When I was in Year 1, aged six, we had a cake sale at school to raise money for charity. I can’t remember which charity now, but I know that a representative came into our class to talk about all the important work this charity did, and how the money we raised in our cake sale would help people. It might not sound like much, but we were six, and it was all terribly exciting.
My mother offered me a choice as to what to make. We could make chocolate brownies, from pre-prepared brownie mix bought from the supermarket, or we could make cheesecake from scratch. Being a really ambitious six-year-old, I of course chose the cheesecake. The trouble was that cheesecake is pretty difficult to make, and I’m really not great at cooking. My mother did her best, but I was determined to do as much as possible myself, and the result was… well, it tasted good, but it looked pretty unappetising. Sort of soggy and off-white and not properly set. Anyway, I was still spectacularly proud of the fact that I’d made cheesecake, and so I took it into school anyway, hugely excited about the cake sale and all the money I was going to raise for the charity.
Nobody bought any cheesecake. Not a single slice. As the hours passed, I remember feeling desperate and frustrated as other girls were selling cupcakes and biscuits, while my cheesecake remained decidedly unsold. To make it worse, several girls had made brownies from the same mix I’d been offered, which were selling brilliantly. I felt like an absolute failure. Then after the cake sale, that same afternoon, we had to write about it in class. I still vividly remember having tears in my eyes as I wrote ‘nobody wanted to buy my cake, but I didn’t really mind’ in my exercise book. But I didn’t really mind. Even then, I knew this was a stupid thing to get upset about, and that intelligent grown-up girls wouldn’t be crying over it. Not only had I failed at baking and raising money for charity, but I couldn’t even handle that failure.
By the time my mother came home from work that day, I was pretty much hysterical, crying my eyes out, sobbing about how useless I was. I think I threw the entire cheesecake away, even though it tasted good, because I didn’t want a reminder of my failure. Thinking back, she must have been utterly at a loss as to what to do with me. After all, she couldn’t have magically forced people to buy it, even if I hadn’t thrown it out, nor could she go back in time and persuade me to make the brownies instead. I think that may have been the first time I was upset about something that my mother couldn’t fix, which if you think about it is a pretty big deal when you’re a kid and parents are omnipotent. And in addition to that, my mother must have known, deep down, that I was more upset than I ought to be about it, and that most children probably wouldn’t be so agonisingly disappointed about a cake sale. I kept repeating how sorry I was for crying, that I knew it was a stupid tiny thing, and that I wanted to be able to let it go but just couldn’t.
And then my mother did something that I will never forget. She drew me a graph with a wavy line, and explained that this was how most people live their lives, with emotions going up and down gently. Then she got a different colour pen, and drew another line. This one had a much greater amplitude (not that I could have explained it that way at the time), and was a lot spikier. My mother explained that this line was for my emotions, that would sometimes be a lot stronger than the average, and so would feel more intense than they were ‘meant’ to be. I tearfully said that I didn’t want to feel this disappointment so strongly, I wanted to be normal. And she explained that unfortunately it wasn’t something I could change, that I’d always be that way, and that there would be times when I would be hurt by something far worse than rejected cheesecake, and would feel like this. But she said that the flip-side was that I’d also be able to feel positive emotions so intensely it would make up for it. And she told me to embrace it, and to never feel like there was something wrong with me for feeling so strongly. And then I think we had ice cream and never mentioned the cheesecake again.
I mention this now because my mother was right. I have always felt everything incredibly strongly. I didn’t realise when I was six that she was talking about love, and about getting rejected, and having my heart broken. (Six-year-olds generally don’t understand these sorts of things.) And while I don’t necessarily think that I feel more strongly than is ‘average’ or ‘normal’, I do think I feel a lot more strongly than society tells me I’m meant to. Maybe most people are this way, but we’re all too afraid to admit it. Because recently I have been devastatingly upset. I have felt like I’m breaking, that the world is falling away from me, that everything I’ve ever believed has shattered. And what’s worse, I know how stupid and clichéd and childish those emotions seem. Emo. Immature. And so I’ve felt utterly humiliated as well, and angry at myself, and like a complete and utter failure.
I’ve been told so many times, in no uncertain terms, that my emotions are irrational, unreasonable, disproportionate, or flat out wrong. As if any of those words make any sense at all when applied to something like emotion. As if you could be ‘incorrect’ for feeling something.
I’m coping. I’m coping because I know I’ll get through it, and because I can comfort myself with the thought of all the wonderful times I’ve had that were made that much more intense by my ability to feel deeply. And I wouldn’t trade that intensity for the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother drawing me that graph, though I doubt she’d even remember it now. Because at the moment, I’m a little girl crying because nobody wanted her cheesecake. And I have to believe, deep down, that that’s an okay thing to be.