First Feelings

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Just around this time last year, my husband Wes whisked me away in an aeroplane for an emergency holiday in Bali. I say “emergency” because that is how it felt to him, digging deep into his tax return, he flew me to a place that was tropical and vibrant as a means of emotional resuscitation, a life-saving procedure. We were lucky to be in a privileged enough situation to be able to do so and I am lucky to be so loved.

Only a few months earlier, a different lover (Wes and I identify as polyamorous, that is to say we are in an open relationship where we both have multiple loves and yes thank you we’re very happy that way) let’s call him Pete, had flown me to holiday with him in New York where things between us had gone incredibly sour. Upon my return, I was diagnosed with a sort of post-traumatic syndrome and my therapist and my closest people were telling me that Pete was behaving in ways that were emotionally abusive. Combine that with the depression, chronic pain condition and suicidal ideation I had been struggling with for the last couple of years and you’ve got yourself a recipe for someone who doesn’t really want to exist anymore. Suicide was constantly on my mind, I had planned how and had come close one too many times. The light within me was flickering dangerously and Wes, who knew and loved me best, was terrified.

So he flew me to Bali and just as he had hoped, the change in the air and colour and the company of my beloved quickly had me waking up. I adore the tropics like no other place and the ugly beautiful intensity of Bali mirrored something within my own internal landscapes. I started to feel excitement again, particularly as we were to do a diving course which would have us realising one of my lifelong dreams of scuba-diving in coral reefs.

Except as I already knew too well, life doesn’t always go according to plan. On the first day of our diving instructions, an over-eager instructor gave us flawed lessons which caused us both to sustain inner-ear injuries which we only became aware of late in the day. That night, Wes and I sat in a restaurant overlooking palm trees, chickens and tourist resorts and realised we were not going to be able to complete our diving course.

Heart swamped by bitter disappointment, the vision of my green cocktail blurred with tears. I felt miserable and I felt stupid for feeling so miserable when here I was drinking a cocktail in the tropics, a vision of privilege and good fortune. I felt ashamed of myself for feeling so unhappy when our holiday had only just begun. Optimistically, Wes said “Hey, no need to be upset, we’ll still have a good holiday, you know?” and at those words, something inside me clicked and, emotionally, angrily I snapped “I know, ok? I know it’ll be a good holiday! I know we are lucky to be here and I know we will find other things to do but right now I’m really fucking disappointed because this is something I’ve always wanted to do and now it’s just another fucking broken dream, you know? Just another thing I can’t do to add to the giant list of things I can’t do! Can I just wallow in this misery for awhile? I’ll be okay but can I just fucking be upset for awhile?”

“You know what, you’re right. That’s fair. I’m upset too. This fucking sucks.” And so when we went back to our hostel, we wallowed. We ate junk food, drank beer and I cried in Wes’s arms. I cried giant, heaving sobs of bitter disappointment that were a little about the ear injury but much more about the broken dreams caused by my chronic pain condition and disability as well as the deep hurt I was feeling over the betrayal of trust and emotional violence enacted upon me within my relationship with Pete who I was still deeply in love with. I allowed myself to feel sorry for myself, really, truly sorry.

Wes held me and I bathed head to toe in the bitterness of my disappointment and misery and after only an hour or so of wallowing… I felt fine. Better than fine, I felt good. Better than good. And happily, we planned out the rest of our holiday, adjusting our plans, discussing possible new adventures. We then went on to have an incredible holiday, one that was full of exploring, eating, fucking, nature, beauty, art and healing. During that time, we read Buddhist books together and I discovered the philosophy which has helped me develop a deep compassion for myself and a capacity for coping with my struggles with greater equilibrium.

So I learnt something really important through that experience. I learnt to take my emotions seriously, to stop judging them and stifling them and instead to let myself feel them completely so that they might pass through me and shift and metamorphose into something else. My therapist spoke of that phenomena as the idea that we experience both primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the first emotions we have in response to the phenomena of our lives and those emotions are understandable, reasonable things to have. Secondary emotions, the emotions we have in response to our emotions, more often than not, those guys are cunts. In my experience, secondary emotions tend to be judgemental emotions, the guilt that says “I shouldn’t be feeling this, I’m stupid for feeling this.” Secondary emotions are perhaps useful in helping us keep some perspective on our emotional landscape. Maybe secondary emotions are like our conscience, but left unchecked, they’re the jerks that stop us from giving ourselves the compassion and mental space to actually process what we’re feeling.

