They were innocent jokes, and I never took offense. I’d smirk and roll my eyes at my young co-worker. Sometimes I even laughed. I was 19 and working on my Freshman 15 while working at a deli far from home but close to school. She was 14 and hyper and sometimes a pain in the ass but a good kid. And my mom had been dead for three years.
When she made the first joke, I didn’t say anything. I knew it wasn’t serious, and there was no reason to make her feel uncomfortable. A year later, long after I had lost count of how many “insults” were thrown, she said, “You know, I want to meet your mom.”
I tried to dodge the statement. I tried to dodge the questions of “why not?” when I said that she doesn’t. But I couldn’t put it off any longer and finally told her.
And that’s when it came . . . what I had been trying to avoid for a year . . . that look of discomfort, that seemingly endless moment of awkwardness. And then we moved on and, of course, the jokes stopped.
I retold this story to my therapist the other day. It’s only one example of many similar situations, but it’s the most significant to me. It demonstrates a struggle I face on a daily basis – my fear of and personal discomfort with making other people uncomfortable.
I don’t know how to handle other people’s reactions to things I tell them about myself. In this particular instance, it really wasn’t a big deal, but it resulted in a change in how I was treated. I don’t blame her. If the situation was reversed, I probably would have reacted in a similar way. But that doesn’t make it any less awkward for me.
I don’t want to be treated differently. I have never wanted people to walk on eggshells around me. And if this is how things can be when the situation is inconsequential, how much worse is it going to be when it’s something more substantial?
When I do have a lot going on and could use an empathetic hear, I consistently feel the need to backtrack the second I say anything negative. “But it’s okay. I’ll be fine,” has become a staple of my vocabulary, whether I believe it or not.
It’s better than listening to other people stumble over their words, searching for the right thing to say.
After my mother died, I was put through the worst possible torture – the receiving line at her viewing. I stood there, holding back tears, while everyone who was any kind of acquaintance of my mom’s, some I knew, many I didn’t, took my hand or hugged me and told me how sorry they were. Some didn’t know what to say. All of them looked uncomfortable. And I just nodded and thanked them and told them that I was okay.
There’s a conflict that builds inside of me – this fight between needing people to see that I’m in pain and the overwhelming desire to not be seen as weak. I want someone to look at me and understand that I’m not okay even when I say that I am, but at the same time, even the thought of that terrifies the hell out of me.
I don’t know how to reconcile that conflict. I suppose that’s what therapy is for . . . and the writing, of course.