Grieving for the lost child

Anyone who follows me on social media will know that I love Ask Polly, the advice column written by Heather Havrilesky for NY Mag and previously for the Awl.

I was struck today by her latest response, in which she basically tells the letter writer that she needs to acknowledge that her childhood was shitty and set her up for a faulty worldview, and she needs to grieve for that lost child before she can move on from her internalized sense of betrayal and fear.

Earlier in lab, I was listening to a recent Fresh Air episode, in which a black doctor reflects on the role of race in healthcare–how people are perceived and how they receive and give care as a result. Unexpectedly, he became a psychiatrist, and in this interview, he discussed how taboo mental health is, in general but especially in the African American community (and arguably all minority communities), how it is perceived as “something for white people” who can afford to be mentally weak. When he worked with non-white patients, he tried to talk in terms of their “stresses” instead of mental health, because the former is something that everyone can relate to and acknowledge is normal.

In both of these stories, the writers reference the internalized idea that people should be tough and not dwell on the injustices they have been dealt.* Certainly, there is no use in dwelling, but it doesn’t benefit us to ignore them altogether. There is a time and a place for difficult emotions, or at least there should be. I am reminded of the children’s book The Heart and the Bottle, in which a little girl suffers a great loss, but lacking an outlet or knowledge of how to deal with it, she locks up her heart in a bottle. In doing so, she has locked up her pain, but she has also closed herself off to joy and wonder. This persists into adulthood. It is only when, after a great deal of effort, the heart is set free from the bottle that she is able to feel those positive feelings once more.

This is the premise of the Ask Polly response and the premise of therapy. You can’t soothe a wound by neglect. You have to acknowledge and take care of it before it will heal.

I struggle with this a lot. In the context of the entire world, I am in the top 1-5% in terms of privilege (simply by being born in the US, having enough money for rent and fresh food, having attained a certain level of education, and being of an ethnicity that is deemed unthreatening). But because I have come so far from where I started, where those things were not true, and because of what that life did to my parents, I am a lot less privileged than most of my current peer group. I struggle all the time to neither forget the tough shit that created me, nor stew in self-pity and resentment for what I didn’t and don’t have. In a society that prizes superficial positivity and mental “toughness,” I think it is a necessary reminder that remembering and grieving are not the same as stewing in self-pity.

*I’m choosing to not discuss the racial element in depth, because 1. It would take months of constant writing to do that any sort of justice. 2. You should just read his book, because it sounds great.

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