My hands felt numb as the cold sank through my mittens, surrounding each of my fingers. The biting cold froze my face, passing straight through the mask that I thought would keep me warm enough. The hood from my sweatshirt under my not-warm-enough jacket did nothing but keep my hair out of my face. It didn’t block the wind from my face or my ears like I thought it would, and snowflakes still piled onto my already slightly damp hair.
13 degrees outside and I still decided it was a good idea to take an hour-long walk. It was better than sitting in my apartment where all my roommates would be able to sense my sadness. I needed to leave. I needed to think. I needed to be sad, and I needed to do it alone.
I am not one to talk about my feelings to others. I bottle them up. I bury them deep inside and slowly shovel them out when my roommate goes to class or work, falling into my unhealthy coping habit of staying in bed and wallowing. But as the semester progressed and my emotional well-being got worse and worse, the pile became bigger and it became harder to hide. I lost any form of motivation. I lost all interest in everything I used to find enjoyable. I stopped caring—about everything. My roommate and a couple of my other friends started to notice my room turn into an abyss of clutter that I never left. My grades started to slip since I never went to class. I’d simply lay in bed all day and stare at the ceiling, listening to music. When probed about these valid concerns, the only thing I felt I could do was ignore my loved ones and tell them I was fine. I pretended I was not sad or going through anything because, in my head, telling them would only make me feel worse.
Avoiding vulnerability was something ingrained in me since childhood. Crying or sadness were inherent signs of weakness, and my family tried to hide displaying these indications of emotion. It started with my mother picking the master bathroom as her secret cry spot. It was the perfect spot. The bathroom fan drowned out any noise. She would stay there for a while because she had to “shower,” and that’s the only reason her eyes were red, she must’ve gotten shampoo in them. Leaving her asylum of vulnerability, she would simply wash away any leftover emotion on her face before returning to the living room. If I ever dared to ask her if she was okay, she’d lie. She’d look me in the eyes and tell me there was nothing wrong and that she only had a cold. It was believable when I was in elementary school, but after, I started seeing right through it only because I started to do the same. I’d always felt guilty for not asking her if she was okay multiple times, but I did not want to pry. I knew she hid it so we wouldn’t have to ever worry. My mother did that so often that I quickly took after her for the same reasons.
In middle and high school, I was always praised for not displaying my emotions. My friends or teachers would compliment me on my “level-headedness.” It was a good thing that I never got emotional. I was admired for my facade of emotionlessness and, as a result, it got to my head. They told me how jealous they were that I would never get hot-headed. How helpful that would be for when I got older. How it was healthy to deal with my emotions like that. How easy it would be for me to handle intense situations. Bottling my feelings started to sound more and more like being strong — something positive that others wanted to see in themselves. And so, I hid how sad and empty I felt more and more — from my family and my friends. For a while, I even hid them from myself. I didn’t understand why I felt like this, so I told myself that I was fine every time I felt sad, until eventually, I started to believe it. I convinced myself that I was fine and every time I got emotional, I was just overreacting. I got mad at myself every time a wet streak rolled down my cheek, embarrassed to be crying — something I thought was a sign of weakness. Whenever people at my school would cry in front of their friends or post on their friends-only social media, their friends would just make fun of them, or get annoyed. I’d hear their friends talk about them behind their back, laughing. They’d get coined as doing it for attention. Somehow showing emotion was seen as negative. And through that, my avoidance transitioned into a fear of showing emotion.
But this past December, it became almost impossible to hide how empty I was feeling anymore. My roommate could easily sense it. She’d walk in on me having some form of breakdown from bottling everything up, which only made me feel worse knowing that she saw a part of me I worked so hard to keep hidden since I was a child. And slowly, the wall I built up started crumbling. Over time, a couple of my other friends saw me randomly burst into tears while talking to them.
As a result, I decided to take the advice my friend Alli gave me a few years ago. She bought me a journal and encouraged me to start writing in it, since she had been doing so for years and enjoyed it. After two years of ignoring her advice and a public breakdown, I decided I’d give it a try. So I started journaling. I’d force myself to sit down when my roommate was at class, and just write my thoughts down: what I was feeling and what happened that day. And while no one will ever read it other than myself, I was at least getting my emotions out and accepting them. For a while now, I have been writing my pieces, which force me to open up to my computer screen and eventually, to whoever reads them. But opening up to a complete stranger does not scare me as much as opening up to the people closest to me in my life, and even so, I am trying to fix that. I told my best friend about what I have been going through this past semester and have slowly been telling her about my feelings as they arise instead of bottling them up. Just recently, I pushed myself to even speak to my mother about it. And, a couple days ago, I reached out to a professional.While I wish I was able to say that I talked to my mother completely on my own will, she noticed something was wrong and pushed me to talk about it with her. But still, I opened up to her, even though I stumbled on every word and froze. And even though I opened up to my closest friends, before I say anything, I make them promise they won’t react. They won’t try to comfort me. If I start to cry, which I almost always do at even the thought of being vulnerable, I make them promise to pretend they don’t notice. I make them become a stone wall that I can bounce my voice off of just to get it out. I hated the idea of them pitying me the same way I would pity my mother when I knew she was crying. As if I could not take care of myself. Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction. Coming to terms and accepting that I am feeling down has been hard, and sharing that with others only feels harder. I still sometimes wish I could go back to when I bottled my feelings up and nobody knew. My face still gets red every time I see one of my friends who saw me break down; I still cringe thinking back to my conversation with my mother. Seeing her turn away as a tear slipped down her cheek to try to be strong for me formed a deep pit in my stomach that comes back every time I think about it. But I know it’s all for the best and it’ll only help me work through these feelings in the end. So through reflection, I hope to use next semester as a semester of positivity. A semester of healing. A semester of real strength. And as a semester of vulnerability.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be reached at email@example.com.