Things people say
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
Of all the popular Maya Angelou quotations, a favorite of mine is:
"...people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
This sage observation captures how we impact one another yet recognizes that our memories don't serve for blow-by-blow accounts of everything.
I bet you can't recount your last big argument with so much as 50% accuracy, for instance, especially the "he said, she said" details.
You can, however, remember with painful precision how you felt at the end of it.
There are times we remember what someone said or did along with how it made us feel, too. I don’t think Angelou meant to deny these moments with her statement. These experiences are the minority, those key moments in life that are baked into our brains forever (whether we want to hold onto them or not).
I remember when my brother told me he and his wife were expecting, for instance. I even remember what mile of the interstate I was on when he called. I remember my elation, too.
I also remember the first time my parents visited me in Lima and the feeling that surged through me when I saw them at the airport.
There are also those things people say or do that haunt us. I have my own list of those, too.
I remember, for example, an afternoon when one of my friends and I spoke about the sundry hurdles in our personal lives.
For my part, I had just moved to Lima. I was skating on just enough income to cover bills, though with looming immigration fees that I would not be able to pay unless something changed. I had gained weight that I was thoroughly miserable about. I had started seeing someone new but the honeymoon was over, and now I was trudging through that phase where partners learn how to navigate conflict together. I was also living in a single room with a (tiny) private bath and no kitchen, not to mention working 70-80 hours a week. Most of my days were spent hunched over on a twin mattress that laid on the floor as I worked squinting into my laptop.
It was a chapter of my life that tested my resilience in many ways. Remarkably, I remained grateful in the face of my struggles that the scenario was still better than the one I left in Antigua. Still, the stress was getting to me. I was jolting awake several times a night with acid reflux. My hands were spotted with tiny blisters from dyshidrotic eczema. I was even experiencing anxiety-induced neuropathy that wouldn’t be diagnosed until life’s next chapter.
For months, the only “me time” I was able to carve out was to quickly walk to the grocery store, which resulted in budget-tight purchases of nothing but processed foods since I had no access to a kitchen. The acid reflux drove me eventually to a diet of saltine crackers that lasted six months. I even stopped menstruating as my body clamored for better sleep and absent nutrients.
I didn’t articulate how I felt because I didn’t want to open the flood gates. I felt like I was constantly tearing ahead of a tidal wave thundering after me. As it got closer, all I could do was focus on moving as fast as I could to higher ground.
When we speak, what do we wreak?
During this particular chat, I asked my friend more questions than I answered. It was the beginning of a seismic shift in our relationship that I didn't yet know was coming.
For the moment, the questions came naturally to me because I had no desire to complain about my plight. I could speak matter-of-factly about it if asked, and I could even concede the occasional vignette of how hard things were. Complaining, however, felt counter-productive since the only thing I wanted was to keep my eyes on the next step of my plan.
It was natural, then, that the conversation focused more and more around my friend. She had her own plights, too. Ruptured relationships, body changes, health and work were all on her laundry list of "shit I need to do something about," and the weight of it was crushing her.
As we talked about her struggles, my poor friend went from bad to worse. Her anxiety was closing in. I felt powerless to help her from 3,500 miles away, but nervously offered the only consolation I could think of.
"It sucks, there are no two ways about it," I assured her. Fond though I am of silver linings, it didn't seem like the moment to draw out gratitude. I wanted to validate her instead.
Then, I thought to relate. "I understand how you feel," I said.
There was silence. A textbook introvert, this particular friend doubts herself often and sweats to reply when conversation steers in an intense direction.
Finally, she replied, "thanks. I wish it were easier. Things are so much easier for you…you aren't as affected by stuff."
Her voice trembled with her own throbbing humility. I could see her reaching through the video with her gaze, wanting to look me in the eye but feeling too absorbed in her feelings of frustration and failure. Her eyes darted instead.
While she wallowed in her own self-doubt, she was also trying to pay me a compliment, to say I'm strong, to say I move past things more easily than she does.
I felt so misunderstood.
One thing I feel certain about
I've been called many things. Recently, "strong" and "resilient" have been frequently among them. It's a mistake, however, to assume I don't struggle. I have my triggers and my false convictions. I have my sensitivities and irrationalities, too (just ask my brother).
Perhaps the only real difference between me and my friend is that I multitask.
A good example of my M.O. when I suffer thorugh something can be seen in a recent weekend run. I spent January and February this year crushing personal records in my training. Running is the avocation that teeters on a way of life for me, since my tendency to adopt the most intense version of anything I like drove me to unusually high mileage and some relatively brag-worthy PRs.
My performance this year was surprising even me. I was on my way to a 3:13 marathon and was tapering up and down a roller-coaster of 50 to 65-mile weeks. I felt super-human.
Inevitably, an injury will eventually plague any good running streak. In my case, it was just an angry IT band that took me out of training for two and a half weeks. This was small potatoes as far as injuries go, and I regularly told myself (out loud, mind you) "at least it's not a serious injury." I tried to look on the upside.
The impact on my day-to-day, however, was brutal. I struggled to understand why I felt so depressed and frustrated despite knowing (and repeatedly telling myself) that it could be so much worse. I visited my physical therapist several times and got great attention, but still, my IT band wouldn't cooperate. After many start-and-stop test runs that my physio assured me would go great (but didn’t), the morning came when another unsuccessful run brought me to tears.
It was a Sunday morning and I barely got 50 yards down the sidewalk when I felt my IT band seize around my knee. The tears came before I could stop them. With a sniffle that turned into a sob, I was bawling before I knew it.
But I kept going.
My leg hurt, so I walked. The sobs shook my confidence down to my bones. Once my knee stopped hurting, I tried a slow jog again. I ran-walk this way until I was able to warm my leg up and successfully run a few miles.
Of course, these are the days of COVID-19, so I was running with a gaiter covering my mouth and nose. It occurred to me that I could cry and keep going without anyone the wiser. I admit, I never anticipated this particular benefit of mask wearing.
I cried that morning because I just wanted to train normally again. At the start of the year I was running between seven and nine hours a week, and those were the “me hours” that meant the world. Running was the key to my daily routine that stopped my hardware from going haywire, and every fiber of me was desperate to get that routine back.
Multiple coping mechanisms
I've thought about that friend—and specifically, that thing she said and how it made me feel—multiple times this year as I've eased back into my training. I'm not quite back to where I was, which has added to my frustrations. The only real difference between me and my friend, however, is how we cope.
I cope through action, even if action fires me in the wrong direction.
She copes with reflection and time in isolation (or with those special few she trusts).
To say that I'm not affected by things, though...ironically, hearing that hurt.
Since that conversation, my shell of apparent resilience has driven that friend further away. I can’t remember any conversation as acutely as I remember the one described, but I do remember how they’ve made me feel.
Estrangements aside, I'm grateful to know myself well enough to hold onto my own self-perception and let external views roll off. Yes, things do affect me. I avoid expressing how I feel about the more serious stuff, though I gripe often about the minor junk. When the going gets rough, I focus on getting as far out in front of the tidal wave as I can.
Case in point: until I'm back to January's training and totally injury-free, I'll be grateful to continue running behind a mask.