Pleasant emotions = good
Painful emotions = bad
These two equations summarize American society’s approach to emotions. We’re taught to strive for emotions that feel good as if seeking higher ground in a tsunami and to run like hell from ones that hurt.
I wrote two weeks ago about slamming the door on my unwelcome houseguest named Grief, trying with all my might to keep it locked away. Grief did not comply with my wishes, not until it ripped the door of its hinges and I gave it the attention it demanded. This behavior is not unique to grief, nor is it a noteworthy show of strength. It’s what all emotions do if you try to ignore them for very long.
The most remarkable lesson I’ve learned about emotions is this: it is (almost always) easier to let myself feel an emotion than it is to try to run away every time one I’m afraid of pops up. Even more remarkable? Unless you feed the fire, stoking the flame with your thoughts, an emotion only lasts 90 seconds. Seriously. A minute-and-a-half.
If this is true, why did I tell you I spent a week avoiding my grief? Why did my therapist (of all people!) say that I was being skillful when I blocked myself from feeling grief? It’s because I was making a deliberate choice. As I said, it’s *almost* always easier to experience an emotion than it is to have it haunt me when I’ve tried to run away. Almost, but not always.
It has been a difficult year. I swear that phrase has been in 95% of the drafts I’ve written since January. It’s actually been a difficult 18 months. When the DAO stopped being sufficient for staving off my eating-triggered migraine attacks, I learned that I no longer only had to grieve for everything I had lost. I also had to grieve for the future I’d finally begun to trust was mine. The ketogenic diet is the last diet-based intervention available to me. When it wasn’t a slam dunk, my grief began to grow. May and June were particularly difficult emotionally.
I’ve been working with my therapist on this grief as it has come up. At the end of June, we decided to dive deep to see if I could face the grief and move on unencumbered (or at least less encumbered). That day was the most horrible, gut-wrenching experience I’ve ever had in therapy.
I used to run from my emotions because I was afraid if I felt them, they would devour me whole. That therapy session felt like I was being eaten from the inside. My stomach churned. My leg muscles seized up. Each time I tried to relax them, they would clench even more. My chest kept tightening and my breath became hard to catch. Although she usually lets me lead the work, my therapist told me it was time to stop. She said I was locked into an extreme flight response. Fortunately, she had a free hour to spend calming me down. I had a grief hangover for a couple days, but that was the only lasting repercussion from the session. Well, that and a fear of what would happen the next time I let grief in.
My therapist and I decided to put the grief work on hold for a while. We check in every week to assess my grief level and how I was dealing with it. I explained how I let myself feel it when it comes up, but only for a short while, then distract myself and move on. This is the behavior she said was skillful. The skill was in recognizing the emotion and choosing to move toward or away from it. I haven’t run from grief reflexively, I have chosen to keep it out of my house. Until it beat the door down.
Writing that post actually kept grief from taking me down. Acknowledging the strength of my grief was enough of a catharsis to last nearly a week. But I knew it wouldn’t hold much longer. Last Tuesday, I told my therapist I was finished running. We revisited the grief work, this time with a gentler approach we tried last month.
I talked about how small my world feels and how migraine prevents me from traveling, working as much as I’d like, seeing my friends, and making new friends. I spend so much time policing my diet in an effort to stay semi-functional, but I’m not really gaining ground. It’s more like I’m standing still and trying desperately to keep the dirt from crumbling away from beneath my feet. I still don’t feel as good as I did in 2014 and I feel like I’m constantly one step away from falling off a cliff.
For me, successful migraine treatment means I can do the things I most enjoy in life. I don’t have to be migraine-free, pain-free, or symptom-free to do this. I spend most of my energy on migraine management, yet it’s still not enough to let me work and play and travel and spend time with loved ones. Migraine continues to dominate every single day. Food, one of my life’s great pleasures, is a chore and a source of pain.
I work so, so hard for so little reward. I am so, so worn down by chronic migraine.
My therapist listened to me and validated me. When the session was almost over, she asked how I was doing. I said that I felt like I needed to curl up and cry for a while. After we said goodbye, I sobbed for an hour. It was an ugly, painful cry that sapped the small amount of remaining strength that I had. I napped and read and took it easy for the rest of the day. I was better the next day, but still tired, sad, and a little lonely.
I know the popular American emotional equations don’t add up. I sometimes wish they did. Running seems so much easier than feeling this pain. I know it is not. I know I can’t outrun it forever. But in times this heavy, I wish I still believed grasping for pleasant emotions would render painful ones obsolete. I wish I still believed in the American way.
I wrote this last Wednesday, but it didn’t post because of a technical problem. As often happens, I felt much better after writing it. I chose to post it today as I wrote it originally because it’s an honest reflection on how wrenching working through deep grief can be. But now you need to read the alternate ending:
I ran from grief because it seemed like the only way I could survive the pain. Even in the immediate aftermath of doing the grief work, I wished I’d kept running. But after a short recovery time, I felt lighter than I had in months. Grief is no longer waiting to ambush me from inside books or thoughts or scenic vistas. I neutralized its power when I stopped running. I don’t believe in the American way of dealing with emotions because my life has shown me time and again that the equations just don’t add up.