I've heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return. ~ From "Wicked" by Stephen Schwartz
My acting teacher said this to the class many years ago:
"Most women feel their emotions. Most men think their emotions."
This sounded fishy to me - I mean, he didn't cite a source or anything. I've not really bothered to search for anything to prove or dispute his assertion so I can't say if there's any truth to it or not. On the other hand, this precisely described how I generally experienced emotions.
I was a very emotional teenager, but sometime during college or right after, I stopped feeling most emotions. What would happen instead, for example, is somebody would do something that made me angry and I would find myself thinking "I am angry" instead of actually experiencing anger. What I'd actually feel would be a vague, dull thing that could best be described as "discontent." I had three general emotional states - "feel good now," "feel bad now" and "not bad."
"Not bad," it should be noted, is not the same as "good." It's more like the absence of emotion than an emotion unto itself.
There are so many problems with this way of experiencing emotions. The most troubling problem was that I lost the ability to gauge when I was truly depressed or angry or sad and, thus, couldn't take even the most rudimentary action to cope with these feelings. See, the emotions existed but they just sort of got poured into a giant tank in my heart. When the tank got too full, I would inevitably do something self-destructive - like punch a wall or smack myself in the face over and over again. Sometimes, things would trigger my freak outs (like something unfair happening at work or like me screwing something up) but just as often, I would find myself hitting my head against my desk (literally) with no obvious cause. Maybe I was tired, maybe it was the (at that time undiagnosed) depression, honestly maybe I'd just had too much caffeine. I don't know.
I should also note that the positive emotions didn't seem to get stored anywhere. They tended to wash off of me like rain on a newly waxed car. I deliberately chose "car" as the metaphor there because waxing a car is a stereotypical "manly" thing. I've never waxed my car.
Oddly enough, the times that I did feel specific things were when I empathized with somebody else. To this day, when I see somebody get physically injured, I feel a pang for them in my gut. When I know somebody else is sad or happy, I often feel that with them. Sometimes, if somebody I care about reacts to something that also effects me, I'm able to feel my own emotions. For example, when a close friend of mine died during college, I wasn't able to cry about it until I told my mother - she started crying and that, in turn, made me cry. So its not that I couldn't experience emotions, I just couldn't really feel my own.
In fact, I only truly felt sad about one of my grandparents passing. I thought "Oh, I'm sad" about the other three and then felt vicariously sad through everyone else's responses. Many cousins, aunts and uncles commented on how strong I was at the funerals but I don't think it was strength. More like "disconnectedness." When my last surviving grandparent - my dear grandfather - died, I was all right until I wrote the eulogy which was intended to express grief on behalf of the whole family. I cried the whole time I was writing that but as soon as I finished the piece and hit "send," the feeling passed.
A dramatic literature professor from Kilkenny once told me that the Irish (I'm at least partially Irish) conceive of emotions like clouds. In Irish literature, emotions exist outside the body and pass through it at certain times. "She had a sorrow come upon her," "A rage came upon him." I certainly felt like my emotions were just little dark (and less often, white) clouds that lingered in parts of my brain.
I've no idea if this "Irish conception of emotion" is a real thing or not - I took her word for it because the concept resonated with me and have never researched it further Which makes me like everyone who shares false news stories on my Facebook wall.
Two major things have happened in the last four years that have finally forced me to start experiencing emotions. One is weird. One is sad.
The weird one has to do with how my body responds to long distance running. When I run ten or more miles and reach the finish line, my body experiences two typical endurance athlete responses. A few minutes after finishing, I suddenly become extremely cold which is because my body has been regulating my temperature for hours of exertion. Also, my body starts flushing out endorphins (the cause of "runner's high") which unblocks all of my emotions.
Seriously, after a long distance run, I cry about everything. Talking to friends. Songs that make me think of minor events in the past. Flowers and mountains. Once, I was driving back from a run and I had an idea for a play I was directing that struck me as so beautiful that I couldn't see the road for all my tears. Once I'd had some time to recover, I couldn't figure out why the idea had seemed so poignant to me.
The point is, I had become aware that there was some pretty potent stuff lurking in the deep waters of my mind.
The sad thing that happened was that Kitty Michaels - my beloved, elderly cat for those of you who aren't in the know - passed away.
Setting aside his possibly nefarious motivations, Kitty loved me without reservations. Here is photographic proof of his master snuggling technique:
I not only loved him back, for the last 13 months of his life, I doted on him as we lived under the shadow of his impending doom. He had a kind of stomach cancer that was going to kill him eventually. For months, I'd done everything I could to make sure he had his pill regimen, to give him a kind of compounded medicine in his ear and to fret over his every twitch and yowl. I knew the end was coming, but when it finally did come, I was still totally unprepared for it.
Kitty Michaels fans will be pleased to know that his last act on this planet was to release his full bladder onto me as I held him one last time. Good boy.
Grief, I've since learned, is unpredictable. Everyone grieves differently and there's not necessarily a wrong way to do it. My way was to cry for hours a day every day for smonths. I was able to hold it together at work, but for the first time in my life, my emotions were always churning just below my smiling face. Still, I was able to get through my days until something else happened.
My hometown is Newtown, Connecticut. Yes, that Newtown. I visited my family over Thanksgiving that year and took some solace from my grieving in my sleepy little New England town. The massacre happened about a week after I returned home. All those poor families. I couldn't sleep because I kept imagining how just the day before, those families had all been preparing for the holidays. There were presents wrapped and bought and hidden that would never be opened. Those images (entirely of my own making) and the sorrow in my parents' voices left me barely functional. I couldn't sleep, work and stopped eating. All my time was spent sobbing and then hating myself for being so useless when people who had actually lost children or family members were still somehow functioning.
As it happens, this was around the same time I discovered I was depressed and had just started seeing a therapist (for years, I told my parents I was seeing a "grief counselor" because my father was so anti-psychiatry). Grief and depression were, in my case, two very different things. I had functioned with depression for so long that it didn't interfere with my ability to live my life. Grief had now left me unable to function.
It took a couple of hard sessions with my therapist for me to come to grips with the fact that my responses were not abnormal. I mean, they weren't normal, but there's no such thing as normal grief. Whatever dams I'd constructed as a young adult to hold back my emotions were destroyed by this grief. I felt everything now, even stuff that was long past. How had I lived for so many years with no conception of what was going on inside of my own head and heart? With the help of my therapist, I accepted that this is how I am now and was able to get on with my life.
I still barely understand what is happening inside of me. I can't quite summon up emotions like a real actor can - I don't have any control over my feelings at all. But I can feel things now that I wasn't able to before. Once I adjusted to this new situation, I found that I enjoyed sad songs, stories and scenes like never before - be they scenes from Pixar films or songs from "Wicked."
When Kitty died, the vet tech told me how lucky he was to have had me. Through moist eyes, all I could say is I was lucky to have him. Four years later, and his biggest gift to me turns out to be that, thanks to having him in my life, I've started feeling my emotions. Part of me feels like its ludicrous that a cat helped teach me this about myself, certainly more than any human teacher ever did. A bigger part of me is just grateful that he did. Good kitty. Good boy.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good. ~ From "Wicked" by Stephen Schwartz