Day 115: at bay

Therapy has helped me become more attentive to the physical symptoms of emotions. So I know, for example, that there’s a certain kind of mental pain – one I associate with sadness, or hurt, or grief – that is accompanied by a sharp needle like pain that every now and then shoots through the tips of my fingers and a more steady ache in the roof of my mouth.

When I am tired of these sensations there are various remedies that alleviate them: lorazepam, alcohol, dancing, and writing this blog are my most favored methods. Writing is the one I employ the most and lorazepam is the one I employ the least. Dancing is definitely the most effective (it doesn’t work, unfortunately, if I just get up and dance around in my sitting room; I have to actually go to a class), and I think the high lasts the longest. Alcohol is probably the least effective. Lorazepam is effective but in a deadening kind of way.

Writing this blog is the pain relief method I find most mysterious.

If dancing is enlivening, drinking is relaxing, and Lorazepam is numbing, writing this blog bestows, albeit briefly, a feeling of connectedness. It’s effective, often, when I’m feeling lonely; as with exercise or drinking, the good feeling only lasts so long. Usually when I write a post, I get a heady rush when I post it and when I look at the statistics page and see that people are reading it; the high fades, gradually, as the satisfaction of writing the post recedes from my memory and as I see fewer and fewer people going to the site to read it. So then I have to write another. And another.

You get the idea.

Another more obvious strategy for alleviating melancholy and bestowing a sense of connectedness, one I think of as the Humean method, is spending time with other people. I’m not dating anyone but I’m making a deliberate effort to be merry with friends. I go out; I entertain at home; and I make liberal use of the wide range of communication methods that the digital age affords.

The times when I write here are when I long for a sense of connection, and feel that I’ve exhausted all my other options: I’ve emailed, I’ve texted, I’ve cuddled my children.

Although I, to state the bleeding obvious, have a strong impulse towards disclosure, I understand and respect that this impulse is not universal. And, indeed, maybe it is sometimes an impulse that would be better resisted than indulged. Or maybe it’s a matter of temperament or etiquette. I suspect many people think it’s an imposition to tell someone else when they feel sad, and maybe some people do feel burdened when a sad friend confides in them.

Speaking for myself, I feel deeply flattered when someone chooses to share something painful and intimate with me. Also—and maybe this doesn’t reflect too well on me—it’s not that I’m happy to discover that my friends are sad, but I do find it enormously reassuring to discover that others are struggling too. I think that’s why I love Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas more and more the older I get: because it attests to the universality of melancholy.

But maybe this feeling of relief in bearing witness to others’ troubles is less a general truth of human nature than a particular trait of mine. In grad school I worked for a counseling hotline; it was run by the university and aimed at grad students, and, honestly, we didn’t get that many calls. I must have only talked to a handful of people the whole time I volunteered there. But there was one regular caller, not a grad student, a middle aged woman not connected to the university, who called every night without fail. It clearly meant a lot to her that she could call us every night and that someone would be there, night after night, simply to listen without judgment.

I don’t think there is really a talking “cure”; I believe, with Johnson, that melancholy is here to stay; but I also believe, with Johnson, that (both literally and figuratively) you can’t take it lying down. That would be like sleeping with the enemy. No, as Johnson says, melancholy “shrinks from communication”; this blog avows my faith that disclosure may keep it at bay.

But just as, earlier today, my son was all out of tears, I find myself, now, all out of words. Neither woman nor duck-rabbit cannot live by words alone. And in support of that maxim, I’m now, finally, going to pick my arse off the sofa and go running.


Day 104: or maybe I just need a cat

Can you chase loneliness away? Is it wrong to try? If I’m at home in the evening, whether by myself or with the children, I usually cry for some portion of the evening. I feel less sad if I’m out of the house. I told Dr. F recently that I felt fine as long as I didn’t go home. She gave me a long searching look when I said that.

I understood why; therapists want you to feel your feelings, not run away from them. But what if it’s not a feeling, per se; what if it is simply a condition? I was lonely when I was married and now I’m lonely living alone; maybe I was mistaken that my loneliness was situational; maybe I’m just a lonely creature; perhaps we all are.

I was reminded tonight, of a text exchange with a man I went out with, just once, not so long ago. He was a kind, gentle person. He also had two children. He was also separated from his former partner. We liked each other well enough but perhaps not quite well enough. A few days after our date I texted him to ask how his weekend had been; he answered lightly (seeing Star Wars, of course!) and enquired politely in return how mine was. For some reason I admitted that I’d spent most of it alone, and that I was lonely. What do you say when a relative stranger confesses that? I thought he’d say something banal like, “it gets better with time.” Instead what he texted back to me was, “I understand the loneliness. It never really seems to leave.”

Both his candor and his phrasing moved me. People leave; and people are left; but loneliness “never really seems to leave.” Do we, the lonely, take strange comfort in that? Is that, in fact, why it sticks around? Like a vampire, once you’ve invited it in, does loneliness stay for good? Or, no, this is a much better comparison, does loneliness stay for good like bleeding Samuel Taylor Coleridge? That rascal, he wrote in April 1816 that he was going to pass “a month at Highgate” at James Gillman’s house in order to convalesce from his laudanum addiction. And then he stayed for eighteen bloody years! Just lolling around on the sofa and dictating the Table Talk to his bleeding amanuensis! Eighteen bloody years. Until he died. He was just the worst.

