I remember going through a museum once somewhere far away and reading a plaque that said the person who painted the piece before me did so during a period of time where, out of pure grief, they didn’t speak for a few years. “You can do that?!” was my first thought. My mind quickly jumped to remembering texts in school detailing women who ripped their hair out and threw themselves on pyres as they tried to process the loss of loved ones. Recently, I read “Open Me Carefully” about Emily Dickinson’s letters to her sister in law (and lover), Sue Dickinson, where it’s casually mentioned that Sue became a recluse for a year after one of her children died. There was no judgement in how it was presented — it was shared so matter of factly that it felt like an obvious outcome to how overwhelming the world must have felt.
I marvel at the idea of people feeling deeply, responding to horrific situations, and society understanding to the point of leaving room for such moments. It feels as though American society doesn’t understand that now. Rituals that might have been leaned on then have been sapped and we must move on. “There’s money to be made and work to be done” but the feelings remain to be felt.
The first big time I felt like there wasn’t space to feel was after meeting my birth mom when I was 12. I was expected to just carry on like before as if something monumental didn’t happen. Go to soccer practice, go to school, go to choir, go go go. Meanwhile my world had both stopped in my mind and been ripped apart. Nothing was what it seemed. What was family? How does she fit into my life? How do I even talk to her again if I want to? Who can I talk to about this? How would I even begin to explain it? It was a “before and after” moment. Yet, as if in a mass gaslighting campaign, everyone and everything else carried on as if nothing had changed. “Were you not also there when this happened?!” I wanted to scream to my parents who weren’t phased by the meeting. Did I make it all up in my head? Was I the weirdo for being so impacted by the experience? In time, I convinced myself that must be the case especially as more situations piled up where I was left devastated while others were unscathed. How were they managing? I felt so ill-equipped.
Over and over, I’ve repeated this experience. Not even 24 hours after witnessing a teammate of mine slammed by a car and losing a leg when I was 16, I was at a church service where I was hushed into hiding that I wasn’t doing okay while passing the peace with another church member who asked how I was doing. I walked right out of the service when that happened. I couldn’t play by the rules of containment anymore. A few months later, I walked off my high school’s soccer field without being subbed out in a similar state. Not long after that, I found myself leaving our church’s youth group after one too many “just pray about it”s thrown my way. I left tense dinners with my family and left our house entirely at times seeking refuge in car rides with friends or endless bike rides in my neighborhood. Leaving became the only way I knew how to still honor my feelings without causing a fuss for others. I was tired of explaining and I hardly had the words for it either way. I refused to be complicit in silencing how I felt and gas lighting myself. It didn’t feel like I had a choice in the matter: what I felt was too consuming and too much.
I find that explaining why something is painful/heavy/difficult to someone who doesn’t seem to grasp it almost doubles the pain or at least the exhaustion of managing it all. Before I can even dig into how I feel, I have to first bring you up to speed, convince you it’s worth being in pain over, and then get to a place where we can dig into what’s going on. I had a therapist recently who, over the entire course of the six months I worked with her, could not wrap her head around surrogacy. She routinely messed up terminology and would ask me questions that would drag me out of the present to explain something foundational. I never got into a flow of talking about surrogacy as I spent more time explaining than I did processing (very different mental states). At one point, I made a visual explaining the setup and shared links to resources to learn more. Nothing changed. Eventually, I gave up and left that therapist too.
For years, I’ve cast myself as the unstable one holding back tears, journaling furiously, and trying to make sense of it all. I marveled at those who could repress and act as if nothing was out of the ordinary after obviously bizarre things occurred. I listened to adults talk in coded language about grief with no one daring to get too close to talking about how they really felt. It was like watching a masterclass of emotional parkour creatively leaping over massive obstacles with simple, empty phrases. From time to time, I’d find an adult who didn’t try to hide like my god mother who spoke to me about how healing kayaking was for her after suffering the loss of yet another husband while we stood in my childhood home’s kitchen. She spoke openly of depression and how it took everything in her some days just to make it out onto the water. I wanted to know everything.
