I was finally close to my emotions in my last counselling session. I had felt very close to them all day. This makes me feel very much more authentic and “human” than I usually have felt throughout my journey with depersonalization and in partial remission from depersonalization. As my close friends and family, as well as my readers, know, depersonalization has removed me from emotional connections, and therefore “being present” and having an authentic life, for over five years now.
It’s a long time to be isolated from yourself and others.
Sometimes, being and staying close to my emotions is a hard thing to do. Some days, it feels like the gap between my emotions and me are a gaping chasm. Some days, on even rarer occasions, my emotions and I are intimately close. I miss that closeness. Out of everything in my life, that closeness with myself was one of the things I liked the most.
Today was my latest counselling session. I’d woken up early as I needed to take Sissy to the vet for her post-operative check-up (all clear, all healing nicely), and my sleep has been anything but restful lately, so I was quite foggy and disengaged emotionally. Between waking up and the counselling session, I bounced between disengagement and some moderate emotional engagement. This has been a very frustrating thing with depersonalization.
This session, we kinda had to take a few steps back, then rush forward to get me fully emotionally engaged. For the most part, it worked. My mind has this habit of rushing through things to keep me separated from my emotions at times, which has grown into this mammoth thing I’m trying to defeat and chop up into a million pieces. And, about a quarter of the way in to the session, we got there: to a more emotionally-connected me.
I get sad. It really has upset me a great deal, this struggle. My counselor Michael calls it self-care; the critic in my head calls it self-pity; and my more emotional, authentic self bobs between embracing it and fearing it.
And then we started to tackle that anxiety-related problem a little more in-depth.
When I was bullied as a child for being gay, I would cry or get frustrated or get angry. It only gave the bully more reason to keep bullying as he saw his perceived position of power growing stronger by my reaction.
So I learned that handing myself over to that anxious state — separating myself from any emotional reaction, placing logic and coldness — was the way to survive.
Survive. That’s an interesting word.
Because that anxious state is very much also one of fight-or-flight, tapping into that primal, basic automatic state many animals go into when they are threatened. I was threatened; my primate instincts took over; and I went into survival mode.
This put me into an emotionless state. By shrinking away from any emotional connection — anger, fear, sadness, frustration — I removed all the power from the bully. He had nothing really left to use against me. Sure, he could shove me or push me (if he could catch me), but the hateful words he said had no outward effect. A non-emotional response gave no fuel to his fire, and therefore his fire would extinguish.
Inwardly, the hateful words would hurt. Maybe at the time, maybe two hours later when emotions had finally returned to me, maybe five years later in the darkness of the night: it didn’t matter, because they ended up hurting sooner or later.
This anxiety-driven, emotionless reaction is purely one towards a threat, real or perceived. It is a way of coping.
Over the years, it became a more permanent state at times. Wanting to fit in, hoping others wouldn’t know I was gay because I was attracted to that cute guy at the party, becoming the smallest emotional target for all the bullies: the once-in-a-while threats grew to include more and more events and people and scenarios into the fold until there was nearly always a threat going on. Again, real or perceived.
And, in the end, as pathetic and sad as it sounds, I have also perceived myself as a threat. I don’t trust myself fully. Sometimes people try to tell me up is down, right is left, and all other sort of bullshit, and the more I think about it, the more I start to doubt myself.
(As a gay man, this happened a lot in my early adulthood too. Men — and not only The Man I Once Loved but also other men — would flirt and hit on me and even sometimes kiss me and hold my hand and caress my face in private, but in public, or at what seemed like a random whim, they would be straight and into girls and all that jazz. This did not help the situation of trusting myself and my emotional intelligence either. I think, though, this would be a subject that could take up about 70 blogs and 150 counselling sessions by itself.)
I did some research and found it’s called maladaptive coping, and dissociation fits neatly into that group of misfits in the non-coping category. One of its co-conspirators is called anxious avoidance: something else that sounds very familiar. Maladaptive coping, it seems, are fine short-term but damaging long-term. Lucky me.
Breaking it down to one, simple sentence: the reason this anxious firewall goes up is the fear of getting hurt.
