For Editor’s Choice Saturday we’re talking about you. Have you checked in with yourself lately?
It’s easy to ignore you. You’re usually the last person you listen to. Even if you’re in confinement on your own like so many of us, there are plenty of things that “need” your attention, and those things must be dealt with before you can take care of you. Right?
When you try meditating, your mind wanders. So you stop. But your head is still spinning. Then you go on Facebook for a distraction and the headlines make you spin even more. Now, in order function, you bury the noise in your head with more noise—busy work, television, or more social media. An hour later, you have a headache. Or you crave sugar. Or you’re irritable for no reason.
There’s a reason. When you ignore yourself, whatever is bothering you will out—physically and emotionally. Like a child throwing a tantrum, the you you’re ignoring will find a way to be heard.
I know all about this. I’m a classic example of ignore-myself-until-I-fall-apart. It’s not my first time at this rodeo. When our mother was ill, my sister and I were in the hospital every day, frantically managing Ma’s care, liaising between her oncologist, cardiologist, urologist, nephrologist, generalist. “The Ists,” I called them. Our mother’s decline was so swift that we started to spin and spin. If we pushed hard enough, spun fast enough, maybe we could save her. We couldn’t control what was happening to our mother, but we could take charge of everything else. After six weeks, it all came to a head. I’d like to share with you a passage about this from my memoir, Chapter 12:
Ma had been in the hospital a few weeks—more specifically, the hospital, then rehab, then the hospital again. She’d had kidney surgery, hip surgery. Now she was in the cardiology wing because she’d experienced heart failure.
Standing in the hallway outside Ma’s room with my sister and our childhood friend Steven, I started to feel odd—nothing specific, just off, as if I were suddenly hollow and cool air were rushing through me. My chest began to tighten; a sharp, throbbing pain grabbed me just above my heart, wrapped around my side. A tingling rushed down my arms. I couldn’t breathe.
“What is it?” Maria’s eyes were wide with fear. “You’re pale.”
“I don’t know.” I described my symptoms. “I feel weird.”
“Do you think it’s your heart?” Steven asked. He stopped one of the nurses in the hall but she told him they’d have to take me to Emergency in spite of the fact that we were already in the cardiology wing.
“I’ll be okay.” I said, trying to convince myself. There was no way I was going to die of a heart attack with Ma in the hospital. That was a disproportionate amount of tragedy for one family.
“You’re scaring me,” Maria said. “You’re under too much stress. This is too much stress!”
She and Steven led me into the darkened antechamber outside Ma’s room. They sat me in a chair then stood over me with terrified faces.
The floor was falling out from under me. I reached out with both hands, hooked my fingers through the belt loops of my sister’s jeans, pulled her close. Efforts to take in breath were fruitless; my chest grabbed tight.
I threw my head back and tried again to draw in breath. As I exhaled, my whole body shook. My sister shook with the force of it.
I was coming apart. I was dying right here in this frigging hospital.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked, panic-stricken.
It wasn’t until I took another breath and exhaled that I realized I was sobbing.
The harder I sobbed, the better I felt. The tingling stopped, the chest pain eased.
I’d been holding it in for days, weeks, holding it together for Ma. My body was expressing itself even if I would not—through pain.
That was when I learned about somatization: buried emotion creating physical symptoms. And also when I learned about the wonders of anti-anxiety meds.
That experience was loud and personal; it’s easy to see the traumatic nature of it. This pandemic, unless someone close to you is affected, is happening to you in a more subtle, quiet way. You’re fine hanging out in your yard with a glass of wine; everything seems normal enough. But the enormity of this thing is working on you, insidiously. Unless you pause to check in with yourself, on what’s going on in the background, whatever is in there will tunnel its way out and take the form of lethargy, or social media addiction, binge eating and drinking, even illness. Burying your emotions won’t make you feel better; it will only make you more fragile.
Trust me, avoiding feeling the pain is way worse than feeling it. The sooner you connect with your true emotions, the sooner their effects will abate. And the stronger and more peaceful you will become.
Tip of the day
Holding it together for other people never works. It’s better to “fall apart” somewhere quiet and safe rather than inflict your buried pain on others in passive ways (you know what I’m talking about). Find that safe, quiet place, put your hand on your belly and ask yourself, “What’s bothering me?” The answer will come. Spend time with that answer, feel its full effects: sadness, anger, etc. Take a breathe, and with each exhale, allow the emotion to release itself. Whatever is in there will come out. Afterward, you will feel better. I promise. (If you find you cannot stop spinning, and feel you are truly in distress, I suggest talking to a professional. These are tough times. Don’t underestimate that. It’s okay to ask for help, and if you have a family or are a caregiver, it’s your responsibility to get the help you need. You are not alone.)