It’s taken me until the last few years to realize that my reaction likely comes from my little brain being wired a bit differently due to my own upbringing causing me to be more impacted by events. I question this sometimes though considering I might imagine that if one were to objectively look at the two events I referenced here it would seem obvious that they would have a profound impact on one’s life (meeting a parent for the first time, witnessing a traumatic car accident). Tied to this, societal norms are such that many of the topics I yearn to talk about are inherently off the table causing even those who might be willing to dive in to not have the “muscles” to do so. The cascading effects are devastating causing the pool of people to talk to feeling so small some days.
“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.” ― Timothy Leary
One of the only positive things to come out of cutting myself at an early age was the fact that it could act as a ready made connection point in finding “the others”. I wore my pain on my skin whether I wanted to or not and sometimes “the others” picked up on it as a cue to really talk. It became easier to find people after that who didn’t need an explanation and who could just be there to witness. At the same time, I learned how to hide my grief even more and what sort of easy answers I could give adults to get them to never question the act of violence I committed against myself. I turned towards exercise as a way to process grief publicly and turned to writing to process privately. In my desperation to find those who were similarly overwhelmed and baffled by our emotionally avoidant society, I learned how to be a solid conversationalist who could quickly (sometimes too quickly) dive into the deep end. At this point in my life, I can usually identify those are willing to go there rapidly within a few specific questions. My soul lights up and I breathe a bit easier when this happens. I collect these moments and mark them in time like a person who doesn’t want to get lost while following a path. My emotional map grows with each encounter and I return to it to find a way forward on terrible days. I share the map with others in case it helps trying to make use of our collective experiences.
I didn’t have the words or coping mechanisms at the time to communicate how these kinds of experiences felt to live through. Even if I did, they were singular experiences not shared by many and I question whether a tidy powerpoint presentation would have helped. In today’s pandemic world, I have the words and am relieved at how collective this is. It gives me hope that the pool of people won’t be so small this time around. More people seem to realize that this isn’t a time to carry on as before.
In the greater context of human history, I suddenly understand that this is exactly how I should be reacting to being cut off from others, to seeing the death count rise, to facing the loss of a way of life, etc. I should feel a profound sense of heartbreak. I should have days where I can hardly move — where the ground is such comfort I can’t crawl to the bed a foot away. Unlike my youth, I don’t have to just carry on and that’s profoundly centering.
Yet, I still must work. I cannot go mute for a year no matter how many meetings I try to get out of and how many times I say I prefer written communication. I still feel the constraints of how my grief can show up and what would likely cause me to be locked away against my will even in today’s modern medical system. I wonder what my teenage self would do if she were living in today’s world as I can tell my adult self is policing how my grief is allowed to show up even as I’m alone. Societal norms so ingrained that I become the silencer and the force demanding I carry on. This thought gives me a glimpse into how the many adults in my life who responded so strangely must have been reacting to my younger self! There wasn’t another way.
I have been trying to find another way (many other ways) and to create space for it. Both for myself and for others. I have a feeling I’ll need to for the rest of my life. To start, I relieve myself of the duty to explain and to make what I feel tidy for others. It doesn’t need to be despite what my youth taught me and it’s about time I unlearned that. Some will never understand and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of value on what you feel.
A funny thought occurred to me as I was writing this. I wonder how the rituals of feeling deeply of the past still left people out. What about the women who ripped their hair out because they felt they must while feeling no need to? I imagine there were those who merely saw this as an empty performance to put on for others while, in private, they found their own ways of feeling what they needed to. I can imagine women whose husbands died feeling the demands of visible, profound grief from those around them when they might have just felt relieved and wanted to simply move on. All of this is to say that I don’t argue for one approach over another; I only wish there were more acceptable tools in the toolbox for feeling both publicly and privately. Right now, it seems the only option many of us have been given is to carry on.