I live in the Midwest: We don't emote in public. We keep a tight cultural contract, and when queried about our emotional health, responses like "Fine" or "I'm good, how are you?" hem in the more wild undulations of our hearts. Tidy smiles, crossed arms, neat and clean and I like it most of the time.
I didn't grow up in the Midwest, though. I lived most of my life in Texas instead, in a family in which a request to help with the dishes can turn into a recitation of your failures as a human for the past 37 years.
“How can I have been angry since I was a baby? I was a baby!” I once yelled at my mom once on a grocery store trip.
“An angry baby!” My mom yelled back.
Thus, I had come to love the safety of Midwestern denialism. I wrapped myself up in its secret warmth. When you are fine — just fine — people don’t prod at your wounds. You have two kids, a husband, a mortgage and a lovely Christmas card and being fine makes it easy to hide your anxieties, fears and the slow crumbling of an 11-year marriage.
But I wasn't fine. And eventually, I couldn’t hide it anymore. In the months between the end of my marriage and when I moved out of our house, I cried in Home Depot, in Trader Joe's, in Home Goods
In December of 2017, my face looked so terrible that a Target cashier stopped to ask me if I was OK. My right eye was black from roughhousing with my toddler. I had a constellation of cystic acne around my chin from stress. My skin mottled from not drinking enough water, from drinking too much whiskey and from crying every night.
The cashier leaned over the conveyor belt with an earnest openness to her eyes. I'd seen that look before in college, when I had gotten a concussion and black eye from playing rugby. My political science professor didn't believe that anyone as small I was then could’ve been playing rugby, pressed a pamphlet about domestic violence into my hand after class and asked me if I was OK.
In Target, there was no pamphlet — just the same intense concern. I smiled the best that I could. "No, I'm fine," I told her, and began to cry.
Another time at a Jimmy Johns drive-thru, as I struggled to get cash out of my purse and spilled it all over the floor of my car, the teen cashier at the window said, "How are you?"
I handed him my dirty change, tears in my eyes, "I'm not good. I keep making messes!”
He silently took my change and handed me my turkey sandwich.
I lived on those bland breaded wonders for months, and so did my kids; I just wasn’t up for cooking. If it wasn’t buying cheap turkey sandwiches, or microwaving bags of chicken nuggets, we ate a recipe of nachos created by my four-year-old son, who dumped shredded cheese on chips that I nuked. “Mom’s famous nachos,” he called them, without a bit of irony. (The kids were definitely not eating enough vegetables.)
I have been a mess in other ways too. In the year after the split, a man stood me up for a date because he had to “catch up on his email”; I wept openly on the street. Later, I cried in an Uber Pool for a similar reason while 20-year-olds in the back seat handed me napkins from McDonald’s and said, “We’ve all been there.”
I had never been like that before: I worked, raised my children, paid off my credit card every month, and had a homemade dinner on the table by 6:00 p.m. every night. Suddenly, I was eating cheese over the sink, crying in box stores, avoiding Tinder dates in the streets, asking my parents for money, missing deadlines and ordering Popeye’s for my kids.
“Breaking” wasn’t some sort of Zen practice or some mandated therapy exercise. I just snapped, and my inner mess and outer tears mingled in full view of God, Jesus, my mailman, my co-workers, my neighbors, my babysitters and everyone.
Being unable to stop being a public mess was both horrible and wonderful, freeing and terrifying.
So much of our lives is about avoiding the mess — or, if not avoiding in it, cleaning it up right away. Wiping our eyes, doing some self-care, making a gratitude journal, putting on our big-girl Spanx and getting over it.
We allow ourselves so little room for a good wallow, let alone a good year (or three) of absolute screw ups. But you have to find forgiveness for yourself at your worst; there is no other way.
We will all break, and then we will break again. Life is full of breaking points after thousands of personal apocalypses. It’s a horrible and beautiful enterprise, and no one gets everything right all the time. In the middle of all of days of ends-of-days, it’s okay to call a friend to bring over whiskey and toilet paper because you need one and you forgot, again, to buy the other. It’s okay to live off of cheap sandwiches and sadness. To let your kids have too much screen time while you cry into a pillow.
And, for what it’s worth, my kids do really love those world-famous nachos.