Have you ever known someone who can spiral down into a very dark, hopeless place… and fast? This phenomenon has its own relentless sense of inevitability, though it has never struck me as inevitable, really.
Things go wrong. My friend, driving to Vermont, got stopped three times for the same dead taillight. Maddening. He was exhausted. Got started later than he had planned. Had to wake up earlier than he’d wanted, to meet my son and help him schlep a futon into a tiny hatchback before driving another hour to Stowe to ski all day. As he lay down in the hotel bed, beyond miserable, he said, “I know I won’t be able to sleep.” Forty-five minutes of tossing later: “I’m fucked.” He gets to the point where the whole weekend is going to be ruined and he’s going to be miserable for all of it.
He does this. It’s awful for him, but it is his way. “Looking on the bright side” doesn’t work for him. Realizing that he gets to ski all day at an awesome mountain is not going to jolly him out of knowing everything’s horrible. Not now, anyway. For him, and probably plenty of others, this is about having authentic feelings. But there is more than one way to feel things authentically.
I realize that I sometimes lay on the bright side too thickly. Maybe in reaction to people who dwell in the dark side. But if a little bit of optimism isn’t going to work, a lot is not going to work either. It’s just going to piss people off and lead me down the path of denial.
I had to realize it is not my job to jolly someone out of a dark place. And that I have to protect myself from the darkness entering me, while remaining empathetic, kind, and helpful. To a point. On the other hand, I usually can allow my own authentic feelings, the ups and downs of life, to come for awhile, and then pass through me.
But what about the really dark places – the genuinely bad moments/days/months… even years of life when grief, fear, spiritual and emotional anguish, are unavoidable and obdurate.
I mean, feelings are unavoidable. No one can or should deny a feeling. But as I thought about all this in the middle of the night last night (typically) an analogy popped into my mind that works for me. People operate, I decided, either like a cheesecloth or like a Ziploc bag. The feelings come, as they must. The frustration at being exhausted, overworked, and persecuted by the state police for a measly taillight. The incipient rage at a machine that is malfunctioning. (Is the computer ruining your life? Is it out to get you? Is it going to cost you the promotion because it has “lost” your report? Or is it a damned machine that malfunctions and you have to just get mad and move the hell on?)
If you have a fair amount of cheesecloth in your makeup, the feelings come, and they pass through you. Some feelings are thin and watery and pass quickly. Others are thick and full of particles and it takes time, so we need to be patient. And forgiving.
If you are more of a Ziploc type of person, the emotions flow into you and sit. They pile up and get sealed off. They can fester and even rot if you don’t remember or figure out how to unzip and pour that shit out.
With cheesecloth, you can probably look at a situation and say to yourself, “Wow, this situation is fucked.” With Ziploc, you are more likely to say, “I’m fucked. You’re fucked. Everything is fucked.” Because you can’t move through the emotions or let them move through you.
A year ao, I was in the middle of a very dark time. It was a time of shifting so profound that new continents were being formed by my tectonic plates. Grief, fear, and depression sum up the basic categories my emotions fell into. Some days it was hard to remember feeling different and for an extended period of time my condition had all the earmarks of a permanent state. But I knew, somehow, in the last flickering, threadbare tag of non-fucked me left inside somewhere, that it was not permanent. I told myself, every day, what I needed to hear. I comforted myself with reminders. I am a good person. I am worthy. I will feel joy again. I will feel love again. I will be okay. I will move through this. I did not have to tell myself it would not be easy or that it might take awhile. I already knew that, big time. The cheesecloth had a shit-ton of stuff to process, but it was processing.
At a time like that, a cheesecloth person and a Ziploc person look very similar. When life’s challenges add up to more than just a bad day or a sad week, they both bend under the strain. A Ziploc person, probably honorable and forthright, wants to accept the horribleness head on, and maybe feels that taking steps to see past it is a kind of denial. I don’t think it is. I don’t buy into the mindset that accepting horribleness is enough.
So what does someone who aspires to cheesecloth do? Accept—that is for sure. Don’t deny – that is the opposite of cheesecloth. Denial is like letting life run off a drop cloth and never touch you.
Accept and let go—that’s good, but for me, there’s more. Accept, and tell yourself what you need to hear so you can let go and feel the nearness of love and joy once again. What do you need to hear from yourself? What you would tell your own shattered child: “It’s going to be okay. I know it will. You’ll get there. I love you and am here for you.”