I hesitate to blame being English.
As a nation (I believe) we have a reputation for maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’, and at all times a sense of decorum and propriety. We show affection to dogs and horses, but that’s about the limit. Tragedy, from a tumble and a scraped knee, to a fatal diagnosis, is met with a brief flash of panic in the eyes, and the hasty offer of a cup of tea – that balm which makes all things better. If the situation is really bad, there might be an awkward pat on the shoulder and a mumbled, embarrassed “There, there…”
Whether or not we’ve always been like this – cloistered from our feelings and gushings-out of affection (perhaps a result of living on a drizzly, grey little island, where everyone seems to have a perpetual cold (which, I have to say, is rather off-putting when one considers getting up close and personal with another human)) – and it’s difficult to know now whether we behave like this in order to conform to stereotype, because we’ve conditioned ourselves into one giant, cultural expectation, or whether it’s simply that we can’t stand being akin to (or confused with) the overblown emotional gestures and tinge of hysteria one comes to expect of Americans. Or worse still, the French.
But there’s a reason for the phrase ‘still waters run deep’, and I can’t definitively say that as a collective, the English nation is the embodiment of this phrase, but there’s a reason our poets are so well respected, ‘kay?
I’ve never been good with emotions. I think mostly because I grew up so confused and swamped by so many conflicting ones, and so many intensely strong ones, that I didn’t really have the chance to untangle them all and organise them into some semblance of use, until well into adulthood. So I learned to keep them in. They were dangerous and could easily attract attention (and thereby, trouble) and so they got bottled.
And naturally, as these things do, the bottle (at one point, years ago) burst. Badly. Damage happened, and I was left picking up the threads of my sanity, my world, and my feelings, and have spent the ever since on those feelings, chasing after them and trying to tie them back down so I can look at, learn and understand them.
There is still a fear, deep and abiding, that an emotion expressed will be met with swift and vehement rejection. So I’ve spent my life NotDoing it. I work my feelings out instead, doing nice things for others or expressing through action what I mean. Because half the time, when it comes to ‘feelings’, I can barely form the words. I certainly couldn’t SAY them to another person. Not without a joke to buffer the response.
However, I’m learning. I took a long, hard look at myself and realised that as long as I kept on rejecting myself, that was all I could ever expect from anyone else. So came the slog of engaging with those emotions, then slowly, with terrified baby-steps, beginning to show them. Share them. Write them down. Commit them to paper or pixels and allow them to be seen. (I’m still getting there on the ‘saying them to your face’ part).
And it’s worked – I have to report a success. I have been encouraged so, so much by the positive responses, nearly universally, to my attempts to connect the feels and the expressing of them, and to aim them at people appropriately. I have become more loving, more able to express those positives and expect, not rejection, but warmth and appreciation in return. My world is brighter and far fuller of light and the excitement of genuine, mutual affection, shared with more people. I have learned to hold this treasure lightly, easily (mostly) not worrying about whether or not I get anything back, but that sometimes offering love and support are a reward in themselves, and that I am now equipped to do it – that I enjoy and appreciate the ability to do it.
Yet there’s been a price.
I can’t do it any more. Or at least, not in a sustainable way.
I used to be able to choose whether the words I read or the things I saw or heard, became Real to me. Or whether they stayed as words; static within their paper-and-ink fixings, or left hanging in the air, to dissipate with time.
Now the choice is harder; less of a choice, more a clawing realisation that I suddenly need to Not Go There because if I feel *that*, I will break. There have been those who know me well, who have advised me against sharing my time and affection with particular people. Those ones known as ’emotional vampires’, who suck you dry of all you have to give, time and time again, until you crumble to dry ash. And those ones whose challenges are similar to my own, whose darknesses might tip me off the abyss into The Bad Place and leave me stranded.
But I can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to cut these people off, and not just the ones I’ve been warned away from; I can’t cut myself off from any of them. Any of you. Because now I’ve learned how to Care, I can’t stop. And with Caring, comes Feeling. And that can sometimes swamp me completely.
When you’re preparing for your child’s party, haunted and swamped by intrusive images of the year before, when your husband was in a coma, tied to life with tubes and drugs and no guarantees…and you keep going, keep doing, in spite of the horror and terror and unquellable panic. I’m with you. I panic for you, and feel that insistent, blaring pressure of ‘what if it happens again?’
