January 10, 2019 at 06:31AM by CWC
If I had to describe my 2018 in one word it would be: traumatizing.
It started in July, when I suddenly became one of two sole caretakers for a family member diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I spent most of my summer in and out of the hospital with that family member helping them through treatments. In early September, there was another blow when a friend I had considered to be a mentor, surrogate father, and guiding light of wisdom suddenly passed away. Amidst all this, I also tried to be there for close friends who needed surgery or who were struggling with pressing mental health issues. It was…a lot.
In order to function in the midst of all this turmoil, I avoided doing anything that pertained solely to myself. I canceled all my doctor’s appointments and I didn’t see my therapist. For months, I barreled through life with a level of dexterity I didn’t know I was capable of, hiding from my feelings by distracting myself with work and day-to-day tasks. I pretty much did the opposite of taking it slow or finding room to breathe.
It’s not that I’m a robot (I’ve actually described myself as being George Costanza-esque). But since the hellfire period had begun, I was operating in an emotionally detached (but barely keeping it together) state. I was always on the verge of crying, I would wake up overcome with anxiety and panic, and I felt a constant irrational rage simmering quietly beneath the surface pretty much all the time. But I refused to address any of these feelings for fear of the domino effect. If I tried to deal with one, I was sure they’d all wash over me and make it impossible to do the things I needed to do (and I had a lot on my list, every single day).
When I finally found the time and relative stability to see my therapist in the fall, I was met with a pretty rude awakening. She said that now that things in my life had reached a relative lull (it was still chaotic and miserable, but slightly less so than over the summer), it was time to process all of the unpleasant feelings I had been repressing. More simply put: I needed to have an emotional meltdown.
What my therapist wanted was for me to really cry—just bawl my eyes out. The longer I put it off, the worse this moment of reckoning was going to be.
What my therapist wanted was for me to really cry—not get watery eyes, not shed a tear or two, but really just bawl my eyes out. I extremely wasn’t into this idea. But she explained that it wasn’t about the act of crying so much as it was about breaking the dam that was keeping my emotions in check. She said that processing what I was going through now would be helpful in the long run, since suppressing my emotions was leading to a number of other side effects that were exacerbating my misery, including trouble sleeping, overwhelming exhaustion, and mental fogginess. Plus my coping mechanism for repression involved taking on way more than I could handle—which, if left unchecked, would ultimately become a meltdown/burnout worse than anything I’ve experienced thus far. And the longer I put it off, she said, the worse this moment of reckoning was going to be.
At first, I wasn’t even sure if anything would happen. For 15 minutes, my therapist asked me questions so seemingly benign I barely registered them—how was I feeling, what was the sadness about, how did I envision both the immediate and long term future. And in answering these simple questions, I very quickly started having a full-on meltdown. I was ugly sobbing—puffy face, snot, and tears covering my face—the whole thing. I felt overwhelmed with months of pent-up emotions—grief, sadness, stress, depression, apprehension, disappointment, and everything else on the sad side of the emotional scale. The emotional dam had finally broken and it really didn’t take much. When the hour was over, I didn’t feel the usual lightness and clarity that I was accustomed to post-therapy.
I cried literally everywhere—at my desk, on the subway, in line at Sweetgreen, in my bed, at dinner with friends.
But the two weeks that followed were a long period of vulnerability and catharsis. I felt raw and I gave in to whatever my emotions dictated. I cried literally everywhere—at my desk, on the subway, in line at Sweetgreen, in my bed, at dinner with friends. I completely abandoned my chill, giving into my feelings and their expressions.
It actually wasn’t horrible. The great thing about New York City is that there’s an unspoken rule that if you’re crying in public, you should be left alone. And although I was initially apprehensive about being that vulnerable or burdening people with the personal hell I was in, all of my friends were ultimately understanding and compassionate. Once they knew what was going on, they were not only accepting but supportive of the fact that sometimes I just needed to sob through our coffee date.
Once I had found and then wallowed in the depth of the most profound sadness I’ve ever experienced, things settled into a new normal. I now feel more like a true version of myself instead of someone walking a tightrope of emotional sanity and stability. Yes, I feel sadness, but I also feel joy and happiness—whereas before everything was emotionally a shade of beige.
For the majority of my life, I’ve been wary of extreme vulnerability, and have operated on a “deal with emotions only when necessary” platform. But now, having abandoned my chill and come to peace with the idea of being outwardly emotional, I understand myself better. I wouldn’t exactly want to relive the experience. But I hopefully have learned to process my emotions in a timely manner, instead of letting them slowly devour my soul.
Here’s how to tell if the winter blues are actually a sign of seasonal affective disorder and how a “happy light” could alleviate symptoms.