Numbness is well-known to those of us who spent years rubbing shoulders with vulnerability and fear due to a violent partner. These two terrifying feelings grip us when control over our own life is snatched away by a power seeker. Distressed and helpless, many of us sought to avoid our unease with busyness (work, volunteering, over commitment), junk foods, alcohol, sex or drugs, in an effort to assure ourselves that what happened doesn’t really matter and to let it go. We’d flip the feelings switch to off and slide into grayness.
In the beginning, these periods would often last for a couple days as we walked through the motions of our lives, pretending things were normal. But we weren’t there. We were hiding in the heel of our existence, waiting for the warmth of feelings and color to slowly bleed back into our perceptions. As time went on, the periods between the violent incidents shortened, and the abuse escalated to the point where the warmth and color never returned. We stayed an empty shell, wearing our smile mask, doing and saying the things we were supposed to, unable to feel anything -- especially happiness.
We left our partners, and swore that we’d never let anything make us feel empty and cold again. Free, we celebrated and marveled at the sound of giggling children, the blue of the sky, deep greens of the forest, and scent of spring coming. Yes, we would leave the grayness behind. But, starting a new life was difficult and painful. Stress weighed heavy and our old friend numbness, lurking about our elbow, seemed the only manner of relief. Our response? Grab the alcohol to take the edge off, eat our way through bags of cookies, or the most dangerous thing - a new partner - anyone - just someone to carry part of the load for a while to give us a moment to breathe.
Even when we come to the point where our lives putter comfortably along or take a spectacular turn for the best, out of habit, we slide into the depths of grayness when triggers or ripples of unease appear. When a friend doesn’t immediately return our phone call, we worry that they are angry with us and rush to our feeling-avoidance activities for relief. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable feelings: sadness, grief, loneliness, anger. “My life is great now, I should be happy,” we say, “Haven’t I suffered enough?”
Yes, we have suffered enough. Yet, we are left with this distorted response to anxiety. When our experience has been that even the smallest annoyance ballooned into horror, how do we live with any level of unease? How do we evaluate what is minor when what we’ve lived with is the off-the-chart fury? As a result, everything feels major.
We know that life brings both happiness and sorrow. How do we buddy up to discomfort without allowing it to overtake us? How do we learn to live with some unease alongside the ease, and even see it as necessary to add depth to happiness?
Can we catch ourselves before we do that backslide? Instead, look at our desire for (the numbing habit of our choice) as a warning that there may be some smoldering feelings that need to be addressed or perhaps it’s just a medium issue that needs a little attention? Can we talk ourselves down from the cusp of grayness and put healthy habits in place without allowing them to become unhealthy? Think dieting that becomes anorexia.
To break the habit, let’s be aware when we reach for that bag of chips, find our eyes bloodshot from hours or staring at our computer screens and gadgets, or open a bottle of wine. We need to ask ourselves, “What is driving my desire to numb out?” Suppose we find a quiet spot, sit and allow the feeling to billow, even if it brings tears. Let’s ask ourselves where this issue really falls on a scale from 1 to 10. If it’s toward the high end of importance we can see a therapist. If it’s on the lower end we can talk to a friend or write in a journal, freeing our frustration and pain. When we allow ourselves to feel discomfort and fully experience it, we can pass through the darkness and leave it behind. Fully felt, the feelings dissipate. No longer do we drag the pain along like a ball and chain, or toss it over our head like a veil, distorting our view. Instead we give due attention to both happiness and sorrow, ribbons of awareness that enable us to feel the full spectrum of what it means to be alive.