A new roommate was moving in. My other roommate wasn’t home yet; she was working late. My partner and I had retreated to my room, so the newcomer could have space to unload her things. After about an hour or so, I ventured out to take a shower.
It was then that I saw it.
On the couch was a pillow I did not recognize. It certainly didn’t match the West Elm selection I had already populated the couch with. Right in the middle of my perfectly curated, yet artfully comfortable, space was a throw pillow with the words “Positive Vibes Only” printed in an aggressively splashy font. My vision became tinged with red, the sirens from Kill Bill increasing in volume in my head. My hand searched for something to grab onto to steady myself. I repeated “everything is temporary” until I could see straight again.
After recovering from what I assume was anaphylactic shock, I decided to make some tea for my nerves before going to bed. I opened one of the kitchen cabinet doors for a mug, only to immediately stumble backwards as one would upon parting their blackout curtains for the first time after waking up hungover at one in the afternoon. On the shelf staring back at me, was a mug, smugly demanding I “Don’t Overthink Things." Had I died and gone to HELL? (Probably—ironically—killed by my vice: overthinking!) Just then, my new roommate, Julia, came out of her room.
“I hope you don’t mind that I put some of my things out here!” she said, jubilantly.
“Oh my god, of course not!!!” I replied, while tugging my sleeve down to cover the stress rash that had already begun to develop on my arm. “This is your home, too!” Everything is temporary.
She gleefully thanked me, flashed a smile, and opened the fridge to unload some of her groceries. I bade her goodnight and went back into my room. My partner doubled over in laughter a few moments later when I pulled out my copy of the lease, only to meticulously comb through it for ways to establish a constructive, yet legal, eviction before I could suffer death by positive affirmation. My partner told me I was being dramatic, and that she was probably going to follow in the footsteps of the previous roommates who had once occupied the room she'd just moved into. The running joke was that the room was cursed because we’d had four different occupants in there in just under two years.
Reader, my partner was right. It was only a few months before Julia left, having accepted a job in Brussels. Peace and misanthropy restored, once again.
I’m not saying I’m a negative person. I’m saying that I am a person who practices negativity. A lot. It is a warm balm for my soul, which has a stalactite hanging off of it. There’s a difference between being negative and practicing negativity. I am not a Debbie Downer, as much as I love Rachel Dratch’s infamous fictional Saturday Night Live character. I follow the hashtags #daffodils and #sheltiepuppy on Instagram for fuck’s sake! I’m not one to be at Vitamin Shoppe and all of a sudden be like, “You know, the sun is a star, and it’s going to die one day.” I keep that shit to myself and spiral in silence—it’s called manners.
I’m not even a pessimist! If you told me that you were getting married, I would genuinely be happy for you! I might even buy you that exorbitantly priced panini press from your registry! But I will likely chase the fleeting thought of 'You never know...' when I enter a writing contest with a gratuitous helping of 'What’s the point of living?' I pray for a sinkhole to open up and swallow me whole as I’m on my way to literally anything because literally everything gives me anxiety. I actively root for the asteroid that will be The One.
The thing is: negativity just has bad PR.
And what’s the remedy for bad PR? Being upstaged by something getting worse PR—something that shifts the attention to the uproar du jour. You know that now-infamous meme of the white woman in a fur coat, nursing a glass of wine during the 2017 Trump protest in D.C.? That’s me, anytime I see a new article decrying toxic positivity. I have long-awaited the downfall of positivity of any kind, but especially after it became weaponized to invalidate—or entirely erase—people’s emotions and experiences. Hearing “it is what it is” makes my eye twitch. It wasn’t until I heard it applied to my chronic health problems that I realized how dangerous this application of flippant positivity is becoming.
If you haven’t come across one of the aforementioned articles that rebuke toxic positivity (my porn), let me catch you up: Toxic positivity is the belief that even the most dire and difficult of situations can be overcome by simply maintaining a positive attitude. It is a gross generalization of the human condition, and is just gross in general. Would you tell someone grieving the loss of a loved one to merely let go of their past? Bitch, I hope not! And nothing like a global pandemic to fertilize this compulsive need to maintain a positive attitude, no matter how terrible everything is. Were you laid off? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Did your small business shutter? Everything happens for a reason! Are you scared ALL THE TIME because life as we know it is FOREVER CHANGED and you haven’t seen your parents in over a year—OR ANYONE FOR THAT MATTER—and you’re worried about everyone you care about because a deadly virus is running rampant while a grossly incompetent administration tries to gaslight the entire nation by downplaying the severity of reality all while letting hundreds and thousands of people—most of whom are low-income and/or Black, Latinx, and other people of color with limited access to adequate medical care, and, if they do receive medical care, hopefully it’s not the shitty off-brand version of what their white socioeconomic counterparts receive—die under their nose and blame all of it on…Antifa???? Hey, it could be worse!
COULD IT, HOLLY???????
When external factors beyond our control—a pandemic, natural disasters, chronic health issues—change life as we know it, the last thing any of us wants to consider is the silver lining. It’s part of the reason why I waited to come out as someone living with chronic pain and illness. I don’t want to think about how strong it’s going to make me; I WANT HOSPITAL-GRADE IBUPROFEN AND A NAP.
