Recently I faced the time of year I’ve grown to tolerate over the past decade. It’s the anniversary of a tragic day that hijacked my entire life: the day my beau of ten years was murdered. Since that dizzying time, I have found inventive ways to co-exist with an ordeal so catastrophic, it nearly killed me too.
Some years I have busied myself with extra work. Others, like last year, I actually honored the day for all the ways that single bullet re-purposed my life in a manner that has turned out to be remarkable. This year however, fresh on the heels of some overwhelming lifestyle changes I instigated, the anniversary proved emotionally taxing, burdened even more by an unexamined agreement I’d made with myself to stay quiet.
Unknowingly, I’d expelled the normal, rational, intrinsic need we all have as humans to bear witness to the stories that arouse, trouble and redefine us. I’d done this simply because I did not want to be a Debbie Downer—that someone who supposedly brings down the mood of everyone around them. The Saturday Night Live character, introduced in 2004 became an instant phenomenon not just because Rachel Dratch was funny and convincing in her portrayal of the character, but because we all know this person. The speed with which Debbie Downer became a permanent part of our pop culture jargon had far more to do with how successfully the character dignified our collective angst around and rejection of sadness.
Yet it isn’t really Debbie Downer—giving voice to her sad stories—who is a menace to our society. It is silence that threatens to kill us.
Demonizing Debbie is one of the handy ways we shame others into keeping their mouths shut, naively believing that will shield us from the certainty of pain in this life and sustain our comfort. After all, if rape, addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, suicide, homicide, racism and the like have not come directly to your door, it’s tempting to believe that those are the things “that happen to other people.”
Silence is shame’s greatest accessory, and both are tools for denial.
Too often, we lock away our inner Debbie Downers like a rejected stepsister and instead erect “Peppy-Pollyanas” all over our faces—eager to portray that everything is okay. But sometimes we’re a far cry from okay. And that too needs to be acceptable. It is those who offer themselves as compassionate witnesses to us during these times that help us transform our darkness into bearable, and even empowering narratives. Without this divine exchange, we are capable of much less.
I am a witness.
Before the dreaded anniversary of Ed’s death came and went, I reflected on why I’d considered not saying a word about the private sadness still wreaking havoc after 13 years. I remembered the hurtful words of those I’d considered among my closest friends who soon after Ed’s murder had insinuated things like what a shame it was for me to be so verbal and relentless in my celebration of what Ed meant to me since I had not gushed about him similarly, out loud, before his death. Friends, frustrated with how grief-stricken and disconnected from day-to-day reality I was, told me to “have a good life if you even believe you still have one.”
These types of sentiments, coupled with most people’s understandable uneasiness being in the presence of such piercing despair, scarred me deeply and it shut me down. I’d unconsciously signed a contract with people’s discomfort that bound me to silence. I began to believe I had no right to bear witness to any story that had defined my life unless it was for the explicit purpose of helping someone else. Any other reason meant to risk making others unnerved and being thought of as a Debbie Downer. That fear owned and literally almost suffocated the life out of me. Until the other day when I remembered.
Remembered who I am. Remembered why I came. Remembered the space I’ve held almost two decades now for clients of my private practice, loved ones and strangers. I remembered that I too was worthy of having space held for me, worthy of the opportunity to come undone, worthy of being witnessed while I narrate the experiences of my life in ways that are timely, authentic, and transformative – for me.
Released from the prison of Debbie Downer on the morning of the anniversary of Ed’s death day, I was born again. Reborn into the luscious remembering of one of my greatest wishes as a musician, healer, and human being – to penetrate what I call the white noise that surrounds the subjects we’ve deemed taboo and cultivate safe and sacred spaces where unscripted, soulful conversations about them can be had with grace.
I swear it can save a life to enter into unhurried, compassionate conversation with someone and witness for them the sharing of stories that if otherwise kept inside strangles life—one unspoken word after another.
Your Crossfade Tip(s):
Free Debbie! Speak up. Bear witness to your story in a way no one else can. It’ll save you!