THE BLOG
12/29/2016 09:27 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2017

Finding Dignity in Emotional Anguish

Finding Dignity in Emotional Anguish
By Carol Smaldino


The death of Carrie Fisher has triggered a rush of tweeting by a variety of people declaring their own bipolar or depressive illness; it's been a kind of solidarity, an increase in community and appreciation. Ms. Fisher was one of a kind--a bold human being who did better ultimately with the truth, no matter how hard it was, than lying and pretending. Some people are just not that good at pretense as others, and it seems she gave many other people great solace in hearing her truth about hard things spoken out loud.

I wonder if there are ways to respect aspects of depression for one, as also a talent that some people have for perceiving what is not obvious to many people walking around emotionally deadened or cold. This is not to say that bipolar disorder is never a ravaging illness, but rather that some people, who have bipolar or more one-sided depression, are more perceptive about what is going on emotionally than many people who are--with or without knowing it--are more like zombies.

I was recently at a conference of an HDHS, an organization whose mission is spreading the practice of dignity and the erasing of humiliation in our world. In one of the papers presented, there was the view that to be deadened from the inside can mean to lack empathy for the self or for other people. In our world of today I wonder if this is what we are facing in elected official(s) who will soon move from Twitter to wholesale appearances in audio and visual venues.

I felt bad about Carrie Fisher's death, and also bad about the death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just a day later. Carrie Fisher obviously touched a great many people by her playing her Star Wars role as Leia, a princess with guts, who could hold her own and help others. As a person who suffered her share of addictions and close calls, she called out from her platform of comedy and film and memoir, to encourage the honesty about our human states, which is always a beginning of real progress.

I know that people who are sensitive (See Elaine Aron's work) can be especially prone to depression when they are exposed to wounding and trauma, at higher levels than those who are less sensitive. But I also know that people, who are sensitive and at times depressed, often pick up on the hurt of others. I don't know what the statistics would be, but probably many of us who become therapists know what hurt feels like at a disproportionate rate as compared with others less sensitive, less sensitive and less filled with pain.

We are beginning a political reign where strength seems the hero of the day and admission of or identification with, vulnerability and need, is easily made to feel shameful. And my point here would be that Carrie Fisher spoke not only for admission of illness but admission of emotional truth on many levels. Yes bipolar illness is something treated with hiding and secrecy. But in addition, even being sensitive to the violence in our cities or abroad, has been made out as hypersensitivity and as rather irrelevant, not worth crying over or spending money to fix.

In truth, I can join the pouring out on Twitter as well, though it took me a minute for the recognition. I have had a depression and still have one. I've had therapy and taken medication, even if none of it feels exclusive or true all the time. Right now, though, I'd rather stress that my sensitivity is available for alarm, for example when climate change is careening out of control. I would prefer to see my horror at the murder rates in Chicago, and at the lack of resources we as a nation put to work there and in so many places, as actually saner than adapting to the increasing coldness of our own human climate.


Bipolar illness is no joke, not at all. However a kind of coldness that perhaps comes from the embedded nature of trauma within many individuals, may be a more costly illness of our time. When psychopathy--the lack of guilt in manipulating and power at all costs--is considered the winning road to fame and power, we have another kind of problem. When we live in a time in which the latter is not considered an illness but rather an edgy and thrilling formula for winning of popularity contests and elections, Houston we are having a problem.

Denial and projection, let us not forget, are the most primitive of the human defenses. Denial can look good in public because grandiosity is a pleaser and creates a mask of strength that covers the real weaknesses of being human. Projecting--the refusal and inability to admit one's feelings and accusing others of having them instead--is a defense that permits us to blame others for every vulnerability that is ours and rail against any who seems and is made to seem to us the cause of our woes. This combination of denial and blame are the real illnesses of our time, it seems to me.

I am really only saying, that aside from coming out and talking out loud about our bipolar disorders and our depressions, that we pause here. We--especially those of us who know we are vulnerable--need to pay attention to the real emergency of people in denial about this same condition.

Actually we are all vulnerable; we are all moody, scared, insecure, confused, often overwhelmed, or we are lying. The good news is when we admit our vulnerability we can attend to it. And with some dignity mixed in together with awareness, we won't have to hide in corners. We can find each other and share in the dignity of our owning up to vulnerability as a strength through which, hopefully we will be able to contribute to one another and more.