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Weathering Emotional Storms
In the cyclones of sensation
A powerful Nor’easter blew through me this month. Gathering strength for well over two weeks, this complex system rendered travel impossible, resulting in four separate days of canceled plans and a long stretch of sensorily perilous conditions.
Last night, after a couple hours of torrential tears, the storm finally broke. I was still shaken this morning and woke up with a bad headache, but feeling deeply relieved to be past this most recent unstable emotional disturbance.
Sometimes, I am able to map my storms. But others come without any warning or explanation. This was one of those. Suddenly the house shook and windows shattered, leaving me no choice but to scramble for cover. Once the skies went black, it felt like that’s how they were going to stay forever. The passing of every past storm still could not convince me that this one would also be temporary.
Looking back, I’ve been able to better understand this debilitating system’s origin and destructive path. But what impressed me most, as the hail fell and the lightning struck, was how little there was inside me beyond grief and anxiety. It just felt bad. It was hard to attach any words to it as it happened. It was hard to have any clear or complete thoughts at all.
While the nature of this storm feels substantively different in my experience and understanding, the general description of it sounds exceedingly ordinary. Once again, the low-pressure depression that fed these category 4 winds appears to be low self-esteem. Surprise, surprise.
I’ve felt like a waste of good air and donuts many times before. But this time, I was having a new, Clockwork Orange type of revulsion at the very thought of trying so hard to get others to recognize and appreciate me. The idea of working, performing, or even socializing was intolerable. Be they theater directors, friends, or my anonymous followers on Medium, I was unable to tolerate my own clambering to win them over in order to feel better about myself. Efforting to be seen and liked had become involuntarily repulsive.
There has always been a part of me that has cranked and churned to win a sense of appreciation and worth. While I understand that making a contribution is a part of how we create value and meaning for ourselves, something in the way this is supposed to organically work has been broken. I suspect it is broken for most of us, but it is especially toxic for me.
I have long suspected that straining to be seen can never accomplish the objective, even when I manage to “succeed.” It only feels good for a moment and then I’m right back where I was, not even a little bit further along. It has been a destructive, corrosive, and exhausting way to live. My hope is that I have finally had all of it that I can take.
As trite as it sounds, even to myself, I need to narrow my focus to the process and work itself. I love to create. I love to write and draw and improvise. And socialize. But I can’t keep operating under the assumption that I have to constantly prove myself to be likable. I’ve lived my whole life behind this 8-ball and I honestly don’t know how to stop and redirect my attention to the part of creation and being that feels fun, exciting, and easy. I fear that I will probably revert back to my old ways despite my momentary clarity and resolve. It’s what has happened many times before.
But maybe–just maybe–I’m growing so reflexively revulsed by the experience of straining to feel okay that the disgust itself will instantly sicken me to the point that I won’t have to make any effort to remember to keep my focus on the ease and joy. Maybe my repulsion will serve as an automatic reminder.
I don’t know how it might feel to operate in the world without the constant terror of failure, missteps, and rejection. I can only hope and imagine it will be a whole lot easier. I’d certainly like to find out.
As I started writing this piece, My focus was on the challenge of simply surviving these dark, cold, emotional assaults. I think I did okay this time. I only threw a couple of melamine bowls across the kitchen and screamed primarily at inanimate objects. I did what I could to pass the time as I sheltered mostly in place. I did make it out for a walk one day to return a package at UPS. I did some tax stuff. And I watched sad TV and cried hard.
But most significantly this time, I let my body lead the way instead of my mind. I followed my sensations and feelings rather than blazing my typical, erroneous narrative trails as I strain to figure out what is going on. Sure, I cut a few short verbal paths but they led nowhere and I quickly returned to my body even when it was mostly numb. I exhaled and followed the feelings down. On and off, over and over, day after day. Even as I marveled at the stunning depth of my grief, fury, and pain.
I also ate too many Bugles. But I didn’t thrash myself over it much.
Mostly, I just hung in there feeling my horrible feelings and waiting until the storm passed. And thankfully, mercifully, and as always, it did.