20 years ago, the only home I’d ever known went up in flames. I was sitting in my 8th grade math class when I was called to the office to check out of school. Instantly, I knew something was really, really wrong.
I spent the rest of the day standing in our yard watching firefighters attempt to put out the fire while also knowing everything would be lost either to the flames or destroyed by smoke or water.
I will never forget leaving that evening to go to my grandmothers where we would spend the next several nights. A friend had gone to Dollar General to buy us things like toothbrushes and deodorant. I remember looking at that bag of essentials and being stunned that inside that Dollar General bag were the only things I owned now.
Losing all of my possessions was a defining moment in my life. It was an awakening that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend at 13.
Something else came out of that experience- I learned to wear a mask. How to make myself small and unseen as the adults in my life tried to cope with a devastating loss I couldn’t understand. I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life. They’d just paid that house off and the insurance wasn’t enough to even begin to start over with. So I said aloud and to myself “it’s okay” over and over. It wasn’t okay.
When people found out that my parents and I were safe and that our cute little dogs who sat in the window were safe, the resounding comment was that “that was all that mattered.” While I get the good intentions behind those words, it made me feel as if I wasn’t allowed to complain or mourn all we’d lost. We had each other and our animals, so all was well according to the outside world. Things are replaceable. That is true. But losing everything you’ve ever owned? That hurts in ways that I’m still figuring out 20 years later as grown woman with a family of my own. But at the time, I just stuffed all of the sorrow and pain and loss and chanted “it’s okay” to myself and anyone who would listen. Because that was what everyone wanted to hear and I knew it.
My mental health deteriorated over the next several months. I was struggling before, but going through a major loss with no one to validate my feelings accelerated the spiral. I turned to writing and while I did ask for help (I’m still really proud of 14 year old me for asking for help), the person I asked wasn’t the right one and I was ignored. Eventually that following summer, I swallowed handful after handful of pills and prayed for death. Obviously, that attempt was unsuccessful and while I was pissed about that, I put my mask on and acted like I was thankful to still be alive. I became an expert at painting that mask on. Thick.
This has gotten so much longer and went in a different direction than I’d planned so I’ll wrap it up here. All of that ??is why I share my mess and my mental health struggles. Because someone needs to know that their feelings are valid and they can wipe that mask off and be real. You don’t have to walk around chanting “it’s okay” when it’s NOT. You don’t have to act like it doesn’t hurt when it feels like your heart has been ripped from your chest. You don’t have to be strong when what you really need is to sob and scream into a pillow about how unfair some shit in life is.
Those are the things I wish I could go back and tell that kid hiding behind the mask. Those are the things I tell my own children.
In May of 2014, I was 25 years old. We were unloading our minivan at our children’s tee ball game. In the stroller, we had our 5 month old daughter who was only alive because she had a tracheotomy and was fed through a g-tube. We had been fighting for her life since December the previous year. We’d also just found out that my dad had cancer at 52 years old. He didn’t just have cancer though- he had terminal lung cancer with a mass on his lungs and so many lesions on his liver, the report simply stated “innumerable.” He wasn’t going to get to fight for his life. I was a 25 year old mom fighting for her infant daughter’s life who’d just found out that her dad was dying. This was the last tee ball season he would witness. I must have looked miserable, because as we trekked through the parking lot with our 3 kids and the machines that kept our youngest alive, a woman looked at me and said “smile, sweetheart! Just say “roll tide!” That was 8 years ago and I think about that lady often. Don’t ever be that person. My dad was buried in an Alabama button-up shirt, but “Roll Tide” sure as hell didn’t fix the devastation I was facing that day in that parking lot.
Please quit invalidating the feelings of others. You truly don’t know what battles they are facing. Sometimes people aren’t just being miserable cows in the Field of Dreams parking lot, they are facing life shattering circumstances.