“Let’s drink till we don’t feel feelings anymore!”
**I wrote this post in November 2014, shortly after the death of my mom. The feelings were fresh and the pull of numbing approaches was strong. I think I hesitated to publish this because it felt so raw and vulnerable at the time. I’m ready now.
“Let’s drink till we don’t feel feelings anymore!” is actually something that has come out of my mouth as a toast. I think the first time was probably in my early 20’s in college. It may be something I heard Homer Simpson say. It may have been one of those times where I felt like if I acknowledged what I was doing, it made it okay that I was doing it. Self-awareness and all that. Cheers! Bottoms up! Lets dump some energy/emotions I can’t sit with at this point in my life.
I have been thinking about writing a blog post for a while now on how we humans are very good at finding ways to not feel our feelings when they are big and wild. Some of us use drinking too much alcohol. Others use drugs. We can also use food (too much or too little) or sleep (too much or too little). Being really really busy works incredibly well too… so busy we don’t have time for reflection. We can hold those feelings at arms length if we just avoid anything that looks or feels like quiet, down time. That’s when the thoughts and emotions begin to creep in. There are many other brilliant options for avoiding actually checking in and acknowledging how we feel. The list goes on and on.
At different times in my life I have used many of the above approaches (and combinations of approaches) as ways to not feel feelings. I have also noticed that this fear of actually being with our intense, human emotional experience is not at all unique to me. What is it that feels so frightening about being with our experience? Why is there value judgement attached to certain types of emotional experience, rendering some feelings more socially acceptable than others? What are we so afraid of? What am I so afraid of?
Being with our feelings rather than checking out allows us to be honest about things in our life that we may need to change for our health and well being. Perhaps if we drop our numbing habits for a while and check in with how we feel, we realize that we are seeking to numb discomfort because this job/relationship/lifestyle choice/whatever isn’t really serving us. That can also feel intimidating, because realizing that we want something different may require change… and that is something very few people are comfortable with. On the flip side, sometimes we realize that even as much as we wish we could, we cannot change the events that are unfolding before us.
Loss of the illusion of control is also something that most people do not warmly welcome with open arms. Such was my recent experience of navigating the death of my mother. My mom died in October 2014 after a several year experience of living with stage 4 lung cancer. I left my home and practice in Minnesota to be with her and to provide care for her and support to my dad (who had been taking care of her for several years) so she could die at home as she wanted.
Another interesting thing I found myself running up against during the time my mom was dying was the theme of my own mortality – evaluating where I am in my own life and trying to be kind when all I wanted to do at that time was a complete overhaul. The whole experience from her diagnosis, through her many treatments and procedures, to her dying and death all held many opportunities to either fall into old patterns of checking out when the feelings got intense… or to be with my experience and acknowledge and honor my human emotions, resistance and all.
As I felt the desire to return to old patterns of “numbing out” stirring, I decided instead to really carefully consider all my choices and actions to make sure I wasn’t just trying to avoid feelings. I also gave myself the gifts of kindness, compassion and grace – realizing that I am a human and that if I have a glass of wine (or a few) after a long day of care-giving for a loved one, then that is okay too. An occasional glass of wine or two also doesn’t have to turn into a raging bender and full on avoidance of the present situation or how I feel about it. I made it my intention to stay open to as much of the process (and the feelings) as possible… because as intense as human feelings can be, they all pass. Whether we judge them to be “good” or “bad,” “beautiful” or “uncomfortable,” none of them last.
When I let myself feel all of the feelings surrounding this experience and time of life, it was really hard at first because so much hurt. I had so much resistance to admitting how much pain I felt, in part because I did not want to allow myself to be so overwhelmed that I could not perform the practical day-to-day care giving roles that my mom’s health required… and in part because our society teaches us that pain is something to be avoided – that it is something that we shouldn’t have to tolerate.
Honestly, it feels good when I allow myself to honor my pain and grief. Someone told me that deep grief is the price of deep love. I love my mom so much and miss being able to see her, to touch her and to hear her voice. Honoring the feelings of sadness that I feel around my mom’s illness and death feels like honoring the depth of our relationship. To my surprise, really beautiful and intense feelings of gratitude and joy and love have showed up in their own turns as well. That really caught me off guard initially. I had been so afraid of feeling the hurt and sadness that I had closed off for a while and it was shocking to see how much more I have been able to feel since allowing myself to have – and be with – my feelings. When we numb out and close off to the feelings we deem unpleasant or socially unacceptable, we blunt all of our emotional experience. Without the full spectrum of human emotions, we can’t have a fully developed palate… just like someone who only ever eats a repetitive and bland diet.
Through this practice, I have also woken up to the complexity of my own human emotions. We are very rarely feeling just one thing at any time. There are so many unique combinations of feelings to be had in this human experience. I have found that when I am honest with myself, I often have different percentages of many different emotions expressing at different times. Combinations of sadness and grief with joy or wistful nostalgia and gratitude can all occur simultaneously when we let ourselves begin to feel it all. If we check out when things feel intense, we may miss a unique flavor of our life that will not be repeated.
There are times that may have happened (or may happen in the future) when we feel vulnerable. Too vulnerable, soft, and human to survive the situation at hand. In such times, we begin to build protective strategies for ourselves. We put on armor when we need protection. When the time passes we put the armor down, or it becomes a cage. If that time has passed, put down your armor. A hardened heart can’t beat.
I am still processing and unpacking the death of my mom (and as it turns out, many other previously unexamined and unprocessed instances with grief and loss… it appears that at least for me, one experience stirs up many others that have similar flavors) and continually learning new ways to stay open to my experience. Right now food and overwork are the two main numbing strategies that I’m keeping an eye on. I see you there, chocolate cake and 10 million projects. My main mindfulness practice for now is as hard and simple as this – Allow myself to feel what I feel. If I can keep learning to feel it all, I know I will be alright.
If this practice of feeling and awareness sounds like something that you would like to explore in more depth, I will be writing a follow-up post about how to apply B.R.F.W.A. (Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow. – An approach I first learned at my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training and am continuing to learn about and love more and more) as a tool of support and strength during times that feel challenging.