I am a sensitive, caring person. It may not always appear that way, but I take a lot to heart. Years ago, I remember I left my Mom a note in her Bible study book before Noel and I headed back to New Zealand, and I wrote the words in it from my heart. After she found it, she wrote me to tell me thank you for the note and that I have always been an emotionally-aware, kind-hearted person. And, yeah, I know, she’s my Mom, so she’ll say stuff like that, but I have heard it from a lot of other people too.
But I get hurt easily. Someone might say something, and I’ll take it out of context, and then I get hurt. It’s most likely a passing comment meant generally or for someone other than me, but that slight lack of trust thing pops up: doubting the person who said it, doubting my own judgement on the matter, doubting everything.
And this is where the anxiety comes in too. My mind races to the worst case scenario so many times, and that kicks in that primate response, ready to fight, ready to flee. But, in the overwhelming amount of times, the worst case scenario never happens. As a matter of fact, something pleasant or unexpected occurs, so all that anxiety and all that numbness is for nothing.
With the earthquakes, and the damage, and all the deaths we’ve had of people and pets we’ve loved, and so many other things in-between, over such a short period of time, that primal anxiety-driven response seems to have become the norm. When the things you should trust to always be steady — the earth beneath you, the Government agencies that protect you, life itself — suddenly aren’t, it shakes any normal person to the core. Throw in several of those events at a person, one after another, and some on top of one another in certain scenarios, and it’s no wonder that fight-or-flight response took right over. An emotionless state, one where the mind races through so many different things to identify the threat, to react as robotically as possible to survive the threat, can deal with confronting or fleeing that immediate situation.
But to be in that state most or all the time robs me of my humanity.
I said to Michael that when I confront something and deal with it — for example, getting angry and dealing with that anger in the moments I am angry, instead of stewing on it and letting it simmer until long after the moment should be gone — I feel a lot better. I don’t get into that foggy headspace.
And sometimes I can push myself out of that anxiety-driven place, like today, in our session. Some days I feel strong enough to do that.
Yesterday at The Place Where I Work, a student came to see my colleague Paula but she was busy, so she came to see me instead. She wasn’t too sure who she was supposed to see, but it was about a fellow student. My mind immediately went to that anxiety-driven place — she and another student had a major fight, they hated each other, she was going to lay this huge complaint against the student, and we were going to have to get in the middle of it — but then, using what I learned in counselling, I stopped, took a breath to clear my mind, and then asked the student to tell me what was going on.
It ended up the student had a classmate who wasn’t doing so well in the course, and she was very concerned about her, her well-being and her success. She wanted to know how she could help her, and one way she thought she could help was by bringing that student’s struggles to the attention of someone at the school. (Side note: the teaching team were already aware of it and actively working on it. I told the student to see them about it, and it was all sorted out.)
That conditioned part of my mind went to the worst case scenario space, and I managed to quell it relatively quickly, finding that it was nothing like that worst case scenario.
And, in line with “being present”, which I have struggled with for so many years, I told the student that looking out for her fellow student was an extremely kind and caring thing to do, and that I was heartened and proud of her.
The student was happy. I was happy. Most of all, I was “present”. And it felt good. Everything was resolved with relatively no anxiety and plenty of emotional connection.
I told Michael that in situations like this, I feel like myself again and very much human, but it has the added side-effect of being resolved. There is resolution.
My mind sometimes goes to that anxious space when there is no resolution. If I think, I should have said this, or, I should have done that, whether it’s ten minutes or three years after the fact, it kills me. It makes me relive that moment, a million different reactions and actions unfolding like a blossoming flower. It makes me think about the future; if it happens again, how will I react? Can I change this with that person going forward? And then I’m taken out of the present again, out of emotional engagement with myself and the world around me, because I’m in my head thinking about something in the past I can’t change (and that I’m beating myself up about being hesitant to act in) or about something in the future that may or may not come to be.
When I am in those moments — and sometimes they seem so immaterial or so small, or I imagine they would seem that way to most people — they make me feel very much more “present” in my life.
Today, in counselling, I felt there were more “eureka” moments in trying to dismantle my depersonalization. I’m hoping the forward momentum will continue, and I’ll be able to finally put my depersonalization journey behind me.