Similar concepts are described in Buddhism. My friend, Chance, explains it well in her excellent writing here:

“There is a Buddhist parable (or koan) about “the second arrow”. In short, the parable says that if a person is shot with an arrow, there is no point shooting a second one. The teaching is that sometimes in life you will get hit with an arrow. But many of us then shoot one at ourselves in response.

Buddhist teacher Tara Brach uses this parable to explain the phenomenon of blame – the human tendency to react to painful events by blaming others, or blaming ourselves. I remember when I first heard this parable (not from Tara but another teacher, Gil Fronsdal), I was struck by the idea that we could separate feeling awful, burdened or weary from being angry with ourselves for feeling those things. Perhaps it would be easier if we could just feel them.

This is what often happens with depression: we feel like crap, and then feel ashamed of feeling like crap, partly because we see the impact of it on those who love us. Sometimes shame is useful, and there is room for looking for answers, but if you are already wounded, injuring yourself further doesn’t help. It makes it doubly hard to put the pieces back together.”

So when I experienced the disappointment of not being able to complete the diving course, my habitual pattern was to emotionally attack myself for feeling disappointed, to tell myself that emotion was self-indulgent. But this time, I allowed myself to indulge that emotion, I validated the reasons I was disappointed and gave myself the compassion and space to feel unhappy for awhile. Through the act of doing so, I was amazed to see how quickly the miserable feelings passed and how quickly I was able to go about the task of having an amazing holiday with my gorgeous husband.

When we returned home, I ended things with Pete via email because I realised that there was no reason I should have to endure another verbal sparring match with him, no reason I had to listen to another cruel word. It would still take me over six months to start taking seriously the depths of the hurt his emotional abuse had caused because of course his default position had always been that I was overreacting and playing victim. Gaslighting is like the externalisation of the second arrow – your abuser shoots you with the arrow of their initial violence and then the second arrow is their denial of their responsibility, their insistence that you, in fact, are the one to blame for their bad behaviour. Their stubborn belief that your recovery from their wounds is your responsibility alone. For a long time, I internalised that message and in fact I’ve only recently allowed myself to feel the deep rage and disgust I have towards him for his behaviour. That has been healing as for a long time, I denied myself my fury.

Several months after returning from Bali, I had my first surgery for my thoracic outlet syndrome, a scary prospect with no guarantees. After my surgery, the surgeon came to me and said that mine was the worst case that himself and his assistant surgeon had seen and, after thanking him for such incredibly validating news, I broke into tears while my mother and husband held me and cried with me. After many years of not being taken seriously by a great multitude of medical professionals who made me feel as if my struggles with my health were just me being a hysterical woman, or incompetent, or crazy or just overreacting to my pain, after so many years of essentially being gaslit by medical professionals, to discover tangible evidence of the reality of my experiences was profound. And healing.

I’ve always been an emotional person, as a child I was told by adults that I was too sensitive, and as an adult I have often been told the same thing. After the experience in Bali, after the experience with Pete and after the experience with my surgery, I resolved never to disregard or minimise my emotions again. Yes, it is true that I feel emotions with perhaps more intensity than many and it is important for me to regulate and manage my responses to them with self-awareness, however emotions are a type of intelligence and more often than not, a reasonable response to the circumstances of our lives. We do not have to be controlled by our emotions but nor do we have to deny them, our emotions are a fundamental aspect of our lived experience and they have a great deal of wisdom to impart to us.

From now on, I am determined to listen to my emotions. I am determined to sit with the truth and wisdom and beauty of them. I am determined to give myself the compassion I deserve when I struggle because life is goddamn hard sometimes. And I am determined to do the same for others. Contrary to the belief of some, becoming better acquainted with emotions does not weaken me, in fact I have never felt stronger, never felt more resilient.

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A lazy form of grief

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I’ve been listening to Tara Brach’s incredible three part series of talks “Freedom From Othering: Undoing the Myths that Imprison Us”. In part 2, she quotes a line from a Nicole Kidman movie that made me feel like I was being punched in the chest.

“Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”

Brach suggested that the reasons we might decide a person is wrong or bad is because it is a defensive stance that masks deeper feelings of vulnerability, of hurt. In fact, I already knew that because in recent times, I had to cultivate an artificial sort of hatred within myself towards two people I loved. I cultivated this hate in order to create the sort of boundaries, safety and distance that I needed from those people who I’d loved deeply but who were no longer emotionally safe for me during the biggest crisis point in my life. Since then, I have experienced a childish frustration within myself because I did not believe they were behaving in ways that were right, or kind, or good. And the honest truth is that these stories about their bad, hurtful behaviour were playing in my head on repeat. No matter how much effort I made to process, to meditate on forgiveness, on compassion, no matter what magic rituals I undertook to move on and let go… in any moment when my emotions were just a little shaky, I would be right back to ruminating. It felt like my brain was stuck and I was sick and bored of these emotions. I am sick and bored of those emotions.

