Three days after my daughter was born, I went to the emergency room with a low-grade fever. When the doctor came in and found my husband, our newborn, and me sitting on the hospital bed surrounded by curtains, he admonished us for bringing such a small baby to an ER, where she would risk exposure to all kinds of diseases. I had not slept at all since the birth, I was in the throes of what they call the ‘baby blues’, and I felt as though I now had proof that I was bound to endanger this poor, helpless child I had so foolishly longed for. When my husband left with our baby, I lay down and sobbed uncontrollably. A nurse parted the curtains and a horrified expression came over her face. “Don’t… don’t cry!” she stammered.
“Don’t you tell her not to cry!” came a voice from behind the curtains shrouding the next bed. The nurse scurried out, and the voice, a woman’s voice with the traces of a Brooklyn accent, floated into my tent. “You go ahead and cry,” it said. “When I had my son I cried every day for a month. Just let it out honey.”
I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason, and if life’s challenges make you stronger then I’m fine with being exactly as strong as I am right now. But I do believe that something good can be born out of any experience. That something is a connection with people who have been through the same thing, who understand how I feel, and who tell me that I’m not alone. When I see someone struggling, I try and resist the urge to dispense my brilliant advice, and instead, offer empathy that comes from my own experience.
I first started believing in the power of common experience when I entered drug rehab as a nineteen-year-old. I looked around and saw people who looked nothing like me, who were mostly older than me, and who could not possibly understand my pain. But when they began to tell their stories, I found that they, like me, drank alcohol and used drugs because they could not stand to be in their own skin. The connection I made with these strangers kept me sober, and in the thirteen years since, in my most painful moments I’ve been sustained by someone who could say honestly and earnestly, “I know exactly how you feel.” I have also been able to say that to others, and those moments of connection keep me moving forward.
I never saw the face of that woman in the ER, but her words carried me through my early months as a parent. Now they remind me to share my experience when I can, and sometimes to add, “Just let it out, honey.”
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