Once the tears started coming, they wouldn’t stop.
Unbeknownst to me, I had been going through life the past several months in a haze, maintaining a high quality facsimile of myself, but far from a fully present human being. I cannot pinpoint when exactly I started lying to myself. If there is one thing I’m good at, it is putting on a ‘brave face’ for the world when I’m at something less than my best. However, I used to know what was real and what was fake. Even when the world only saw what I wanted it to see, I could still look through the lies of ‘being fine’ straight through to the truth. At some point, that changed.
It all came to a head when I went on vacation last week. I headed out to California to visit Mike, a man I call my godfather because there is no term that exists to convey the role he plays in my life, but is really more like a surrogate father really. One of the things we decided to do while I was there was attend an improv workshop, Get Out of Your Head and into Your Body, which focused on “getting out of your head and allowing your emotions to lead the way”.
The last fake smile for a while, I hope.
One exercise the instructor had us do was walking around while embodying an emotion. So for example, he would say “anger” and you walk around angry. That was all well and good until he added an important detail. “I don’t want you to pretend to feel that way or act how you think you should. Think back on a time you were genuinely angry and feel that.” Whenever I’m doing improv, I try to be fully present and commit to the exercise, so I started dredging up memories.
“Heartbreak but you don’t want anyone to know”
It took me to some very real places and some very painful memories long ago put aside. However, it was the pulling from times in the past when I genuinely felt combined with embodying transparent emotions and discrete emotions was jarring for me but I didn’t realize how much until later that night.
Mike and I have settled on the same two core hobbies, improv and tennis. So it would only make sense that we would go play tennis after doing improv for hours upon hours. Our first set started out the same as any other, lots of joking and affirmation amidst the competitive tennis. Then I called a serve out and was (very) gently challenged on the call. I could feel the anger swell inside me even though I could tell immediately my mind was blowing it all sorts of out of porportion. I was in a rage. Angry at Mike for questioning my call. Angry at myself for not being able to talk myself down from this irrational outrage. I am well practiced at keeping my emotional volatility from affecting the people I care about so I did not snap, I just shut down. A longstanding practice when it comes to my containment strategy and limiting the fallout of my mood. I knew Mike could tell I was off though. It was a jarring shift from laughing and supportive comments to complete silence.
After we finished the set, we headed to his car and as we loading the equipment in the trunk, he asked me if I was okay. He asked in a way that conveyed “of course I know you’re not okay, but you have to choose whether or not you want to talk about it.” I started trying to explain that this was just the latest in a string of times where I had noticed myself feeling way too little or way too much. As the words left my mouth, I felt the tears swelling in my eyes. I could not remember the last time that I had collapsed into tears like that. Between sobs, I explained to him that I had realized that I seemed to have very little control over my emotional responses to things and it was terrifying. I have spent the majority of my emotional energy the past 14 years on managing my illness and as a result have developed a pretty sophisticated set of coping mechanisms and a high level of emotional intelligence. Because I knew to live the kind of life I wanted to live that I had to condition myself to operate at as high a level as possible for as long of periods of times as possible. That only works though if I’m being honest with myself, something that has not really been an issue in the past, but this time I felt like my mind had let me down.
There were times I knew I should be feeling something but wasn’t or couldn’t. My mind was telling me everything was fine and I was eating the sand believing it was Joy or Hope or Fear or Anger. It was an extended mirage in the desert of my mind. I became an approximation of myself passing off imitation of emotion as the real thing. This time was different from all the times I put on a brave face for colleagues, students or family members while going through a depressive episode though. This was prolonged. This was unconscious. This was not depression. This was me lying to myself or being lied to by my mind, take your pick. My mind, a timeless foe and often the source of my deepest pain, ran a long con and the carefully built facade my my mind made came crashing down right on top of me. I live so openly with my disorder because of my fear of folks not knowing how I’m doing when I’m spiraling but that only works if I know how I’m feeling.
The emotional release felt like the world being lifted off of my shoulders, but once I started to feel again, I felt everything. The tears continued to fall as my legs buckled and I slumped into Mike’s arms until I could bring myself to breathe and stand again. There was a feeling of exhaustion. The type of exhaustion that comes from holding a fake smile for a picture and never letting go.
I’m still reflecting on how this came to pass; how I missed the warning flares fired off by my mind in a failed attempt to prevent catastrophe; and what it means for me as I reflect on everything that transpired over the past several months when I was somehow far from okay and seemingly fine. Stay tuned for more on that in Part II sometime next week.