Monday, February 6, 2017

Learning to Feel Emotions

It's been five years since I started this journey. As suspected, a lot has changed about me. I have learned a ton about the legal system. I have found out that I am surrounded by friends, all survivors of sexual assault, in various stages of healing. I have learned that I am stronger than I thought. I have learned a great deal about my parents. But there is one thing that I learned, one element of this healing process that I wasn't expecting;

I've learned how to feel emotions.

Growing up as a child of a narcissist, I had to fit into a mold. I was required to behave and achieve on certain levels, and when I did achieve on those levels, being told I wasn't good enough. My worth, my value as a human, corresponded directly with what I produced. I never produced enough.

And emotions were non-productive.

Sadness was for the weak. Grief was for the weak. Empathy was for the weak. Only weak-minded individuals felt hurt in relationships. Friendship isn't important, friends only weigh you down and take from you. You simply keep working and producing, because working and producing are signs of strength. And being strong is the only thing that is important. Therefore, the only reason I had friends or felt any sort of emotion was because I was weak minded.

So it comes as no surprise that my mother's reaction to me being raped at 6 years old was all about her. And while most mothers react with sorrow at the news her 14 year-old daughter had been date-raped, mine announced it was time to put me on birth control. And while my friends would go to their moms for advice on marriage issues, my mother would tell me I needed to stop being depressed, get myself together, and to use sex to get what I wanted in the marriage.

There's something you need to understand here. That was my normal. As shocking and as repulsive as my mother's reactions sound, it's how I grew up. I thought that's how all mothers acted. Even though it was all my mother's lie, it was presented to me as truth, and I believed it because children are supposed to be able to trust their parents.

As is usually the case with me, I came to realize my inability to feel and discern emotions during a conversation when something unintentionally profound falls out of my mouth. I was having a discussion with some distant cousins, and I stated that I understood how a particular incident must have made them angry. My cousin corrected me, saying it wasn't anger really, more hurt or disappointed, to which I replied;

"They all look the same to me."

It's true. Everything negative looked like anger. It was the only emotion allowed in my house, and I think that is because anger comes with a degree of control. You can justify your actions in anger. You can motivate yourself with anger. And as long as you are angry, you are right, and you win.

One of the things I had to do with the rape case was go back and feel everything all over again. I had to put into words the sensations I felt, physically, so that I could paint a perfectly clear picture for court. With those physical sensations came emotions, though. Fear mostly, but also isolation. Hurt. Shame. Confusion. I was a scared six year old all over again, except this time I am able to articulate what is going on, and someone is believing me. This time, when I hear his footsteps approaching my playhouse, and when I feel the fear and panic, I have somewhere safe to run. I don't have to act simply out of anger and pretend that everything is alright. I can ask for someone to protect me.

And then the dominoes started to fall. That scared little girl grew into memories of a vocal teen. A whole new set of emotions began to emerge. Rejection. Abandonment. Humiliation. Failure. More shame. Anger. It all becomes anger, and the only place I knew to direct that anger is inward. I have come to realize that I lived many years in conflict; in between the lie I was taught and the inherent truth I knew, but didn't really know. I tried for a long time to just be strong, to simply work and produce, but really I was just angry.

And the only way to not be angry is to learn how to feel other emotions. 

About a week before the sentencing, I looked through a box of pictures for a copy of my first grade photo. I knew I had a wallet size in that box, and I wanted to enlarge it for court. I sat in the floor with the box, my husband on the couch watching as we talked, and I was surprised to find an 8x10 of the very portrait I wanted. I sobbed. I mean, I broke down into an ugly cry. If you know me, you know that is not at all typical behavior, I'm simply not a crier by nature (or perhaps nurture?). But in that moment, I was overwhelmed by emotion, unlocked by the image of the very child whose voice I was trying to carry. Everything hit me in that moment, and all my husband could do was watch.

But that moment was the beginning for me. I have since looked at how I misidentified and suppressed emotions throughout my life. I have begun to allow myself to feel sadness, or hurt. Rather than hide behind anger, I will talk about how something or someone has negatively affected me. Process it. And then put it where it belongs.

Trauma is trauma is trauma. Every trauma is going to leave scars, baggage that one will have to manage. Some people deal with the trauma on the front end, at the time of the trauma, some on the back end, years or even decades later. I was asked which way I think is better. I can't answer that, as I have no idea what it is like to deal with it on the front end. I can only assume it's healthier in the long run. But either way, it's not going away.

I've never liked the phrase "put it behind you." I don't think that is entirely accurate, because whatever scars you bear don't really go away. Instead, I think of dealing with trauma scars more like moving a house. Everything you accumulate goes into a box. Everything looks the same from the outside of the box. Everything in the box is mute, and it neither pleases nor displeases you. But it is still there, in the box in your attic. When you are ready, you go through that box and look at each item. You hold it in your hand. You see, feel, totally sense that emotional baggage you carefully wrapped and put out of sight. Then, once you have decided what it is, you assign it a value, and put it where it goes. Some items get displayed, some are given away, others get tossed. But one way or another, each and every one of us, in order to heal, will have to go through, handle, sort, and put each memory up where it belongs in order to free ourselves of them. It's not a lot of fun. Unfortunately, healing comes with a degree of pain. But on this side of it, I can say that feeling genuine, true emotions is a lot better than the way I was taught. It may have taken 47 years to learn what emotions feel like, but that's ok. I'm a better person as a result. That's redemption.

What about you? Have you had to deal with trauma on the back end as I have? What have you learned about yourself?

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