Rollover mopes

A friend of mine told me that she allows five minutes a day to mope or feel sorry for herself. I like the idea of slotting "five-minute mope" in the day minder.

Remember Holly Hunter’s short, stupendous bout of hysterics in “Broadcast News”? I aspire to that sort of efficient catharsis.

But I’d also like the option of setting aside the unused minutes, for those times when I need a longer session of self-pity. Thus I suggest a new personal indulgence: Rollover mopes.

Moping, within reason, can be as useful as optimism. Focusing on what’s right with your life is a terrific way to keep problems in perspective. But focusing only on what’s right with your life means ignoring what might be wrong with it.

Perhaps it’s a temporary worry, e.g., “My spouse is recovering from a serious illness.” Or it could be a longer-term problem, such as “I have a great job and wonderful family but I’m a member of the sandwich generation and it’s shredding me.”

These are very real stressors that can create very real anxiety, whether acute or low-level. Pretending that everything’s fine may be as counterproductive as playing handball with a sprained wrist. You can do it, but it’s gonna hurt – and more to the point, it will delay healing and maybe cause permanent damage.

Drop the brave front, just for a little while

Suppose you’re going through a divorce and having to deal with lawyers, new financial realities and, last but not least, your children’s confusion and resentment. Your own emotions go on the back burner; “staying strong” is the only way to make it through each day.

This kind of denial exacts a pretty grim toll. Swallowed pain will eventually come back up, probably at a wildly inappropriate time. Or, worse, it will stay right where it is – and grow. You can tell yourself all the lies you want and you might even believe them for a while. But your body never forgets and your body cannot lie. Notice how your stomach burns and your head aches? That your jaw is so tightly clenched that it hurts to chew?

Instead, try this: Admit that sometimes life really stinks, and that this is one of those times.

Your soon-to-be-ex gets to be Disneyland Daddy (or Mommy) while you’re the one who checks homework, does laundry, shops for new snow boots. Your kids lash out in sudden bouts of rage almost always aimed at you, the parent who’s almost always there.

Nobody’s checking in to see how you’re doing. And how you’re doing right now is pissed as hell, thanks for asking. So before you go back to your role as caring, compassionate parent who deals gracefully and courageously with crisis, allow yourself a short mope: I’m worried about my kids, I’m worried about the bills, I’m worried about how to rebuild my life.

No, it won’t fix things. But sometimes you need to let off a little steam, like lifting the lid on a pot that’s about to boil over. Drop the brave front for a few minutes, either with trusted friends or alone. Acknowledge that an awful lot of awful things are happening. Admit that sometimes you’re overwhelmed.

Don’t stay overwhelmed, mind you. Try to brainstorm ways to make things a little more bearable. Professional counseling, simplifying what you can, exercise, getting a massage, talking with a friend or clergy person can all reduce stress and thus give you more strength to deal with what must be endured.

Sometimes just a hot soak and an early bed can make a huge difference. I find that an occasional 9- or 10-hour stretch of sleep provides energy and clarity.

Don’t get stuck in sorrow

And sometimes you just have to mope, i.e., allow yourself to grieve.

  • “This breakup is devastating. I really thought s/he was The One.”
  • “I desperately wanted that promotion – the salary increase would have let us start college funds for the kids.”
  • “My father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I just don’t think I can handle it.”

Our ethos here in the U.S. is rugged individualism. We pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’re the steely-jawed hombre who absorbs all of life’s pain without flinching. We’re eight feet tall and emotionally bulletproof.

Real healthy.

My mom died in August 2003. I’ve gone through the stages of grief and acknowledged my great loss. But I still wish she could have seen me get my college degree in my 50s. I wish I could send her a ticket to visit me in Seattle. I wish she could look at pictures of herself at age 12 or 16 or 40 and tell me what she was thinking about when the shutter clicked.

I can’t have any of those things. My mother is dead. Usually I accept that. Some days I still mourn.

But most days I don’t. Hence, rollover mopes. I’m saving them up for big-ticket items. I won’t waste a perfectly good mope “there’s a long line at airport security” or “they’re out of my favorite bread at Panera.”

Occasionally life sneaks up on me. Out of nowhere comes a thought like, “I wish I could hear my mother tell her story – to explain why things happened the way they did.” That calls for a little more time to process: 5 or 10 minutes for moping and another 5 or 10 to square what happened then with what’s happening now.

We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that life sometimes hurts. A lot.

Acknowledgment doesn’t mean getting stuck in pain, though. It means learning from it – and sometimes what we learn is that there’s not much we can do at the moment. That divorce will eventually be finished and you and your family will eventually learn to craft new ways of living. Until that happens, you cope as best as you can.

And sometimes if you can’t cope? Then mope. Within reason.

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