There’s No Place for Her: A Letter to Sadness

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Dear Sadness,

I don’t want to write this.

And that’s exactly why I’m writing this.

I’ve fought this post with every fiber of my being—putting it off, changing its focus 10 different times, doing every household chore imaginable to avoid listening to the nagging voice inside of me that keeps insistently whispering that this will help. That you will help.

You can never just stay in your “circle of Sadness,” can you?

I’ve always felt proud when people compare me to Joy from Inside Out. For a long time, I worked hard to share positivity whenever I could, to spread sunshine everywhere I went. I wanted that to be what people remembered when they thought of me—bright yellow (or even hot pink) light, lots of smiles, memories dipped in gold. And even when other emotions took their turn at the console (especially fear, my ever-present companion for most of my life) I tried to find a way to make all those feelings positive—to share my big feelings with the world so that the people around me could feel more comfortable with theirs.

I was good with big feelings.

Or—to be more accurate—I was good with big feelings that made sense.

Anger was a way for me to respond to injustices—both personal and global. Disgust helped me hone my sense of taste—in food, clothes, media, and more. Fear kept me safe—sometimes a little too safe, but with some therapy and a little openness, we worked on that. And joy was my favorite big feeling to feel—I loved crying happy tears or laughing so loud people stared or dancing down a grocery store aisle because I just felt happy.

And even you had a place, Sadness. I was good with you when you made sense—when a TV show made me sad or when I experienced a loss and needed to grieve or when I felt lonely. I was never totally comfortable with you taking the console, but as long as you did it at a time that made sense, you could make things turn blue for a little while.

But sometimes you don’t make sense. Sometimes you don’t stay in the circle Joy made for you. Sometimes you touch the console and turn everything blue when I’m not ready or when I can’t figure out why.

And that’s when the version of Joy that’s inside of me gets desperate, just like the version of Joy inside of Riley.

When you created a blue core memory for Riley, Joy couldn’t handle it. Instead of accepting that not every foundational moment in life can be a happy one, she tried to destroy it—to erase any memory that wasn’t happy. Because Joy liked how it was in Riley’s head. It was perfect up there as it was.

There’s something about you, Sadness, that messes with ideas of perfection.

Because, let’s admit it, you’re a little messy. You come with tears and sometimes snot and a splotchy face and a cracking voice. You’re not something we like showing the world.

You’re not something I like showing the world.

I have worked so hard to keep you in your circle. I have tried to explain that other people around me are going through really hard things, so there’s no place for you right now. I have pleaded and begged for you to understand that I have a job to do—and that job is to cheer people up, to be a beacon of positivity, to brighten the days of everyone I come across.

But you didn’t listen.

You didn’t listen when Riley needed to be happy for her parents, and you didn’t listen when I needed to be happy for the people around me who are struggling.

You didn’t stay in your circle.

That’s what depression feels like for me.

It’s when you don’t stay in your circle.

Everyone who experiences depression has a different way to describe it—a dark cloud, a gray color palette, a weight on their chest.

For me, it feels like after 33 years of carefully controlling when you were allowed out of your circle, I can’t keep you away from my console anymore. It feels like never knowing when you’re going to touch the controls—making me cry at work or when I talk with my best friends or on a vacation in Disney World. It feels like fighting every single day to make sure you don’t touch all my core memories or make too many new ones because now that you’re out of your circle, I have no idea what you’re going to do—what you’re going to ruin.

It’s exhausting.

And it’s wrong.

Because in so many ways, I’m still like Joy—but not in the good ways. Because I’ve been struggling with depression for the better part of 18 months, and more than anything, it’s felt like a desperate attempt to keep you away from the core pieces of my identity. But just like what happened with Riley, all that’s doing is hurting me.

I’m so afraid of accepting you as a part of me that I’d rather hide myself from the world instead of letting people see you at my console.

And that shame is threatening my islands of personality, starting with one of my favorites: Writing Island.

I haven’t written anything in months, and it’s because I used to see this place as Joy’s playground—even when I was going through a hard time, I could usually find some way to spin it so there was a lesson in my writing to help other people. I could usually still find some way to end on a positive note, to let Joy take control of the console again. Because that’s who I needed to be.

“I know you need me to be happy, but…”

I can’t be that version of me right now. I can’t write about this part of my life with a positive lesson to be taken from it at the end because I’m still in the middle—trying to write my way out. Trying to be vulnerable. Trying to be honest.

But vulnerability and honesty is a hell of a lot easier when your big feelings are generally good ones. Or at least helpful ones.

Sometimes I feel like Joy, asking what on Earth you do to help me, Sadness. And how on Earth I can use this time with you at my console instead of just waiting for it to be over.

Because I’ve been waiting for a long time now. Depression doesn’t have a timeframe (no matter how many times I ask my therapist for one). So I think I have to learn to work with you instead of against you.

And I can do that by letting people see you—even if it’s just a little.

Even if it’s just like this.

