’m using ‘cash’ and ‘credit’ as an analogy for the kinds and qualities or interpersonal interaction. Thank you for your understanding. Also, if you feel the way described above after leaving your therapy appointment, it might be time to change counsellors. I have, since first writing this, and it has been both life-changing and life-saving.*