We can’t really teach feelings easily. It isn’t like we can say they have a certain color. We can’t use our normal senses to know that something is happening that we need to deal with. When you see the color red on a traffic signal, you know to stop. When you smell smoke, you know to look for fire. When you hear an ambulance siren you know to pull over to the right hand side of the road.
But we don’t have such easy clues with feelings. When we have feelings in our bodies we just have to experience them and learn what they mean. When we are children our parents teach us to recognize what it feels like to need to go to the bathroom. We learn that this feeling means we need to tinkle, while this feeling means we need to poop. Knowing what those feelings represent means that we then know how to handle them. We know to find a bathroom. We learn that we can’t ignore that feeling. The same is true of being nauseous. We soon learn that sad lurching feeling means it is time to get up close and personal with a sink or a toilet or a bucket. Something very unpleasant is about to come out. If we hold it in we will get very ill.
We don’t have that kind of training with other feelings. We don’t learn how to recognize and deal with pain, with anger, with anxiety, with grief. We don’t even talk about the feeling we have in out bodies when we feel these things. We don’t name what is going on, and we don’t train in how to deal with it.
When my parents died I was alone in my grief. I was young, and most of my friends were just as inexperienced as I in handling such an overwhelming situation. They didn’t know what to do so they did nothing. They left me alone. I didn’t have any idea of how to handle an estate, much less how to handle my feelings. Coming from a family where real emotions weren’t discussed didn’t help either. There was an elephant in the room and his poop was piling up. And there I was alone having to shovel it.
So I didn’t. I didn’t know what the problem was so I certainly didn’t know how to handle it. In the meantime I handled the estate and fended off my opportunistic brother. My brother disappeared for a year when Mom was sick and dying with cancer. You can be assured he showed up when it was time to handle the estate. He had not only not helped while she was dying, he had attacked me, saying I wasn’t doing enough to help her. Hopefully you see the irony in his words.
Because he was older, I was hoping I could look up to him. I was hoping to be able to get help from him. Instead I got pain, and deceit, and manipulation. In a time of great vulnerability I got swooped on by a vulture. There had been glimmers of this attitude of his all my life but especially while Mom was sick. She was so sad to realize how he was acting towards me. In a way, it wasn’t a surprise. The title of “big brother” was just a place holder. He had never protected me or mentored me as a child. Why would he start now? I said to her that it was like I was going to go on a hike up a rocky mountain, and I’d just bought a walking stick. I’d rather it break on the lower levels than break higher up when I needed it. My brother had shown me that he wasn’t dependable. I had learned that I would have to rely on myself.
But I still hadn’t learned how to identify and deal with my feelings about this. This was just a part of many co-occurring problems. Boundaries? There were no boundaries in my childhood. Both my brother and father stole from me. Both of them found it was easy. Both of them felt it was their right. Neither apologized or repaid me. Also, I’m just now coming to realize how much time I was alone as a child. Neglect is a form of abuse. I was tested and declared “gifted” in second grade. My Mom noticed how quickly I picked ideas up, so she thought she didn’t have to teach me. This makes no sense. Yes, I generally understand things quickly, but I still have to learn them. I didn’t come out of the womb with pre-loaded instructions like in The Matrix. She never taught me how to clean the house or cook or garden. I can write a fine English essay but I can’t keep house.
So there were many feelings at that time, and even now. Grief. Betrayal. Abandonment. Loss. I didn’t even know I was supposed to feel angry then. I didn’t even know that anger was healing. When you are angry you stop being passive. You stop letting things happen to you. In the beginning there is a sense of victim-hood. Move past that into knowing that you don’t deserve what has happened to you. Move right into a sense of here is my line in the sand, and from here you can go no further.
Perhaps we don’t recognize our own hard feelings because we are embarrassed about them. But if we don’t name them and face them we end up being consumed by them. When I didn’t process my grief, my anger, my loss, I turned it inward. It grew. It festered. I smoked pot for years to keep it at bay. Then I decided I wanted to get sober. I decided it was time to grow up. Four years after my parents died I quit smoking pot and all those feelings came back. I was constipated with grief. I was nauseous with betrayal. I got sick. I had been self-medicating for years but I’d only been covering up the symptoms, not treating the disease.
The result? I had a manic episode. Everything got amazing. Everything became suffused with the light of God. I felt safe and loved and protected in a way I’d never felt before, and certainly never felt with my family. But something was wrong. I didn’t sleep. For three days I was up, and my brain wouldn’t turn off. For three days I was higher than I’d ever been on drugs. I called other friends and they came to look at me and talk to me. They decided it was time to take me to the hospital.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that this was happening. My father had been manic depressive. It is as if you are raised in a household where a family member has diabetes. If you develop it, you figure out pretty fast what is happening and you know what to do. I was so out of my mind that the nurses at the mental hospital thought I had been taking acid or some other hallucinogen. It was a few days after being there and getting on medication (and sleep and regular food) that I started to approach being human again. One night I felt very ill, like I needed to throw up. I was on “constant eye” at the time, meaning there was always a nurse nearby watching me. One was very concerned when I had dry heaves and asked me what was wrong. I remember saying “I can’t speak it.” Out of the depths of my grief, that was all I could say. I didn’t have words. I didn’t know how to get this bad feeling out of me. Trying to vomit made sense somehow. Somehow she understood that it was grief that was eating me up inside. Through the grace of God she knew what was the cure. We went outside, by ourselves, in that cold January dawn and we sat at a wrought iron table. We talked about loss and pain and grief. It was then that I truly started to get better.
That nurse healed me more than any pill ever could. She identified the source of my pain and knew how to lessen it. It had become a huge ugly pearl inside of me That chunk of grief and loss and betrayal had grown and grown into something larger than any one person could ever think to process. It had grown up, layer by layer, year by year.
I think there are some feelings we can’t handle on our own, but our society prides itself on people being independent. We also have a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse. This is no coincidence.
I know it is hard to ask for help and it is also hard to know how to help others. What I am learning is that you don’t have to solve the other person’s problem. You just have to listen. Just like a midwife doesn’t make the baby come out, the caring person’s job isn’t to take out the problem. The job of both is to help the other person do it by being supportive and loving. As a spiritual midwife the goal is to make a safe place so the other person can give birth to themselves.