Because you’re not useless. You do have a place. You do have a purpose.

And that purpose is the one I’ve been searching for for so long.

Connection.

My favorite moment in Inside Out is when you’re talking to Bing Bong about his rocket. Instead of trying to distract him or cheer him up like Joy, you simply sit with him and let him be sad. You aren’t afraid of his sadness because you live with yours. So you listen, you make him feel seen, and you show him that he doesn’t have to run from his big, hard feelings. Because he has someone who understands, someone who will hold his hand and tell him that it’s sad and that’s OK. And that’s a gift that can only come from you.

Empathy is a gift that can only come from you.

So maybe I can’t be Joy right now. Maybe I can’t cheer up the people I love who are sad and struggling. Maybe all I can do is sit with them and say, “Yeah, that’s sad” and mean it. Because I know what it feels like to have you pushing all the buttons. And maybe that’s enough.

Because sometimes we don’t need Joy—we don’t need distractions and reminders to smile and happy stories. Sometimes we need Sadness—the quiet, gentle voice that tells us we’re not alone and that it’s OK to feel bad, to cry, and to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is another gift that can only come from you.

And it’s one that I’m learning is a lot harder to practice than it is to preach.

I’ve been hiding for so long—so afraid to let the world see what I look like when you’re at my console—that I’d convinced myself it was better for everyone this way.

But it’s not better.

It’s easier, but it’s not better.

Letting people see the mess you make is hard, but it’s the only way to let them love me—all of me.

The people in my life—especially the people who are going to read this—deserve that chance to see and love all of me. To be trusted with the hidden parts.

And I deserve this too. I deserve to have a home for my messy truths and a space to show my sadness. My therapist told me once that I deserve all my emotions, and now I get it. Because I deserve you too.

I deserve the connections that can only come from letting you out of the shadows and into the light. Because Joy said it best:

“They came to help because of Sadness.”

That’s your purpose. That’s your place.

You help us help each other.

You help us see each other.

You help us love each other.

So maybe this is my way to help me love other people better. Or maybe this is my way to help other people love me better.

Or maybe this is my way to love myself better.

Because you aren’t going to stay in your circle anymore.

And that’s OK.

Riley was better because you left your circle.

And I will be too.

3 thoughts on “There’s No Place for Her: A Letter to Sadness

  1. You did it, babe. This has been a long time coming and I love that it went in a slightly different direction than you initially anticipated but it feels exactly right. This is some absolutely gorgeous writing and I love that you pushed yourself to be vulnerable even when it was hard because you knew it was better. Even when you got scared, your gut knew this was good and something you really wanted. It’s brave as hell and is everything you have always been when it comes to feelings and sharing them with others.

    “I’ve been hiding for so long—so afraid to let the world see what I look like when you’re at my console—that I’d convinced myself it was better for everyone this way. But it’s not better. It’s easier, but it’s not better.”

    It’s easier but it’s not better. Not for you, and not for all of us who love you. And you needed to get to this place and you needed to be able to say that even when Sadness is at the console, that connection with everyone is so important for you as a full person.

    “The people in my life—especially the people who are going to read this—deserve that chance to see and love all of me. To be trusted with the hidden parts. And I deserve this too. I deserve to have a home for my messy truths and a space to show my sadness.”

    This was the part that made me proudest though. This is the view I wanted for you. I wanted you to know you deserve this and that everyone else should get to see the Katie I’ve been seeing. Not because you owe us explanations but because you want to show them all of who you are and trust everyone to love you and catch you. Offering up that trust is a beautiful thing and intentionally building that space where your messy truths are not only accepted but loved because they are a part of who you are just makes me so happy.

    Getting this shame out and letting hope and light in again is such a powerful thing and now I’m going to be me and quote Brene Brown at you some more. “If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way—especially shame, fear, and vulnerability.” This is exactly what you did and it’s moving you that much closer to the person you want to be.

  2. It’s a variation on the toughness vs strength theme you wrote about all those years ago, about Kate Beckett and Emma Swan, isn’t it? Positivity is a type of armor, it’s a form of toughness that will only get you so far.

    Amazing essay, Katie!

  3. Sweetie! Such a beautiful post. Sofia’s already mentioned the Emma Swan connection, so let me build on that. “People are gonna tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, “No, this is who I am”. A “positive” identity — Joy — can be just as restrictive as a negative one. That feeling of “I must live up to this positive view of me because this why people value me.” While we do value your joy, we value all of you. The capacity for sadness gives the joy more depth and texture. As you’ve written, it makes you capable of empathy and connection. It’s made you stop and dig deep inside of yourself in a way that joy alone won’t. This isn’t meant to sugarcoat depression — depression is hard. I hurt for you and your struggle. We are all messy people. Thank you for sharing your mess, your struggles, your joy AND your sadness, your journey.

    Depression can be isolating. This type of post may not get the level of engagement others do. You still have to punch back and say “This is who I am.”

    I love how you punch back. 🙂

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