“She had blue skin. And so did he. He kept it hid, and so did she. They searched for blue, their whole life through, Then passed right by—and never knew.” —Shel Silverstein
We don’t like to talk about struggle. It’s easy to say that we should embrace vulnerability; living it proves much harder. Many of us are afraid to speak up when we’re having a hard time. We live in a world that often labels struggle and vulnerability as signs of weakness, rather than as natural and acceptable parts of human experience. Strength, in turn, becomes defined as never having or showing weakness, rather than moving through the moments that challenge us.
Let’s borrow Silverstein’s metaphor, and think of our experiences with struggle as our “blue skin.” We hide our blue skin behind the mask of “I’m fine,” fearing that if we reveal our challenges, others will think less of us; we fear our struggles will isolate us. Although it can seem we’re alone in that fear, we’re not. Ultimately, however, that fear often leaves us all looking out from behind our masks of “I’m just tired” and “I’m okay,” searching for blue and the confirmation that we are not alone in our experience of struggle. We pass by blue every single day—we just never know, because it’s hidden, like ours.
Feeling like the only one with blue skin in a sea of people who don’t appear to be struggling can be a demoralizing and isolating experience, even if we reason that it’s impossible that we’re the only ones having a hard time. Everyone struggles. We know that. So why don’t we talk about it?
By relegating our struggles to the realm of silence, we are not only invalidating our own experiences, but we also risk eliminating the spaces in our community and in our relationships where we can discuss them with openness, honesty and vulnerability.
If we don’t talk about these battles, people will fight them in silence, alone. And sometimes, they will lose. We won’t know our friends and loved ones were experiencing excruciating pain and struggle until it’s too late.
In February of my freshman year of high school, one of my friends took his own life. In the days following his passing, one statement ceaselessly echoed through the subdued conversations held around campus: “I had no idea he was struggling so much.” None of us had any idea he was hurting so badly that he felt suicide was the only solution. We never had the opportunity to meet him in his pain, to walk with him through it, to talk about the struggle now and the promise of brighter days to come. We lost our friend to the silence and stigma surrounding struggle before we got that chance.
Silence and stigma are powerful things. Even after witnessing their dangers and consequences, I waited far too long before asking for help with my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I was scared of the stigma and the ways it might affect me, my family and my relationships. I was so scared, in fact, that I didn’t tell anyone outside of my family for three years. Three! Eventually I mustered up enough courage to stutter out a confession to my best friend. It took me a while, but I am so glad that I finally said something. Her continued love and support following that (surely unexpected) news opened my eyes to the power of letting people meet us in our vulnerable places. I began to understand the healing and hope that can be found in community.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how many people I pass in a day that feel as though they’re struggling alone, and searching for proof that others feel the same. Even when you know you’re not alone, it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes. However, the story does not have to end with secrets and silence and loss. The story can end with honesty, community and recovery. There are better endings, and we have the power to write them.
It won’t be easy. Letting people see our more broken parts never is. We’ll have to learn to love and to listen when—most importantly when—it’s challenging, or uncomfortable, or uncool. I invite you to take off your mask. Don’t be afraid to show that blue skin. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we are creating a space in our community for open and honest conversation about difficult things. Reach out to a friend, whether it’s to seek help for yourself or to see how they’re doing.
We all have a voice, and we all have the power to raise it. Let’s use ours to break the silence, and let people know: You are not alone.
Kaitlin Gladney, Trinity ’14, is the president of To Write Love On Her Arms at Duke.