The Art of Being Sad

February 16, 2016

by Mark Dunning

You come out crying. I mean we all do. A slap on the behind and you start to wail. It’s almost literally the first thing you do. You take your first good, deep breath, and you let out a red-faced wail. You cry your heart out.

Then you spend the rest of your life, it seems, trying not to do it again. Crying demonstrates vulnerability. It can be interpreted as weakness. Sometimes it comes with laughter or happiness. Sometimes it’s squeezed out with frustration or anger. But mostly we cry when we are sad. And that’s what I wanted to talk about today.

Being sad. Not just feeling sad. You can’t really help but feel sad. That just happens, especially when you are dealing with a disease like Usher syndrome. No, I mean the act of being sad, allowing yourself to cry, opening the flood gates, setting off on a good sniffle, being weak to be strong, allowing a wound to drain so it can heal.

Image of woman looking out at a lake. Quote reads "Sadness, in its solid form, is depression, a frozen unyielding block that sits, suffocating, upon the chest and shoulders." - Mark Dunning

Despite the fact that even a baby can do it, being sad is not all that easy, especially as you become an adult. It’s quite discouraged, actually. Being sad is treated like an infection, a sneeze, an unwanted virus. Who hasn’t heard some variation of ‘When you are sad, I am sad’ or ‘It makes me so unhappy to see you sad’ or ‘I hate it when you are sad’? All said with the best of intentions, mind you, but all have the collective result of making one feel guilty for being sad.

The problem with refusing to be sad when you feel sad is that you never let it out. It just sits there inside you, hardening. Sadness, in its solid form, is depression, a frozen unyielding block that sits, suffocating, upon the chest and shoulders. Or a slow moving glacier that lasts eons, carrying boulders scored with the wounds of the past, inching, grinding, crushing. Hold it in long enough and it can feel so imposing, so impossible, that its end is beyond imagination.

But even glaciers can melt, trickle by trickle, berg by berg, spitting cataracts into the sea. Mine is dissolving, slowly. The ice age of the divorce is thawing and exposing some of what was trapped in the ice. And it is illuminating life with Usher syndrome, where sad is a frequent guest.

I tend to be upbeat and positive in my posts. I stress hope. I frown upon the notion that life with Usher syndrome is a miserable existence. I stand completely by those terms. Usher syndrome can mean a lot of things, including community and friendships and family. Wonderful uplifting exhilarating things. But Usher syndrome is also a place with bogs and lowlands where the mist gathers and the sadness pools.

To drain those pools, you must first be willing to recognize their existence, and then allow yourself to be sad. It is a lesson I have been slowly learning. To be truly happy you have to let yourself be truly sad.

Being sad is an art form, a melody, a dance. The trick is to keep it moving, viscous and flowing, lest it freeze solid. That doesn’t mean moving like someone running from heavy fire. Don’t avoid the sadness. Nor does it mean that it should drip, constant and infuriating, like a leaky faucet. No, sadness should be poured in to a pail to be emptied when it is full.

In other words, don’t cry all the time, just cry when you need to. You don’t have to do it in public. You don’t have to do it over dinner. Fill up your pail, drip by drip, day by day, then go in your room after the kids have gone to sleep, and pour it all out. Sit on the floor in the dark and cry. Stand in the shower, soap in your hair, and cry. Then come out red-eyed and blame the shampoo. It doesn’t matter how you let it out, just do it.

I have a friend who, currently, cries every day. She told me this with a smile at brunch, her eyes welling up while she cut her eggs benedict. It was a new phenomenon, the everyday thing. She was going through a tough stretch. She suspected it would slow down in the near future. But she insisted she was much better for it. When she felt sad, she let herself be sad. She cried. She soaked a pillow. She sniffled over coffee and mixed her tears with her shower.

It hadn’t always been that way, she said. She has Usher syndrome. When she was younger she felt a need to protect her family from the disease. She knew her parents worried about her, wanted her to be happy. She didn’t want to disappoint them. So even though she FELT sad she wouldn’t let herself BE sad. And when her parents got divorced, it seemed even more imperative that she NOT be sad. She only saw them part of the time then. It was important to use their limited time positively. She couldn’t waste it being sad.

But all that sadness built inside her. At first, caged, it raged. She acted out. Did things out of character. Then it settled down in to a heavy solid block that made her lethargic and morose.

The longer she held in the sadness, the harder it became to let it out. It was like water behind a dike. Opening the valve even a little threatened to unleash a torrent. But she did it, little by little at first. Then, as she grew in confidence, she let herself go, laying in pools of tears, crying for hours, wasting a day in a puddle. And it was the best thing she did. Because once the lake was drained, she could function, again, as herself.

She still feels sad. Occasionally mostly, frequently at times. So she cries. She lets it loose, drains the bog, then stands on solid ground.

Usher syndrome is about constant loss and mourning. Regulating that flow rather than damming it up is the key. Learn the dance, find a way to let the pressure out. Be creative. Being sad is an art.

Now go. It may be a beautiful day outside, but you have my permission. Be sad.

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