The Phoenix Zine

Stress Management: It’s All Right to Cry

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I’ve been screening books lately in an attempt to put together a list of novels featuring characters dealing with chronic illness. Once again I picked up my well-worn copy of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and struggled through it. I use the word ‘struggled,’ because every time I pick up that book I am tempted to put it right back down again. I struggle against myself, knowing that I’ll feel better for having read the book once again, but also that reading the book is going to be gut-wrenching and painfully sad.

The thing is, I am not a fan of, or a friend to my emotions. While growing up and experiencing being sick and many doctors who seemed to treat me more like a science experiment than a girl, it was easier to pretend I didn’t care, that I didn’t have any feelings to hurt. There was even a time when I avoided physical contact with others because it was difficult for me to negotiate between being someone who was loved and cared for and someone who was treated as an illness.

It may sound odd, but it was almost beneficial for me to believe that I was an illness or a science experiment, because I didn’t want to deal with the feelings that came up when I realised people who were loved and cared for weren’t treated in that way.

I love “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” because I have read a lot of books that feature characters dealing with chronic illness, but rarely are they so honest and human as Ann Brashares portrays Bailey Graffman, a twelve year-old girl with leukemia. Thus, every time I read it, I cry. A lot. Perhaps because she has so little time to figure things out, Bailey has a talent for getting to the heart of people and helping them feel okay with themselves.

And in this manner, Bailey touches my life too.

In the book, Carmen, one of the main characters, is struggling with the fact that her father is getting remarried and doesn‘t tell her in the most forthright manner. Deep down, Carmen feels like she doesn’t fit into his new family and he’s replaced her. When Bailey probes the situation, Carmen blames the family her dad is marrying into at first, but when Carmen insists she is not mad at her father, Bailey persists and asks why she isn’t. Carmen begins to cry and Bailey is at her side in an instant, telling her it’s okay and that she is allowed to be angry.

I find the scene to be extremely powerful because if anyone knows about being allowed to be angry, it’s Bailey. We find out shortly after the scene with Carmen that Bailey has been through “eight rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant.” Against belief, Bailey’s leukemia keeps returning, but somehow Bailey finds a way to come to terms with her shortened lifespan. She does so not at the expense of her emotions, but through allowing herself to feel what she feels.

I always cry when Bailey tells Carmen she is allowed to be angry, because I forget I am allowed to be angry too. It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in day-to-day survival, trying to be brave for others and trying to focus so much on the good that you don’t allow yourself to feel the bad. But what I’m still learning is that crying and/or feeling sad or angry about having to deal with a chronic illness doesn’t make us weak, it makes us real. It’s okay to be mad or sad about life sometimes, as long as that‘s not the only thing you feel.

It’s been said to me before that other people have it worse than I do so I shouldn’t complain. To that I say, yes, the statement may be true, but all you accomplish by telling someone that is a guilt trip. Also, you imply the person who is venting does not have a right to their feelings because ‘there’s always someone who’s worse’. It ends up being that the only person who is actually ‘worthy’ to complain or express frustration probably doesn’t even know it because they have undoubtedly been told by someone that someone else has it worse.

When I was little I used to have this tape by a pair of children’s singers named Jim and Rosalee. One song they sang still sticks in my brain to this day. It goes like this:

It’s all right to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s all right to cry
It might make you feel better

Raindrops from your eyes
Washing all the mad out of you
Raindrops from your eyes
It’s gonna make you feel better

It’s all right to feel things
Though the feelings may be strange
Feelings are such real things
And they change and change and change

(Words and Music by Carol Hall, see entire song here.)