A few weeks ago, after I wrote the post How to start feeling, I asked my therapist, “Do we ever stop numbing? I mean, is there some transcendental state that is attainable where we never numb our feelings again? Is that even possible? Is even that the goal?”
I’m not going to try to replicate her response here because I’m sure I’ll butcher it but here’s what I’ve been thinking about since then—acceptance. I have to accept that I am human and I live in a world with a bunch of other humans, and as Mark Nepo says, “All things are true.” Not all things are right or kind or pure or easy—some things are unjust or cruel or unfair—but all things are true. My mind wanders back to this phrase frequently.
All things are true. To me, this means acceptance of what is. Some days I can’t be emotionally brave—I need to numb. I need a break. This is true whether I like it or not. I’m working through layers of pain from cancer and from years of not having and not understanding how to have my own back. That’s actually pretty emotionally brave. So if I need a day to let that go. To tune it out. I think that’s okay.
When it becomes a problem is when I keep hitting the same button over and over again. That’s the image that always comes to mind for me. The classic operant conditioning experiment with the rat in the cage who hits a button and gets a reward, and then hits the button over and over and over. That single button becomes the only coping mechanism for life. This is the starting place for addiction.
So when I need to numb, I have lots of buttons. And you know what’s interesting—when I really listen to myself, when I’m conscious about which button I’m reaching for and why—what might have started as numbing morphs into self-care. For this reason, I have to conclude that it’s the subconsciousness that really defines numbing. So let me give an example because I feel like I’m being a little cryptic.
Yesterday R was at his dad’s house. I had a big pile of work to get through. I came home to do it because I don’t get bothered by extra requests if I leave the office. As I got home it started to rain. I sat on the couch and worked and listened to the rain. My brain still felt a little overwhelmed and messy because I was having thoughts about letting my work pile up like this—I hate when I do this. It usually happens because my brain is messy and I can’t have the laser focus at work that is kind of my super power. At some point, I turned on Friends and let that play in the background while I went through two or three hours of work.
I got up a couple of times, wanting something to eat. It was interesting because it was so familiar—the sensation of a physical craving for nothing in particular to spell me from the simultaneous mental effort and monotony of medical documentation. I always have some chocolate on hand so I reached for a little of that, totally conscious in my mind that it was numbing chocolate. And that consciousness kind of ruined it. I ate three pieces and didn’t go back for more. I also found myself on Facebook on my phone at one point, and as I realized what I had been doing, I wondered, How did I even get here? Okay, back to work. Eventually I got through the pile of documentation I had to do.
Then there was the pile of laundry. I bravely sorted it out on the living room floor, bagging up the things that need to air dry and pretreating the stains. I jumped right in! We can be emotionally brave with laundry too!!! I got that going and then I invited my widowed neighbor with Alzheimer’s over for a visit. She talked to me for forty minutes straight about how she is going to stay in her home until the day she dies. Forty minutes! I told her I had to talk about something else! Literally, I said the words—We HAVE to talk about something else! (This is a benefit of working in psychiatry. I am unusually comfortable with listening to people rattle on about things and then abruptly redirecting them to something else.)
We moved on to some other topic but she was back to reeling off her arguments about the benefits of remaining in her own home within just a few minutes. (I wasn’t even arguing against it!) Then I offered to play her some music on the piano. She listened as I plunked out the songs I’ve been working on. The visit ended well, saved by music—phew! I drove her home and returned to continue the shuffle of laundry. Then I laid down on the couch and watched TV for two glorious hours.
As I did it, I considered if I was numbing. I wasn’t sure until this morning. I woke up feeling a little scattered from strange dreams. I went out for a morning walk as the sun was coming up. I had trouble sinking away into the morning sunlight and dew-covered greenery poking abundantly out of every crevice. I wondered—is this because you were numbing last night? Numbing the darkness numbs the light according to Brené Brown. But then I decided to let that go and do what normally feels good. I stopped by the coffee shop and picked up a biscuit for breakfast and Brandi Carlile came on singing Hold out your hand and that’s when I heard the phrase in mind.
All things are true. Last night was what it was and today is what it is and nothing has gone wrong and every thing is fine. Freedom is in the acceptance of the yin and the yang. Freedom is not trying to fit in a box where no numbing happens. It’s watching the natural rise and fall of my life. Appreciating myself for being emotionally brave in dealing with my past AND the big pile of laundry. Being compassionate with myself on nights when I have to tap out.
All things are true. They just are. No amount of wishing or scrutiny or hate or planning or neurosis or looking away can change that. They just are. Maybe the only thing that can change anything is love. And not because it changes the thing, but because it changes me.
Cheryl Strayed wrote, “Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” It’s small because it’s just me in there, no one else is needed. And there’s a window and sunlight is pouring in. As I sit in the quiet, it feels peaceful and light. All things are true. Namaste.