When you’re required, at such a fragile age, to make the impossible choice between your parents – a choice which you know will have repercussions long into your adult life. I’m there. I feel indignance and outrage and heartbreak and the flat, numb knowledge that however impossible the decision, Not Making It won’t make it disappear, and that there is only so long before an answer must be had…
When you are prised away, screaming, from the body of your sweet baby, restrained as he is removed from you and tranquilised to stop you fighting tooth and nail to hold him one last time – forever. I’m with you, and I feel that fierce rush of adrenaline and want to find some way – any way – to bring him back for you and let you keep him like you should’ve been able to…and I grieve with you that I nor anyone can do that.
When your lungs constrict so suddenly you’re taken by surprise, and the coughing and coughing won’t stop and your breath turns to gravel within you, I’m there. When your muscles go into spasm and you fall, incapable as the lack of oxygen takes hold and blackness dances before your eyes, my own breath shudders and catches and dizziness sets in.
When you look coldly at your children, who you want to (and do) love so much, but without the reminder of HIM in their faces, their voices, their movements…without the memories of being forced and forced until they came into being. Without the horror and brokenness which heralded their existence, I’m there with you and the conflict twists my gut into knots and I bite my tongue and know that you’re always stretched to your limits, doing your utmost to love them, and that conflict makes me die inside.
When your father shows up at your door unexpectedly and throws your world into freefall, I recoil too.
When your ex tries to suggest that you’re an incompetent mother and strip you of the rights to see your children, it’s as though I’ve been knocked down and spat on.
When you find a lump which needs rapid investigation and removal, the abject terror of what it could be rises up in me, too, and the thousands of question marks hanging over your future begin to haunt me.
When I know that the last memory of your husband is of him signing over and over and over “I love you”, and that he’s gone, and you are left to pick up the pieces and somehow carry on, and don’t know how, my chest feels punched through, and my heart obliterated.
When the unintended, ignorant (or just plain unkind) barbs about your ability to parent your child with special needs are brushed off lightly, but each hits home as though the comment were fired from a harpoon, I feel it.
When I know that your love will be forever unrequited and that you’re terrified you’ll never hold a candle for any other, and you embrace the trauma of trying to let go, I feel it.
When I know that each day is a super-human effort for you just to get up for and that pain follows your every footstep and yet you trudge through because you know you have to, I feel it.
And when I look up and the world around me hasn’t changed – cars pass outside, birds sing, the weather is still doing whatever it does, and the surroundings are no different than before my emotional world was rent into tiny pieces by the intensity of vicarious feeling – I am stilled. Stunned. And the silence wraps me up and baffles me.
And I know that when I see you next, those moments of echoed feels will press in, closing around me like vultures falling on a fresh kill, and I’ll act bright and light, as though those spectres don’t exist, all the time feeling their pecking. All the time knowing that you’re living with the aftermath of the reality of your own life.
And it strikes me that this is why people choose not to feel. Not to invest. To limit the extent of their care to the surface. Maybe because they don’t want to engage with the emotional assault which comes with caring. Or maybe because they have too much going on already in their own lives to even begin to think about taking on the feelings associated with the traumas of someone else’s.
I get that.
I did that.
And now that I don’t any more, and the barriers are down, the filters are off, the heart is laid bare and ready to embrace the beauty and the brutality of life – for me, for you, for anyone – I am amazed.
Because along with those pitfalls and life-traps and horrors, come the wonders.
Those shining, timeless, golden moments which radiate out warmth and perfection and seem to be the very essence of Everything Being Right-ness. Those soaring moments of joy. Those times in life when Good Things of such magnitude just explode into being in a shimmer of light, bathing everyone around them in radiance and splendour, and the veil of mystery nearly lifts so that nature itself seems to sing in triumph at That Moment.
I get to share those, too.
And sometimes, when I’m lucky, my efforts to reach out in comfort or celebration happen to tug on the sleeve of someone’s soul sufficiently that they turn and see me there, with a faint reflection of their own feels still graven upon my own, they might stop, consider, and offer me their hand, in precious friendship.
Which makes it every bit worthwhile.