To Hell With Composure


The greatest ally to those in denial of pain and its ensuing ugliness is composure. No one wants to see the raw and thrashing hideousness of a meltdown or a panic attack. It unsettles, and it is unseemly. Even those self-deprecating half-jokes (I want to die), causally thrown in the middle of less serious conversations are met with the glance-shifting, the feet-shuffling, the awkward-chuckling. These instances echo what we emotionally unstable people tell ourselves anyway: that nobody wants the burden of having to handle or confront our issues.

Composure is either learned or unintentional. The latter case is a byproduct of either numbness (which ensues after years of trying, and failing, to manage inner turmoil), or a naturally standoffish demeanor (commonly referred to as the Resting Bitchface Syndrome) which aptly conceals the restless inner goings-on.

In the former case, composure becomes a learned and skillfully applied pattern of behavior. It’s what is leant upon when one understands that the world has no place for someone who is falling apart, quietly or in all manners of slovenliness.

I used to think it a compliment when I was called “composed”. I never cried in front of others, endured it when I was in physical pain, shouldered my worries with apparent dignity.

In truth, I cried, and often. In fact, I spent every waking moment of my life on the verge of collapse, my anguish folding in on itself, precipitating my Fall. Projecting the contrary to the world felt antithetical to who I was, namely a being of passion and profound emotion, but a cursory look outward made me see that this was not what was expected of me. 

I saw glimpses of pain, witnessed flashes of turmoil that were just as quickly snuffed out. I felt waves of ebbing tension spread overhead, but everyone would look down and pretend they could not see. 

A cousin, deeply unhappy in her marriage accidentally breaks an entire stack of plates in the kitchen, and bends over, crying. The incident is carefully swept under the rug. She is just feeling unwell.

Another one, casually confessing that she cuts herself, shocking us both because we don’t usually talk about serious things, if at all. The moment was a temporary slip, she apologizes. It never happens again.

The mother of a friend who has spent some time in a hospital after a breakdown is talked about in roundabout ways; but she presents a face of such decorum that she is condoned in polite society.

The husband of an acquaintance, who has taken his own life and who, from now on, will never properly be mentioned by name. People feel sorry for his widow, but not for him.  

My compass was broken, caught in between the two cultures that constituted my identity, namely African and American: in the former, etiquette above everything reigns supreme while the latter prioritizes passionate oversharing. Since I couldn’t make sense of it all, I internalized the worst aspects of both: that is to say I felt deeply and often, but presented a quiet, tranquil face.

I am often compared to still waters. But we all know that still waters run deep. I am told I am a calming wave. I know myself to be more of a tidal one, a danger to no one but myself. I built up walls so high the tides of my rage could only crash against them and lap at the edges, but never threaten to break them. 

And I thought I was doing the right thing.

Throughout the years, I have learned the hard way that my attitude was a disservice not only to the legitimacy of my own experiences, but to that of those around me as well. The stigma surrounding the conversations that have too often been quelled is facilitated when one accepts the shame it is shrouded in, and I had been doing that all my life.

Mental illness, the great equalizer, doesn’t care about your social status, your job, your family situation. It takes everyone down in equally devastating ways, and losing loved ones or people you admire, and witnessing people kill themselves rather than succumb to the supposed humiliation of disclosure absolutely shatters my heart. 

When we associate mental illness and strength, it is in showing the “brave face” people put on everyday; it is in showing how smiling on the outside makes the insides follow suit; it is in showing how people make the effort to get up every day, face the world and their responsibilities, despite what they deal with. Bravery and composure are inexorably linked, and it is meant to be a compliment, always.

It is meant to be compliment, and yet I have grown to resent it — or rather, I have grown to feel undeserving of the intention tethered to it, because I know my own emotional truth to be so far from it. If I want to live a life of integrity, no matter the cost, I have to be true to the distress I live with everyday, even if it wants to kill me.

I have done away with all of that and more.

To hell with shunting my pain for the comfort of others. 

To hell with invalidating myself by invalidating my suffering.

To hell with holding back so I don’t make a fool of myself. 

If the strength I am capable of and the words I utter manage to help — and better yet save — a life, then I say: to hell with composure.