In Brach’s talk, we were invited to investigate our feelings towards a person who we had placed in our mind as a “bad other” and the reasons we might do that. We were told to look beyond the surface of our anger and disgust with them to the soft place, the truth of our feelings towards them. This wasn’t difficult at all for me, my carefully constructed hate was like the thinnest membrane spread protectively across something deep, almost unfathomably deep.

When you strip away the storylines, all that is left is the truth of our hearts, an animal, vulnerable, child’s need for love and as I pushed through that membrane and into the murky depths of things that hurt, a voice within me cried:

“Why did you hurt me? I thought that you loved me! Why? I thought you loved me! Why?”

I collapsed on the floor where, for a few minutes, I allowed myself an ugly, loud, childish sobbing. I allowed myself to whisper “why?” over and over in the pitiful, superstitious hope for an answer I’d never receive. Then that thing happened that I learned to do last year where I just thought “Enough.” And just… turned the emotion off.

I don’t like that. I don’t this new skill, this ability to go numb and disconnect from my emotions. One of the biggest reasons that I realised I needed to leave him was because, in order to be around him, I was having to switch off my emotions for fear of his disgust. And then I just kept those emotions switched off in order to just… cope. Survive. Live. But as Brene Brown says, if you want to do more than just survive, if you want to thrive and live wholeheartedly, you cannot selectively numb because when you numb your capacity for pain, you also numb your capacity for joy.

I believe this to the marrow of my bone and so I continually strive to allow myself my emotions. Not to get caught up in the stream of them, but to simply honour their transient presence and allow them to flow through me. And so I’ve been turning things back on lately. Processing. Letting myself feel through what I need to feel through. It’s frustrating work, I am tired of my heartbreak and bored of the ways my brain still obsesses over hurt that happened many months ago. But I get it, I get that it won’t go away through sheer force of will, instead I need to grow with and through it. I need to honour my heartbreak and past experiences, even as I continue to move forward.

I loved him so much. I loved her so much. Life is long, hurt happens. I do feel myself moving on but… but when I stop numbing, I am faced with the truth; I still love him. I still love her. So much. Neither are in my life anymore and the part of me that clings, that wants everything to stay the same, that struggles with loss and the ugly sadness of life… that part wants to hear their laughter and to wrap my arms around them and feel the glow of the love we once shared. I miss the way her eyes went wide with the wonder of the world. And fuck… I miss the way he would whisper “you’re the love of my life” in my ear. I miss his whisper with an intense sorrow that doesn’t seem to lessen as time goes by.

So I guess that once someone occupies my heart, they will always be there. And perhaps I will always see things that make me think of them and bring the taste of tears into the back of my throat. But when I let myself feel those things… they pass through me. They don’t pass permanently but they do not dominate with their original intensity. And allowing myself to connect to them, as painful as they are, is also allowing me to connect more deeply to every other intense sort of emotion.

I suppose this is what acceptance is. I am lonely. I am loved. I am heartbroken. I am joyful. I am slowly building a collection of scars both tangible and intangible and they are evidence of a life lived bravely and fully.

I had hoped to hate those who I felt wounded by because that strategy seemed safe and easy. But it doesn’t work for me. I allow myself my anger, yes and I know my boundaries, what behaviours I will and will not accept from the people I keep close to me… but just because they are no longer in my life, it doesn’t mean my heart has closed. My beautiful, broken, hurting, happy heart.

The harder task is wishing them joy. My sense of hurt still runs deep enough that a part of me wants them to suffer because a part of me feels they never learned any lesson from the hurt they “caused” me. That child crying “why?” and wanting the world to be simple and just. But I know everything is more complex than that and so when I go even deeper than my hurt, I can access a place where I genuinely wish them well. And I do. When I allow myself to accept just how much I still love them… I genuinely wish them well.

And that’s what I want. Love is hard work and anger is an important emotion to understand, honour and work with… but not hate. I reject hate. It’s just not for me. It’s lazy and ineffective. And so the process of moving forward isn’t a straight line but circuitous. And that’s just how it is and so that’s ok.