“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
– William Goldman, The Princess Bride
One of the things I have noticed as my meds started to take effect, and even more so as I’ve started working through a lifetime of issues, is that I am crying more now than I have in a very long time. At first glance, it seems strange that I’m crying more now that I’m treating my depression than I was when I was in the deepest depths, but it’s the truth. It’s not just sadness, either. I’m feeling more in general, more of all the feelings. When I’m depressed, when I’m deep in the storm, I feel numb. I go through the motions, but my heart feels like it’s enclosed in a pile of raw, freshly shorn wool. There is some pain, irritation, even anger, which can be represented in this metaphor by the twigs and various vegetative bits that gets stuck in the sheep’s coat. But the others… they are severely dulled. Even the pain, to some degree, is often dulled.
In some ways, it feels like the emotional equivalent of drinking a glass of ice water after dental work, when your mouth is still numb. You can feel the sensation of moisture, but your mouth doesn’t feel the cold that your hand throat feel. Logically, you know that the water is cold. You know that drinking it too fast would normally result in an “ice cream headache.” But what you feel is fuzzy. Dulled. When I’m depressed, when the emotional novocaine of depression is actively and acutely at work in my life, I am not the stereotype of depression. I don’t look sad. I don’t outwardly obsess about death. I don’t necessarily listen to depressing music. Depression, for me, less a state of “being,” more a state of “not.” Something good may happen, and, in the logical part of my brain, I know I should be happy. So, I act happy. Inside, though, I might, at most, feel a vaguely pleasant feeling. I then start worrying if my reaction is appropriate (thanks mild anxiety). If you’ve never read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, she does an amazing job of not just describing some of the symptoms and experiences she’s had (which I can relate to as well), but of illustrating them in a simple yet effective way. As I was working on this topic, I kept returning to her post, Depression, Part Two.
Since I often feel like I’m wearing a mask in an attempt to hide the symptoms of my depression, I often prefer to withdraw from others, especially when I get deeper into the spiral, because hiding the numbness is exhausting. The stereotype of perpetual weepy sadness couldn’t be farther from the truth of my experiences. Rather, imagine the feeling of trying to walk on legs that have fallen asleep. You know you’re moving things, but your legs don’t feel like your own. Your feet feel rounded, or alien to you. You start feeling sharp pains off and on, but always punctuated in a not so pleasant, fuzzy numbness. Now, imagine the emotional version of that, but without the fairly quick relief of the increased blood flow from walking.
Today, getting weepy at a sad scene in a movie, or choking up when (spoiler alert) Michael dies on Jane the Virgin, often feels strange, and a part of me thinks I’m stupid for crying at a piece of fiction (thanks, cognitive distortion). Another part of me, the part of me that is pretty self-aware and hungry for emotional health, rejoices at every intense emotion. It’s refreshing to feel emotions, big or small. I’m truly enjoying feeling many of the good feelings that were dampened by depression, especially when my heart is bursting with love for my family, or with the pride I feel when I watch my young son grow and show compassion for others.
The bigger challenge is feeling the painful feelings, especially when it comes to something that is not fiction. There’s still a lot to work out, still a lot of delving, understanding, accepting, and resolving that needs to happen. Because there is a lot of pain yet to understand, yet to work through and heal from, I am distinctly wary of allowing myself to feel the painful feelings. Who really, actively wants to feel painful emotions? I mean, I can acknowledge that without my past, the good and the bad, the pain and the happiness, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I can acknowledge, logically, that without a balance, it is really hard to appreciate the good. There’s a reason why salty sweet makes such a good combination; the sweet tastes even sweeter in contrast to the salt. And yet…
The fact that there are painful emotions and memories there to be worked through, the fact that they hurt, and the fact that I can feel the hope of healing from them helps. So do the good emotions. When things get hard, I try to remind myself why I’m doing this. I try to realize that feeling my feelings isn’t bad, and that feelings don’t have any moral value. Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; how I act and react based on my feelings is where appropriateness and right vs. wrong can come into play. I never thought that allowing myself to feel would be such a challenge, but, in order to heal past wounds that were buried rather than dealt with, I need to carefully re-open them, address the pain, and find a way to move forward. The slow pace is maddening sometimes, but, as I look at my son, I know I want better emotional health for him. I want to be healthier for him, and I want to teach him some of the skills I’m learning now, so he is better equipped to feel and act on his feelings appropriately.
There is hope on the horizon. Now it’s time for me to feel the feelings.
What do you do when feeling the feelings is hard?