I know what you see.
I know what catches your focus and earns a favorite and garnishes a comment.
You see my smile and the happiness I refuse to hide and the joyous spaces in between.
You see the filtered pictures of perceived perfection, my crooked teeth peeking through a lipstick-stained smile as I enjoy this moment or that memory or some fleeting instance I know I’ll never forget.
You see freeze frames of laughter or carefully calculated smiles, rays of a setting sun sneaking through strands of hair or peaking behind a slightly-tilted head.
And I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking my life is as close to flawless as you can imagine. You think I don’t feel heartache or pain or disappointment, now that I’ve found a partner and have a family and enjoy a mildly successful career.
You think my smile means days are effortless, and I’m constantly beaming because my borderline-annoying joy hasn’t paused or ceased or desisted but, instead, grown.
But you’re wrong.
I smile because I’ve been devastated. I’ve seen the other side of happiness, where loneliness is appealing and pain becomes as commonplace as a winter cold or a summer tan. I’ve been hurt for reasons that cannot be fathomed or articulated or even comprehended, by people who promised love and compassion and protection. I’ve been left in a pile of tears and incoherent sobs and uncontrollable shivers that only time or a few choice, and strong, cocktails could ease.
I smile because I’ve been lost. I’ve dug through my ribs and past the pit of my stomach and into the darkest parts of myself, trying to find a version I could recognize. I’ve felt within and without, always a painful arm’s length away from feeling comfortable in my skin or the shallow corners of my mind.
I smile because I’ve been judged. I’ve felt the blade of sharpened words, by strangers and friends alike. I’ve felt the weight of lifted brows and authoritative smirks, condemning my choices or actions because they live outside the lines of another’s understanding. I’ve felt less than and worthless and broken, because the clasps of close-mindedness have kept others from walking alongside me, if only for a moment.
I smile because I’ve been ignored. I’ve clawed and clambered and pounded on the doorsteps of publications and editors and prolific writers alike, only to be silenced by their superiority and indifference. The part of me I’ve created and nurtured was the part they found to be lacking, leaving me with a sense of doubt that’s as dangerous as it is debilitating.
I smile because I’ve known loss. I’ve held the hands of mourning personified, attending funerals when I should have been attending slumber parties. I’ve said goodbye to best friends for reasons I still cannot completely comprehend. Through a confusing screen of black and white, I’ve seen the silent heart of a growing life; dreams and plans and hopes replaced with the weight of perceived failure.
I smile because I’ve been broken. My body has failed me in spectacular fashion, bones fracturing and ligaments tearing to the point of ruin. I’ve been forced to physically rely on the kindness of others; their hands bathing me and their legs walking for me and their strength standing me straight. I’ve ached with impatience as my limbs re-learned basic functions and my body demanded breaks and rest. I’ve felt the pain of physical hindrance and mental exhaustion.
I smile because, for far too long, I didn’t smile at all.
I ached for the effortless happiness I now experience on a regular basis. And while I am far from living in a constant state of bliss – as there are plenty of moments in which pain and loss and judgement and devastation revisit me – I am content and cheerful and gratified more often than I am not.
So, while you see my smile and think my life is as close to flawless as you can imagine, I see my smile and remember that it wasn’t.
While you see my smile and think I don’t feel heartache or pain or disappointment, I see my smile and remember that I have.
I don’t smile because things are perfect.
I smile because, for a painfully long time, they weren’t.