The one time I decided to open up to a close friend, I was going through a depressive episode, and, when I get depressed, my whole body tenses up; I get spasms; I’m in head-to-toe pain. This was right on the heels of the release of my first book: Born to Be Public had just been named one of the best books of 2020 by NPR and O, The Oprah Magazine in the same week—a dream come true. It was good news after good news on my social media pages, and, while I was over the moon, I was still contending with intense body pain as a result of the depression I was in. I was struggling to stay afloat with work while my personal life imploded around me: My partner was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; my family, back home in New Jersey, was dealing with problems that started to deeply affect me, too; a global pandemic was raging on with no end in sight. I gave the SparkNotes version to my friend, telling him I was depressed and in pain, and he told me that I should be jumping with joy: I had just unleashed my first book out into the world; I had just gotten published in The New Yorker—the dream I had come to New York with—for the first time; I was getting wonderful press left and right.
He told me I should be happy.
As well-meaning as I know him to be, anyone living with chronic illness knows that it’s never that easy. For the record I was very happy. And I was beyond grateful. I am not dismissing the positive impact practicing gratitude has. (Although if you give me a gratitude journal, please know its sole purpose will be to facilitate a gentle cross-breeze between rooms.) In fact, it was my book release—and the subsequent events I was doing in support of it—that kept me going through it all. But telling me to just be happy dismisses the complexity of all the other feelings I harbor. It minimizes my experiences, invalidates the gamut of emotions I’m feeling on the whole. Invalidating emotions, especially those that fight to be deemed valid in the first place, further begets stress, which is not healthy for anyone—especially those of us living with chronic illness. A BITCH WILL FLARE UP.
We need to take a beat to recognize the diverse arsenal of emotions that comes with being alive, and normalize their coexistence instead of continuing to play Whac-A-Mole with them. If you can put pineapple on pizza, you can experience both happiness and grief at the same time. It’s called the human condition (ABOLISH IT) and we are here whether we like it or not (UGH), so we need to be more comfortable sitting with our feelings instead of sweeping them under the rug—or worse, telling other people to sweep their emotions under their rugs.
Friends aren’t the only ones who have—for the most part, unintentionally—invalidated my emotions. It's come from medical professionals, too. Ask anyone else with a chronic condition. I’ll bet you my vintage collection of Garfield comics that they’ve been told by at least one person in the field of medicine some variation of “it's not as bad as you think.” Do you know how many times I’ve had my chronic illnesses glossed over and have been told to just take magnesium, to exercise more, that in no time my mood would improve and thereupon I’d feel better on the whole???? May these doctors be exposed for the three positive affirmation memes (“Your life only gets better when you get better”) standing on top each under a trench coat that they are. But it’s not the medical industry alone that’s perpetuating this harmful messaging; it’s the world we live in that’s been conditioned to exceed its capacity for positivity. Our culture, like the mug of green tea that I made for myself two hours ago, then subsequently forgot about, has over-steeped in it.
ALLOW ME TO PRESENT MY CASE FOR RECREATIONAL NEGATIVITY.
Ever since I became someone whose list of upcoming doctor’s appointments could stretch as far as the eye can see, fielding referral after referral for various specialists, negativity has been my respite, my shoulder to cry on, my emergency contact. Like the lavender Epsom salts I buy from CVS to soak my aching my body in, expressing my general disdain for everything has me feeling like the Sleepytime Tea bear, wearing a nightgown with a pointed nightcap hat with a pom pom on the tip, perfectly content in an armchair, nestled in between a warm fireplace and a non-GMO verified sticker. Bless the Close Friends feature on Instagram, where, after promoting this essay that I wrote or that interview that I did, I can complain about my IBS flare-up to a handful of my closest friends, most of whom are fellow misanthropes, or bitch about how tired I am of having to do this—this being *gestures broadly*—and receive a flood of replies from friends who relate and express solidarity. When my roommate would be going through it and ask, “Wanna hold hands and throw ourselves down the stairs?” I would be like, “I thought you’d never ask!” while wiping away the single tear of happiness that had snuck out of my eye. That’s friendship. That’s the connection I look for in my day-to-day life.
When I moan about something—big or banal—and a friend is there to listen, peppering the conversation with their own list of grievances until we’re swapping life’s minor and major tragedies and baking them into a casserole of hatred, that’s amore. It’s another way to form a connection with someone. Sometimes you just need someone to lie side-by-side with you in the trenches—you don’t even have to speak; just knowing that they’re there and not bombarding you with prosaic statements is just what you need. Trying to divert someone's perspective—“It’s all about perspective”—instead of validating someone’s emotional experience is, counterproductive at best, damaging at worst.
The only perspective I care to entertain is acceptance. “It is what it is” is not the same thing as acceptance, the former apathetically disregards the entire reality of what one is going through. Acceptance, and, more specifically, radical acceptance—which is a skill taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)—means coming to terms with the reality of our mind, body, and spirit, and accepting their painful emotions and experiences without judgement. It is also a practice that makes room for feeling a complex range of emotions instead of repressing them, and we all know by now that the body keeps the score. (Side note: Can’t we find some wiggle room there? Isn’t there some sort of point reduction system we could implement, kind of like the one many states use to remove points from a driver’s license after a set duration of time passes? If my body won’t reset the score after going a year without trauma, then can I at least get a rebate????)
While I encourage everyone to dip their tools into the pool of misanthropy— each of you should get to experience the sweet release that comes from telling everyone else to suck it—I’m more ardent about diversifying coping mechanisms. Everyone is different. How one copes will be different, too. To those who indulge in the bright side without excess, I tip my hat in respect. To all of my Negative Nancies, know that you have a friend in me! Barring any human rights violations, hate does indeed have a home here.