learning to feel
Updated: May 21, 2020
The hardest part: learning how to feel it.
I liken my recurring cycles through wellness and illness to the yucca moth. When I am down, I am down. I dig in deep into the damp smell of the clean soil and harden off. I shut it all down. I focus on the healing part that comes from discomfort, pain, struggle, and weakness. When I fight it, it comes at me harder.
In the cocoon, it may be uncomfortable, but it’s dark and safe and hidden away from, well, all of it.
Because I am also a feeler. I feel all of it. All of my stuff. All of your stuff. All of the world’s stuff. When I am tucked away, I only feel my stuff - and it’s physical. My body’s sensations veto my thinking brain.
My over-thinking brain is better when I am hardened off. I am practiced at the cocoon. Sometimes, I stay in this state even when I'm back to healthy life. I am not so good at the emergence.
Emergence is complete raw vulnerability. It’s a soft defenseless body waiting to harden up to move. It’s having to hold really still and let it all course through. Defenseless.
While I used to think of this raw state of being with cynicism, I am changing my view. There is a knife-edge of balance that I have to find to be the healthy kind of vulnerable, not the kind that is dangling from a leaf with the hazard of succumbing to prey.
Chronic illness often rides with depression and anxiety. I’d like to investigate those two words for a moment. What they mean to me. Thank goodness we are getting to a place in our culture that we can use those terms. But sometimes the more we use terms, the less they mean.
For me, is a complete lack of sensation. It is a feeling of nothing. It hallows out the core of me existing in the shell of my physical body, often wrapped in pain and sticky coughs. It sets in silently. There is a fungus in the Amazon rainforest that works like depression.
Cordyceps fungus. Somehow the spores enter the body of an unknowing insect - an ant or a moth, and they flourish. Entering the brain. Sometimes convincing the body of the insect to climb to the highest branches of the forest’s canopy. Then, the fungus explodes out of the host's body as the insect dives 120 feet from the top. Why? To spread it’s spores throughout the forest finding a new host for its life.
First of all, amazing. Co-evolution at its finest. And I relate. Literally. I am susceptible to fungal infections myself. Figuratively, I am hallowed out and taken over by depression. And I don’t feel it until I am up in the highest branches completely consumed by it.
So I treat it. I have a therapist. Until I had her, I did not talk about the consumption of my innards that is depression. (That was nearly forty years.) I didn’t know what to call it. I don’t like to trouble people with my innermost issues and demons. I had to learn how to talk about it. The first time I sat with her, she gave me permission to complain about CF. What? I didn’t know how to do that. It took me some practice. I feel like I’m getting it down.
She also asked me to invite my depression onto the seat next to me. Um. What? No thank you.
I left that day not feeling better. Feeling stopped. Ask depression to join me? Depression is what is eating me alive. I will not make friends with it, or give it tea, or make eye contact with it, or allow it on my couch. It’s the enemy. Until it wasn’t. My fear was that if I cracked open the door, depression would consume me like the Cordyceps. But, it was already there. I was already consumed. What if I stopped resisting it, felt it, acknowledged the suck of it. Felt the sensation and sent it on its way? No thank you. But then, ok.
In my teens and twenties and thirties, I was spontaneous, flexible, and fluid. I could go with it, whatever it was. In addition to a really full life, I was in and out of illness that created recurring trauma. Ask me then, and I would laugh if you called it trauma. It was just how it was. “It is what it is.” I hate that phrase.
What was happening in my ignorantly blissful state was I numbed out the sensation of the traumas brought on by recurrent hospitalizations and illnesses. The smell of the plastic nasal cannula from the oxygen that took me directly back to the memory of the ICU. Having a code blue called as my lungs closed off and my body covered in heat from an allergic reaction to an IV antibiotic. Having code blue called again, the crash cart covered in nurses filling my room. And again. A third time. Respiratory therapy four times a day - the kindest of therapists beating on my chest to shake out the putty-like mucus harboring the infection. Pain like shaking a bag of glass. And the shame of asking for pain medicine to get me through it.
As I ignored these microcosms of trauma, it turns out they didn’t go away. They stored up in some pockets in my physical and emotional body. Like the Cordyceps fungus, they flourished there nourished by my ignoring them and the damp dark. And then they exploded out of me. And anxiety was born. I fell from the trees.
If you have experienced the sensation of anxiety, I am curious to know how you describe it, if you can. For me, it starts with a nagging worry and quickly becomes a vision of the worst-case scenario. I can see my dog get hit by a car and so I check her leash ten times. I can see my house on fire so I check the extinguishers. I can see a stranger in my kitchen so I lock the doors and nag my family to do the same. But, the thing is, this isn’t me. Or maybe it is.
Anxiety manifests as my inability to tolerate clutter in my kitchen. Or bedroom. Or car. And most often, it bursts when I hear my husband chewing. Don’t ask. I have no idea. But, he’s a very tolerant man as you can imagine.
And then we add prednisone to the mix. The steroid. The one, the only. The miracle drug that opens up my airways and helps my body remember what oxygen feels like. And the chemical mixture that incites a near mania in my body. Like too much coffee or a jolt of adrenaline that lasts weeks. A physical monstrous wave that
I cannot control.
So my work now, and maybe yours too, is to sit and feel allllllllll of it. We have no choice to be sitting. Sitting in our homes (if we are so lucky to have the privilege homes and comfort and safety) and feeling the grief, the disappointment, the nerves, the anxiousness, the waves of monsters that may not yet have a name (and don’t really need one). It is ok to feel. There, I said. it. That took me about three years of therapy.
What I have found, though, in my new feeling state, is that I can also feel joy and gratitude as chasers to the monsters. I can’t stop the feelings. But the more I feel them, the more leveled they become.
In November, we stood on the beach in California. My best friend’s home and a place of great comfort. On a windy day, we stood on the beach and watched the unsettled waves of the Pacific waters. The large, aggressive, white-foam capped water roared in. We could hear it and smell it and feel the flecks of water drops and salt on our faces. We stood on the place where the sand turned from crumbly and dry to wet and hard, where our feet didn’t sink. And by the time the waves came into our bare feeling-the-cold toes, the water gently lapped around our ankles. Out there, fierce crashing. At our feet, gentle wrapping. We welcomed it in. All of it.
We just stood there and let it all wash around us. I could not stop the intensity of the waves just offshore. They were so close they threatened me, and then washed sweetly around my ankles. And I felt gratitude sweep in with the salty air.
I did not run into the violence of the waves nor dive into the waters. I did not take the 120 foot dive from the tops of the trees. My daughter and I stood where we knew we were relatively safe given the conditions of the day. And we felt all of it. The contradictions of aggression and grace, grief and humility, intensity, and gentle-ness.
While not easy, feeling what we’re experiencing fills in the depths of the hollowness. It completes us back into our own bodies. Feeling takes intuition and balance. It also takes practice. I think we all have time for that these days.
Note. Feeling things like anger should not manifest as marching into state capital buildings with guns. Nor should it become intimidation of medical professionals or police. This is NOT feeling. This is completely hardened off. This is not sitting. This is not ok. This is prolonging the crisis. So, stop it.