All right, now I don’t remember where I was going with that, but I feel much better.


Day 105: Cry it out

Sometimes I am unsure what to do about feelings. I suppose the mental health establishment is unsure too: should feelings be drawn out or left in? Should they be lanced and bled? Should they be swaddled in cotton, and bound very tightly? What is it that they need?

When I saw Dr. F yesterday and she asked why I was crying I said because it was hard to talk about my Dad. I went on to observe, and there was an edge in my voice that surprised myself, that when she makes me talk about my father, it feels like she’s poking a tender wound. It is painful and wearying.

She understood, I think. She lost her father at the same age as I lost mine. In fact, she was a little younger, I believe. She explained that she thought that I had never let myself grieve sufficiently for his death. She observed, indisputably, that there would be—indeed, there were already—many more endings to be grieved during my life, whether the end of a marriage, of a friendship, or some other loss. If I didn’t learn to grieve now, she explained, all those wounds would remain raw; they would never heal.

The duck believes her but the rabbit doesn’t. The duck’s motto is “let it go,” like the song from Frozen[1] The rabbit’s motto is: repress, repress, and, if in doubt, repress.

I believe that I have gained a lot from therapy including the ability to recognize ongoing and endlessly repeated behavioral patterns, and the ability to carefully tease out (odd that a literature professor has to be taught this) and hold up to the light the various stories I’ve told myself over the years about who I am. But have I been healing myself or dissecting myself like an anatomist? I am not sure.

Last night I wanted to cry and cry. While the children ate their dessert and watched television, I shut myself in the bathroom and sobbed. I didn’t want to be like this in front of them; in fact I told myself that I really shouldn’t be like this in front of them. It would upset them, I thought. So I took a Lorazepam, prescribed by Dr. F for moments such as these. And slowly it worked its magic, a feeling of calmness seeping slowly across my body.

Later I talked to several friends, all women, all parents, about my fear of crying in front of my children. They all suggested to me, gently, kindly, that perhaps it was all right to cry in front of them.

I realized that this had truly not occurred to me as an option. I wondered why and thought back to times I remembered my parents crying.

I could only remember two. The first time was a few months before my father’s death. We were on holiday in Spain. A family dinner turned dark quickly and unexpectedly. I had made some silly joke when my father had said something about my mother; my joke was along the lines of, “Oh, I think you must be thinking of your other wife, ha ha”; ha ha because my mother was my father’s first and only wife, or so I thought. “Well I was married before!” my father said jovially, laughing. I actually laughed out loud, the idea was so preposterous – not the idea that he had been married before, but the idea that he had been married before and never mentioned it in all the eighteen years I’d been alive. My mother wasn’t laughing. She said my father’s name gently, sadly, as if saying, “are you sure you want to do this?”

The details don’t matter and it’s not my story to tell. The point is that I remember, as my father told me the details, that he was crying. And I remember feeling angry that he was crying because I was already angry with him and seeing him cry made me feel sorry for him too but I didn’t want to have to feel sorry for him.

The memory of my mother crying is from just two months later, after my father died. What I remember most clearly is that I felt not grief or compassion but anger that I had to be the one to comfort and look after her, combined with deep shame at my anger.

When I reflect on these memories today, something comes into focus that wasn’t there yesterday. I thought, yesterday, that I couldn’t cry in front of my children because I remembered how angry I’d been when I saw my parents crying. But I think, now, that I was mistaken about why I was angry. It wasn’t witnessing my parents crying that made me angry: I was angry that my father had kept a secret from me; I was angry that my mother’s grief was so overwhelming that there was no room for my own.

This morning when I woke up my left eyelid felt heavy. It was a blocked tear duct; I’ve had it before. Treat it with warm compresses, the internet says, and the blockage should right itself.

Is a blocked tear duct the universe’s way of telling me that God is a Freudian, I wondered? You know, if you repress the feelings, you’ll create a blockage, geddit?

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if God were a Freudian. There have been signs.

But if that IS what it means, if God IS trying to tell me not to bottle up my feelings, all I have to say is, why are you such a fucking literalist, God? I mean, think of some of the other options that were available to you: perhaps a clogged pipe? Well, frankly, I’m thankful you didn’t go that route. A wine bottle that wouldn’t open? Actually, I’m also grateful you didn’t go that route. But what about a nice swollen cloud pregnant with rain? That would have been pretty at least.

But no. You give me a blocked tear duct as a heavy-handed way of telling me that I’ve just gotta cry, cry, cry, cry, cry, I’ve gotta cry it out, cry it out, as either Taylor Swift or Dr. Richard Ferber, or possibly both will surely put it one of these days.


[1] The duck loves that film. It makes him cry. The rabbit just rolls her eyes and murmurs, “I don’t get what the big deal is, it’s just Sense and Sensibility with snow,” and, I must say, I think she has a point.