Being vulnerable about my feelings scared me when I was young. I decided early in life that if people knew my fears and vulnerabilities, they could use them against me. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion, but I learned to hide my emotions and wear an impassive mask.
By the time I was in the ninth grade, in fact, kids at school had tagged me with the nickname “Spockelroy,” which was a combination of my last name and the name of Star Trek’s half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, who was brilliant and logical, but never showed the emotions from his human half. The name stuck for a couple of years.
Learning to get in touch with my emotions — well into adulthood — saved me from an empty life. Learning to feel and learning to be vulnerable saved me from continuing down a road of dysfunction toward something ugly that would have been a natural destination for me. Today, I’m very open about my feelings and vulnerabilities, because I know that going back into hiding would kill my heart and destroy any possibility of receiving the love I so desperately need.
But as far as I have come insofar as feeling my emotions and being open with them, there are times when something pushes me back toward the numbness that I learned early in life — because there are times when the feelings are so overpowering that I have to run away from them.
For years, I didn’t understand what was going on when this happened. Let me tell you the sorts of times when it happens.
When I’m in a movie and something about the film emotionally overwhelms me — sometimes for surprising reasons — the mental discomfort is so strong that I have to close my eyes and cover my ears at times. This has confused girlfriends over the years. A part of a movie can be too emotionally powerful for me and I simply have to quit listening and watching. I feel something so powerful in such moments that I have to numb the feelings or it feels as though they would destroy me.
There are two movies that have caused that experience so powerfully that I can’t watch them again. The first time it happened was during “Radio Flyer,” a story about the emotional abuse suffered by two boys at home. I experienced such a sense of panic that I had to go to the lobby to compose myself. I felt absolute panic as I was watching — not because the specifics of what the brothers experienced were my experiences, but because the feelings that were triggered made me feel as I felt then.
The other movie is the beautifully done film about depression and suicide called “The Hours.” The segment of that movie about a little boy with his depressed mother in the 1950s was too emotionally overwhelming for me. The boy’s specific experiences were not my experiences, but something about seeing that triggered intensely powerful feelings that I couldn’t deal with. I had to go out into the hall outside the theater for a couple of minutes.
I doubt I’ll ever watch either of these movies again, although I recommend them for those who want to understand my triggers.
When I read certain material about psychology — especially when it deals with the effects of growing up with a personalty-disordered parent — I can feel so emotionally upset that my mind starts wandering and refusing to process what I’m reading. Before I know it, I can’t read any further and I’m wondering what hit me. (This happened about six or seven years ago when I first found the website of Shari Schreiber, for instance, who writes extensively about borderline personality disorder. Much of what she said didn’t apply to me, but certain sections hit so close to home that they upset me. I connected too much of it to my childhood and to a certain past romantic relationship.)
I experienced this overwhelming emotional feeling again Thursday night when I listened to an interview with a Canadian doctor who specializes in addictions. Dr. Gabor Maté was born in Eastern Europe in a Jewish family just as the Nazis were taking over his country, which made his childhood extremely stressful for his family.
Maté didn’t realize the effect that this early stress had on him until he started dealing with addiction patients years later. He realized that the medical model of addiction is wrong. He also realized that addiction is about any behavior that we engage in for short-term relief but which causes us long-term problems. In this interview, he made a strong and compassionate case for why our adult problems are never going to be dealt with until we figure out how to get the love and peace we craved in childhood.
I strongly urge you to listen to the interview, especially the first hour or so. (In the beginning, skip ahead to 4:15 to avoid various commercials.)
I wanted to talk about the specifics of what Maté had to say and how I identify with a lot of what he said, but my numb mind is going blank as I try to talk about it. I simply can’t remember enough to tell you what I want to say. I simply feel intense emotional “static” in my mind — something that says, “You’re bumping up against truth so powerful that I’m having trouble handling it.”
For a long time, I didn’t realize what this internal mental pain meant. But as I understand it, I’m looking back at my life and noticing all the times it’s happened. Each time I’ve experienced it, there has been a clue as to why I am the way I am — a clue about what happened to me and what has to be fixed to correct some issues. And I think that’s the most important part of what I have to say here.
I suspect this happens to other people, too, which is why I want to share this (even though I’m struggling through self-defensive mental fog to talk about it). For instance, I was confused and hurt several years ago when a woman I was involved with found herself unable to talk with me about certain things I was sharing with her. I was sharing experiences (in emails) from my past that had created serious problems for me, but she never responded to those specific things. That hurt me. Why wouldn’t she respond to things I made clear had hurt me. Did she not care?
I’ve come to the conclusion that my stories and feelings were causing some of the same mental pain for her — about her own issues — that I’m describing here. This is why she expressed her own confusion about why she wasn’t responding to things she knew she should respond to. Although her experiences weren’t the same as my experiences, I suspect that my stories were triggering something in her that reminded her — on a painful, subconscious level — of ways she was hurt in her own formative years.
Our bodies take in vast amounts of information. Some of it is events, but much of it — especially when we’re young and learning who we are — is in the form of emotions that we can’t consciously understand or explain.
Like an unblinking eye that takes in everything, we absorb more than we know how to handle. And when we eventually try to process some of those feelings, our minds and hearts simply don’t know what to do with the feelings.
And we numb ourselves to avoid the pain that they bring up.
To deal with the unmet needs from the past, we behave in self-destructive ways today. Some of those self-destructive ways don’t even look bad. They might look like achievement. Or they might look more like typical addictions. It can take many forms. But what I’ve learned is that dealing with the present behavior will never fix the problem until the old feelings and needs are understood and dealt with.
Are there things you do which don’t make sense to you? Do you avoid the very things you need to do? Do you run from the very person (or people) who want to give you the emotional care that you need? Do you engage in behaviors that give you temporary relief but which cause long-term problems?
Look for the places where this sort of behavior happens. Look for the places where the emotions are overwhelming, especially if it’s so strong that you become numb.
You will find clues about what you really need there. If you have unmet needs and confusing behaviors that leave you unhappy with your life, the solutions probably lie in those overwhelming emotions that you make yourself numb to feeling.
I obviously haven’t worked my way through all of my issues. It’s a long process, but it seems as though every year, I’m getting closer to understanding what happened to me and which needs I have to get filled today in order to make up for things I needed and craved as a young child.
Note: Just for the record, that’s my eye in the photo above. There’s no telling what you could discover about me if you could just peer into what those eyes have taken in for decades.