You Can Be Sad When Everything Is Good


This summer, starting right around my birthday in early June, I’ve had five panic attacks. It’s the most I’ve ever had this close together in my life.

The first one was after a week where I’d had stressful oral surgery but I was feeling better; I’d gone out for my birthday and had a great time with my friends. The next day, I was backstage preparing for an improv show and I felt my chest tighten. I thought maybe I was just hungover so I ignored it and did the show. The feeling only got worse. When I got to my friend’s house that night, I immediately needed to lie down. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t breathe. I started convulsing — not shaking, really, but twitching hard in little, uncontrollable spasms. I couldn’t sleep. I vomited in my friend’s bathroom.

I slept there and the next morning, my sister-in-law came and brought me to her and my brother’s house. That’s where I stayed for four days: on their couch in the same gray pajamas, shaking and crying. When I wasn’t in horrible physical pain, I was jokingly referring to what I was doing as “my Bell Jar” so I wouldn’t start to sob. During the day, I would mope on their couch, curled into a ball with my hands in my long sleeves. I’d alternate between sitting up and working myself into an anxiety frenzy — I’d imagine never getting better, or never seeing my friends again, or never being able to work — and lying down from the pain in my chest. It was incredibly hard to move. It was incredibly hard to eat. It was incredibly hard to think.

Eventually, I got better and went home to heal the rest of the way. I still wasn’t sure what had caused the crash. Everything had been going great for me. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t depressed. In fact, I’d been pretty friggin’ happy. There just wasn’t an answer.

Even when everything was good, really objectively good, I was sad.

The most recent one happened after a week of all positive things. It was surreal to have people coming up and congratulating me, telling me they were proud of me or telling me I must be thrilled, when inside, I felt awful.

On the phone with my dad, my voice broke while I talked about what was going on with me. He tried to parse out logical reasons why I might be on the verge of tears. “Dad,” I whispered. “My life is wonderful. I know that. Everything is great. I know that. This isn’t a rational thing.”

And that’s really crux of it. You can be sad or anxious or upset when everything is good. And it’s okay if you can’t explain it and it’s okay if you can’t figure it out. It’s not a thing to be figured out. It’s just what it is. Like that old Mitch Hedberg bit about alcoholism being the only disease you can reprimand someone for having. “Damnit Otto, you have lupus!,” he jokes. It’s that way with mental illness and the guilt associated with it. It only makes my panicking worse to panic about being panicked. And to worry about being sad when I should be happy. There is no “should.”

You are allowed to feel however you feel. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get help, or take meds or talk to someone. But the problem starts with denying myself the right to even experience what I’m experiencing. I shut down even further out of anguish that I’m weak or wrong for being upset.

So listen, especially if you are like me, listen: It is okay to be unable to control it. It is not your fault that your emotions don’t wire up correctly to what is happening around you. You are you. Only you know how you are “supposed to” feel, and guess what? There is no “supposed to.” You are not a bad person. You are not wrong.

Okay? Settled? Guilt eradicated? Great. I am someone else and I am giving you permission: You can be sad when everything is good.

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image – Gaby Dunn