By Jennifer Ann Butler
I lived the first 27 or so years of my life evading my pain. I’d mask it, hide it, numb it, and avoid it. I started taking anti-depressants when I was 13 in an effort to “get control” over my sadness and my emotional instability. They called it clinical depression. (I was 13 years old, pimply, sweaty, hormonal, and a freshman in high school. Who didn’t deal with anxiety and sadness in such a state?!) I lived many years believing that I had a chemical imbalance and needed medication in order to live a normal life.
I’m starting to realize that my definition of “normal” was skewed. What I desired—what I thought was right and best—was to feel happy and calm all of the time. I wanted everything to go my way and people to love me without any of the hard work or letdowns. Any time I arrived at a place of depression, I’d throw my arms up in desperation, exclaiming, “How the fuck did I end up here again?” I looked at depression as a failure. I looked at my suicidality as a sign that I sucked at humaning. I wasn’t cut out for this.
I thought there was something inherently wrong with the darker feelings. And, since I had increasing amounts of them nibbling at me, I assumed there was something wrong with me. With who I was. With my chemical makeup. Maybe even with my soul.
“I fear that, at my core, I’m a bad person.” I once said to a therapist. “That underneath all of this awareness and put-togetherness, I’m actually a dark and miserable human being. Because, no matter what I do, I always end up back here.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “Any time you’re feeling joyful, I don’t hear you saying, ‘Here I am AGAIN.’ You only focus on the uncomfortable part of the cycle, even though you will always find joy again and subsequently always find sadness again. It’s less of a linear journey and more of an ebb and flow, like an ocean.”
Fast forward many moons to where I am now. I have over two years of sobriety and have been off of anti-depressants for about six months. With each of these drastic life changes, I had a preconceived idea of what I wanted the end result to be. I wanted to be happier and emotionally stable. Happy and emotionally stable, to me, meant smiling and joking and being the put-together, go-to gal that everyone knew and loved. Marvel at my wit and how much I can handle without breaking! Look how spiritually aware I am! I’m so mature and advanced for my age!
Instead, each of these life changes resulted in huge, painful bitch slaps of realization and humility.
After I quit drinking and recreationally taking pain pills and anxiety pills, I was hit with many waves of emotion. I felt the highs more, certainly, but I also was overcome with debilitating emotional pain and discomfort. I experienced anger, depression, and long bouts of suicidality. I also still experienced days or weeks of numbness. I had been so far removed from my emotions for such a long time that I didn’t even know how to identify them at first. My therapist gave me a “feeling wheel” with different emotions listed, and assigned me the task of expressing one authentic emotion each day.
This was immensely challenging at first.
I blamed other people for how I felt… For all that had happened to me. I hung on to my familiar role of victim and pointed the finger at all who had wronged me. I blamed my parents for the way they raised me and for their shortcomings. I blamed past lovers and friends who’d left me. In an extreme fashion, I isolated. I stayed inside of my 575 square foot apartment and read Deepak Chopra books and meditated and increased my intuitive skills and brainstormed ideas of how to, like, save the world.
I busied myself. I used workaholism and busy-ness as another way to distance myself from myself. To numb out the chaotic energy of my emotions.
I did a lot of research on the brain. I learned about neurotransmitters and which foods and activities helped to increase them and thereby take me to a place of stability and happiness. I wanted to be healed of my bad emotions.
I used exercise and healthy eating in a way to feed my brain what it needed in order for it to perform the way I wanted it to. I judged people who ate sugar and consumed caffeine and nicotine, because they were just numbing themselves. They were poisoning themselves. They didn’t know how to use food as fuel.
They they they. Me me me.
Meanwhile, even with my healthy, organic diet, free of sugar or processed foods, and even with regular exercising and detoxing and reading and journaling and meditating, I would get hit with bouts of suicidality. I would feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave my body. This was infuriating to me, because I was doing everything right.
In time, I’d survive these bouts and I’d “feel better.” I’d have some realizations and apply linear reasoning to why I thought I ended up feeling so down, thereby arriving at conclusions of how to best avoid getting there again.
After quitting anti-depressants, I went through a 5+ month shit-show where all preconceived conclusions were shattered. I’m still in that shit-show. The last month has been spent with me repeatedly saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Because any time I seem to have a grasp of an idea of what something means or why this or that happened, the rug gets pulled from underneath me. Any time I have a situation all figured out and am easily able to point out the transgressions of others, I get a big ol’ humble mirror shoved in front of me.
I am finally starting to see my part. I’m starting to see myself as the protagonist of my life.
