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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

everyone's a little sad

In classic second-grade fashion, my classmates had been especially rowdy during line-up. Our hyper-strict teacher had punished them with 15 minutes of quiet time during the subsequent recess. I was an avid-rule follower and a 'kindergarten buddy', which meant I had been outside doling out jump ropes and basketballs to younger students while the indiscretion had taken place. Spotting my chubby little arms carrying a too-large basket full of toys inside the stairwell, my teacher alerted me that I would be included in the consequences. Solid alibi aside, I would be forced to endure the 15 minutes of humiliation and it would have to be done alone.

I'm not sure if you all remember this, but 15-minute time outs are a big deal. 5 are for minor problems like talking out of turn. 10 are for troublemakers who didn't listen to a teacher at least twice. So, 15 minutes, felt like the end of the world, especially for a student who had never been in trouble before, in her entire life. My favorite teacher, Ms. Kren, just so happened to be the recess supervisor on the day of my reckoning. When she saw my name in red ink on the clipboard, she whispered to the teacher next to her, gestured toward me, and shook her head.

On the stoops of the red, velvet indoor theater risers, I felt like it was my execution day. Immediately, seven-year-old me lost her mind. I started wordlessly weeping where I sat. The rules of time-out are as stands, no one is allowed to talk to you. But, boy, they sure can look at you. I tried to hide my shame behind my hands, but it did not stop the embarrassment and did nothing to stop the tears. I felt helpless to my emotions, to my supposed failure as a good student, and to the public display of my humiliation.

When 15 minutes had passed, Ms. Kren joined me on the stoop and put her arm around my shoulders. She asked me what I did to get in trouble. I was so devastated that I could not even explain the circumstances of my punishment. "I'm," deep breath, shuddering sob, "sorry," dramatic inhale, shaky, breathy exhale.

This story makes clear that when I was growing up, I was the inconsolable child who cried whenever they felt like they had failed in the eyes of someone else. Mild inconvenience or true misfortune - when I didn't have the words to express what I was feeling, my body gave me no choice but to break down into a fit of sobs, devastated shudders, and wordless tears.

I was aware that it was embarrassing that I couldn't regulate my emotions, I just wasn't sure why it felt that way. Or why I was crying, even. Nobody else was silently crying at their desk because they got a 98 on a math assignment, and yet, I was. Whenever I could tell that someone did not like me, I shrunk into my seat and went mute. As a sixth grader, I remember wishing I could reach into the mirror and shake the sadness out of my bones.

Eventually, I adjusted to the belief that my sensitivity was a deep flaw. I wanted to avoid that sense of shame that came whenever I had been vulnerable in front of people. I could burrow beneath the grave of my depression by burying myself even further underneath self-deprecating jokes and other people's problems. If someone pointed out my sensitivity that meant I had failed. That was a one-way ticket to my present self shutting down and the self-loathing voices trickling into my ears. You're so hard to be around. Everyone else got the joke - why didn't you?

The older I got, the more I hated it when people saw me cry. Why? Sure, it showed weakness, but even more so, it revealed to everyone the unsteady ground on which I walked. If they could see right through me, they'd see more than just the tears - but what it revealed about myself. I had an inherent self-doubt and need to be liked, which I was trying so terribly and clumsily to conceal. I wanted to be solid. I wanted to be reliable. I wanted to be loved. But how could I possibly achieve that when I resented the core of what made me who I am?

I could cry in front of strangers in public and post about it on my private story, but wouldn't even dream of crying in front of my friends. I could cry at home with the door shut, the lights off, and my family watching television downstairs. The guilt I carried for being so emotional, well, it made me feel like I had to hide. If I couldn't be normal, then the least I could do was not be a burden.

I became resigned to the idea that I might be stuck inside my sadness forever. Maybe I deserved that fate, even. I could never take criticism the correct way, I was never able to get made fun of without feeling a deep ache in my bones, and I was never the 'cool' person. I could sit in a room filled with the people who I knew cared about me and still, never successfully chase away the constant gnawing in my chest and the restless voices in my head. What was it? The loneliness of never feeling like anyone understood me, yes. Even more so, the isolation of knowing that I refused to understand myself.

Avoiding my sadness was not the answer, but trusting people did not come easily to me. I had to learn what it was from my past that I was carrying with me into my present life that was making it impossible for me to be happy. A babysitter that had left without saying goodbye, an estranged best friend that I missed sincerely, my high school years which had made me feel inherently unloveable, anyone who had walked away when all I needed from them was a smile.

After nearly two years of therapy, an anti-depressant prescription, and being surrounded by solid people - I finally feel an acceptance of who I am. I can embrace my sensitivity, while finally being capable of letting go of my inherent need to please. That need to please, by the way, will always be there. The growth comes from learning how to ignore its screeching voice.

Life is still having to convince myself that I am not sitting on that theater step all alone, incapable of expressing how I feel, with nobody willing to listen. Aren't I there, though? Oh wait, I'm not. Even if, I cried in the kitchen yesterday when my mom opened up a pack of veal (poor baby cows), and I cried on the car ride home when Elle Woods sang, "Some girls are just meant to smile" (poor legally blonde). At night, I ruminate over everything I have ever failed, every mistake I have made, and everything I wish I could change about myself. Maybe one day, I will fall asleep with a grin on my face and peace in my heart. Maybe even tonight.

The important thing is that every morning I wake up and try again. Try to be braver, more vulnerable even. To embrace the softness in my spirit and be thankful that external circumstances haven't hardened me (even if it makes me more susceptible to sadness in the future.) My sensitivity makes me special in ways that other people's brashness makes them special too. I'm grateful to have a heart that breaks so easily. I'm thankful for the people who have been there to sew it back together. I'm content because, for the first time in my whole life, I have a heart that finally loves herself back.

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