…continued from Tuesday
When I was nineteen and in the middle of a major depressive episode that made me numb, restless and irritable for an entire summer, my therapist told me, you’re rather an inside out person, aren’t you? At the time I wasn’t quite able to grasp her meaning, and like many of her words, they’ve stuck in my head and evolved in meaning over time. She was good at her work. What she meant was that while I felt entirely disconnected from my feelings, it was readily apparent to others what they were. I was wearing my emotions on the outside, without experiencing them on the inside. I was an inside out person.
How does this happen to someone, that they express emotions they cannot access internally? In my case, my access was almost entirely denied, to the point I had zero awareness as to what I was exhibiting. Let me tell you, it was confusing at best, harrowing at worst. I would be speaking to a friend about something and they would say, wow you seem really angry! And I would be taken aback, because I didn’t feel angry. I felt nothing. In my view, I was simply speaking matter-of-factly, because I rarely had any emotional reaction to the events in my life. But they were seeing something in my eyes, about my face that indicated anger. I’ve know people who describe themselves as “empaths”, able to feel others’ emotional state simply by being in the same room. Well, they were feeling my feelings for me. Because there was nothing inside that I could perceive.
It must have started when I was a young child, because I remember having constant, outrageous impulses that I struggled to control. Looking back, I think the impulses were how I experienced emotions. I’ve been a highly energetic person since I can recall, meaning I’m unable to sit still, to stay quiet, to hold back or be patient. I experience the world through active participation. As a thought or feeling occurs to me, I’m acting it out in the next second. Obviously this has caused problems, especially in school. I drove my teachers insane with my constant chatter, leaping out of my seat, whispering, giggling, and other bizarre antics (such as shitting in a plastic bucket under a play structure at preschool when I was four because it seemed like an exciting risk, yes I did this, and yes I remember doing it). What was I feeling? A need for constant stimulation. I dreaded boredom, and avoided it at all costs. A need to always be in relationship for attention, to connect with others. Loneliness was the worst, and was not to be tolerated. Any attention was better than no attention. I was curious, ecstatic and fearless. It got me in trouble at school, at home and with my friends. I was unmanageable.
In middle school I began to connect the dots, that my behavior was alienating me from my peers, with whom I so desperately sought acceptance. Because I did not experience separation between my feelings and my actions, indeed, they were just one tangled mass of impulse, I reasoned that if I could get a handle on the emotions, maybe then I could control myself. And I knew I had to get control (“Kate, you’re just so impulsive” was my parents’ constant, weary refrain) in order to fit in. By the time I was in my sophomore year of high school, we were dealing with mental health issues in my family, which made emotions even more intense and to-be-avoided. I consciously put a lid on my feelings. I would not feel. That way, I could be selective about my reactions and behaviors. Everything would be processed and filtered through my intellect, where it could be tightly controlled. Neatly packaged, tied up and put away.
It totally worked. Sort of. The main problem, once I was able to control my impulses was that it felt like there was a pane of glass between me and everyone else. I felt apart, near the action but unable to participate. While I could see and perceive my surroundings intellectually, my reactions had become manufactured, measured and entirely inorganic. While everyone else seemed to be connecting (even if just to themselves) I had become hollow, taking cues from others, unable to access my inner self. Which apparently was completely visible to all. I’m sure one reason I continued to not fit in was that having a friendship with someone whose face betrays a deep sadness and insecurity while they chirp, “I’m totally fine!” is rather confusing and unsatisfying. A hollow girl is completely unknowable, especially to herself. There’s nothing to share, no center, no connection point.
Even now, decades after this process began and slowly reversed, I joke, “well, I’m always the last to know how I feel.” I’ve been working hard to reclaim some sort of emotional life since my mid-twenties, and it’s a deliberate process. I can go entire stretches of days without feeling much. An important milestone was losing the numbness. I’m now able to access some feeling if I allow space for it. And sometimes, rather magically, a big, powerful emotion rears up and crests over me. Even if it’s painful, I always take a second to celebrate that I’m feeling, and let it sweep me away from there.