And so it’s been a journey of releasing attachment. Releasing attachment to what I think something should look like. To what I think people should do or how they should show up for me. To what I think I should do or how I should act and especially how I should feel. It’s been a process of me getting flung around like a ragdoll, releasing attachment to my past stories and my future expectations. I am moving away from seeing myself as the hero or as the villain or as the victim. I am instead seeing myself as this messy human. As me. Exactly as I am. Right now.
I like to imagine a big vat of emotions. Perhaps there is a different container for each, or maybe they all coexist in one melting pot of a mix. I think that these emotions need to be felt. They need to be processed. More than anything, they need to be listened to.
So really, looking back, it makes a lot of sense that, when I’d get to an emotionally stable place, I’d suddenly be hit with a tsunami of emotional pain. It’s because I was finally in a place where I could handle my previously repressed feelings. And so, handful by handful, I have been emptying the vat. I cup my hands into the murky liquid and I put it to my lips and I sip and swallow. I then feel the corresponding sensations in my body as I process a multitude of emotions.
Just like with eating food, nutrients are pulled from these emotions. Their waste is passed via tears and anger releases and journaling. Their nutrients are absorbed via realizations, maturity, and growth.
There are supplements that can help the process. Forgiveness is one I take every day. I take, like, 5x the daily recommended dose of Acceptance. Humility only comes in those big horse pills and can be hard to swallow, but I make sure to take it every day, too, especially when I don’t want to.
There were times when I was certain I would not survive. There were countless screaming matches where I cursed God or my Higher Self or whom/whatever was responsible for me staying in this body. “LET ME LEAVE!!!” I would scream. I went through many different fantasies of how I could kill myself. I was dedicated to finding the one that would be the cleanest and easiest and quickest.
But I didn’t die. I didn’t give up. Something kept me going. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was my Higher Self. Maybe it was my stubborn drive to see this thing through. Maybe those are all one in the same. I don’t know. And really, I’m okay not knowing.
I’ve been hesitant to write any articles or blog entries because, now that I’ve realized the benefit of drinking my elixir of emotions, my awareness is expanding so rapidly that my realizations from three days ago seem obsolete and elementary by today. I don’t know where I’ll be in three days, but I will share where I am today, with full knowingness and acceptance that this mindset will expand within the near future to encompass a grander understanding.
No one else put me in this situation. The vat of emotions? Those were put there by me. Each time I numbed an emotion, I was pouring it into that bucket of goo, paying it forward to my future self. Any time I said yes when I meant no or vice versa, I was relying on my future self to take care of it. I did whatever I could to make my present moment feel the best (or feel like nothing). In doing so, I catapulted my true emotional state into the future, with full anticipation that someone else would take care of it. Or, more accurately, I thought that, if I didn’t feel feelings, they’d go away.
Here I am, assuming the role of that Future Jen. Of the accepting and patient and loving parent, taking responsibility for the mess my younger self created. And what’s great is that I’m doing it from a place of compassion. I look back at the pain and discomfort I felt… At how alone and distraught I felt… And I say, “Don’t worry, Past Jen. I’ve got this.”
The good news is: every single emotion holds a message. Every uncomfortable sensation has a lesson embedded within it. We must simply sit with the discomfort and the belly ache of digestion, trusting our bodies and psyches and souls to best process each feeling and to integrate each lesson.
When I feel discomfort, I no longer whine. I no longer curse anyone or anything. I instead sit with it. I feel it in my body, and I ask it: “What are you trying to say?” I then listen for the answer. Sometimes I hear it in my mind. Other times I feel it in my heart. Other times, still, the response is silent. Either way, I know I’m integrating something on a deeper level. Just like I don’t fully understand the body’s miraculous way of processing food, I don’t fully understand the mind and heart’s way of processing emotion. But I do know that both are essential to my survival.
Maybe the amount of painful emotions have lessened, or maybe I’m simply more accustomed to feeling them now and I have adapted accordingly. Regardless of reasoning, what I can tell you is that the down times are far less frequent and far less intense. Do I still have suicidal thoughts? Not as often as I used to, but yes. Now, instead of numbing them or avoiding them or considering acting on them, I press pause. I breathe. And I listen. I feel into the sensation and trust that I am absorbing the nutrients I need.
This process has taught me that I’d rather be emotionally authentic than emotionally stable. I’d rather be humble than happy. And I’d rather be healthily feeling pain than masking it with a smile.
Hey, Future Jen? Don’t worry; I’ve got this.
Jennifer Butler is a writer, painter, doodler, and speaker. She inspires through her honesty, her humor, and her messiness. She hopes that her vulnerability assists others in embracing and sharing their own sensitivities. Her first book, “imperfect: a messy memoir written by an ex-perfectionist,” will be in print in Fall 2016. Subscribe to her blog at www.jenniferannbutler.com!