I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas this morning. The sun is shining through the shades next to me, reminding me of a warm summer day, while a cold draft from the large picture window behind me lets me know it is a mere six degrees outside. This mixture of cold and warmth reminds me of how life can be good and bad, sweet and salty, all at the same time.
Growing up in a household where uncertainty was the norm, I developed this interesting ability to wall myself off from the painful moments when my mom was having a psychotic episode. I taught myself how to go numb, like a body does when its been in the cold too long, in order to freeze out the terror that was a part of living with a parent who struggled to cope with a difficult to treat, sometimes debilitating illness called paranoid schizophrenia. It wasn’t so much her accusations that I was the devil, the shouting at me, or the pushing me out the door that hurt so bad. It was the pain of watching someone I loved descending into a living hell and not being able to do anything about it.
So I learned how to protect myself, first by living in a day-dream world, hidden in my room surrounded by books, colored pencils for sketching my dreams, and a desk full of pens for writing stories about a better life. Later my body became the subject of my obsessions; restricting, bingeing, purging, all to numb myself from the world around me.
In parallel to this numbing, was the ever-present sunshine in my life, even when hidden behind thick misty clouds or blizzard conditions, it was always there. The people who loved me unconditionally, the music that kept me in touch with my soul, and the tiny glimpses of a peaceful being that I couldn’t quite understand. Most call this presence God. I have found no words yet to describe this divine source of tranquility.
As life went on, winters came and went, and so did warm summers. I learned how to navigate life without some of the vices that had become my shield. Yet, whenever something unthinkable would happen, the near loss of a child, divorce, or the death of someone I cherished, I would find myself going back to my old way of coping, this time without the help of an eating disorder. I found that I had mastered the ability to quickly go numb once the initial tears were shed.
I am certainly not the only one who anesthetizes their feelings in order to cope. I am finding that most adults do to a greater or lesser degree all of the time. It turns out, our emotions seem to be our greatest foe at times, and we will go to great lengths to drown out our inner voices. We use drugs, alcohol, work, relationships, avoidance, sex, religion, gambling, violence, and many other behavioral tactics to keep us from facing our true selves.
The problem with having this ability to numb oneself is that it is hard to go back to feeling anything once the cold has passed. I am working on being able to show up in the moment and open up my heart to whatever feelings come to me, no matter how scary, as that is my only hope of ever being fully alive. It may take me the rest of my life to figure out how to live in a world that is bittersweet, but slowly I am thawing out and warming up enough to experience the beauty of life as well as the pain.