Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Do I Handle Emotional Darkness?

Last Sunday was one terrible day for mood swings.  I hadn’t felt so extremely low in ages.  

There was a period in my life when heavy moods lingered without lifting. I suffered from depression, although for years I didn't know the interior darkness for what it was.  I used to be ashamed of my melancholic feelings; I thought they pointed to my weakness, my sinfulness, my being a lousy person. (I confessed to emotions as if they all were sins.)  Yet my dark moods did not indicate any of those things, and trying to hide and deny them could not make them go away.  On the contrary, stuffing my feelings made my condition worse.

Emotions, including the unpleasant ones, were created by God.  Understanding that fact, today I can appreciate even my negative emotions; they are signs which indicate the places I need healing or change. This has been a huge shift in my perspective, and I would not have arrived here without much therapy, journaling, reading, and more therapy.  While emotionally trying, last Sunday was a wonderful case study to remind me how far I have come.  

The day began as "normal." I made breakfast at 8 a.m.  I began to feel a bit of anxiety in my decision to make chocolate chip pancakes from scratch; valuable "get ready" time was being lost!  At 8:30 a.m., annoyance joined my anxiety as we prepared to leave; no child listens the first time I say something like, "Please brush your teeth now," "Let's get dressed for church," or "Go find your socks and shoes."  As CEO of herding cats, I am the last to get my shower, and so in the end I become the most harried family member of all.   Still... as long as we all got out the door and into the car by 9 a.m., I expected to exhale and be happy.  

Instead of meeting with relief in the car, I landed in despair.  Over what? While driving on the highway we realized  that the car was on Empty; we needed to stop for gas.  It takes a half hour to get from our house to our parish.  This meant we could not be on time for the 9:30 a.m. Mass.

My Despair then morphed into Monumentally Pissed Off.  I became angry at: myself for skipping the gas stop yesterday, myself again for choosing to have the family join this distant parish (with only one Sunday Mass time!), the recently assigned pastor for cutting loose the homeschooling ministry which had drawn me to that parish in the first place.  I was beyond frustrated because this was my son's longed-for sacrament year, so I felt trapped there now, and it was all going horribly wrong. 

I huffed, I puffed, I ranted.  My language grew increasingly colorful; my husband cut me off before I taught the little pitchers some choice new words.  “Whoa--!  Hold it right there! You are being irrational.  We can just go to a closer parish with a later Mass time.  This is not that big of a deal.”  A church we’d visited the week before had an 11:30; we would go there.  We returned home to let the kids play until then.    

My interior remained like a pot of boiling water.  Now I was ticked off for being labelled "irrational." More steam gathered as I realized it was possibly true.  I was ready to blow.

There was a time when I would have roared at my husband, jumping on his words as the line in the sand at which to stand and do battle.   Truthfully, at most his words would become a red herring, a distraction from a larger issue.  I would launch a fight.  Afterwards, the air still thick with both of our resentments, I'd grow increasingly confused (what just happened?!) and then eventually contrite, and ultimately guilty for the argument.  I would make peace with Emre.  And in my hour-or-more detour through marital angst, I would have dropped -- and lost-- the trail to what actual hurt had lurked and set me off course in the first place.  Some buried psychic pain drove me in such moments, like a wounded and frightened cat, to growl, hiss and lash out at those around me.

That was Pre-therapy Lee.  Post-therapy Lee moved through Sunday's scene quite a bit differently.

What was different?  On this day, I held my tongue, and heard Emre out.  While he left the car to pump gas, I mulled over his words.  We arrived home to kill time before Mass, and I was still at my boiling point.  I have learned to withdraw and regroup at that critical moment.  I knew it was time to take stock and take care of me.  No one can do that for me; it is solely my responsibility to assess how I feel and why.

By 10 a.m. I’d retreated to my bedroom and closed the door.  With lights off and tissues in hand, I curled into bed and mentally walked through every thing about the morning which irked, worried, frustrated or upset me.  I realized there was more to my pain than merely not getting to the parish I’d had my heart set on attending that day.  

Yes, it was frustrating to miss that Mass;  I had anxiety about the pastor not allowing J.P. to receive first penance if we weren't there for several weeks running. As I mentioned, I was angry about his lobbing off a large and vibrant homeschooling ministry; my anger was a response to the pain of rejection I felt inside.  There was something more behind that, though, further fueling the anger in my reaction: a memory of another time and place, when people and events beyond my control spun around and hurt me.  And behind that memory, there was another one very much like it. 

My therapist likened this phenomenon of linked or associated memories to "pulling open a memory drawer."    Do you remember the old card catalog system in libraries?  Imagine the mind as working very much like that system: memories (good or bad), are grouped and filed away together.  It can be surprising to see how much hurt we have stuffed into one drawer; pull out one "card, " and those packed tightly behind it slip out, too.  

Last Sunday, Post-therapy Lee did something that took two years of work to learn how to do:  I took stock of my emotions and let myself feel it all.   Once my heart swelled to bursting on one score, I let myself cry it out.  Then I looked to see how this tapped other memories. The key to accessing those linked memories has been to ask myself, "When have I felt this way before?"

My private exercise runs like this: Remember the hurt. Feel it. Cry. Ask the Question. Repeat.

I marveled at how intensely my heart ached, but I didn't cork up or run from the pain as I'd done for most of my life.

A new thought intervened to say, 'This pregnancy makes your feelings even more intense right now.  This all will pass.'  Even in my Sunday sadness, I recognized that thought as a breakthrough for me: prior to therapy, I'd flounder about denying my moods, not facing their causes, yet feeling as if the darkness would never disperse.  The darkness had a near-tangible weight that hung on me.  In my attempts to lock away negative emotion and hurtful memories,  all positive emotions (i.e. satisfaction, happiness, peace) were stopped up, too.  Prior to therapy, I had given up on ever feeling joy again.

Contrast that with last Sunday: I cried in bed, feeling horrible, yet all the while knowing it was OK, because this storm would pass.  Call me crazy, but there is something miraculously hopeful in that expectation.  It was as if a hand rested on my back, to steady me.

A forty minute nap ensued.  The darkness was gone by morning's end, even as the problems which prompted that mood remain.  It is just that my reactions to these worries are not driving me; my conscious mind is calling the shots, and that is a very big deal.

Depression is different for everyone; my experience with it is not universal.  There are varying degrees, myriad causes, and a vast number of treatments.  I am not sharing my little Sunday moment as a template for anyone to go it alone if anything I've shared resounds in you.  This vignette is meant to show that it is OK and even good- and necessary! -to admit our weakness and seek help.

My journey to balance and sanity began with contacting a Catholic therapist I found through this website.  I would not be where I am right now without his help.  It is a resource I can not share or recommend enough.


  1. Sounds like such a good way of managing it. Well done you and thanks for sharing. I love the filing cabinet anaolgy too - I quite often overreact to things and Husby bears the brunt then only later with hindsight do I realise that those reactions 'belong' elsewhere.

    1. Considerer, I'm glad you relate to that bit about husband-wife not relating, in a moment, TO be honest, I'd felt a little odd sharing that bit about Emre and my reaction to his commentary; I feared people would"mis-read" it and judge *him* as being unhelpful. (That co-dependency for you: constantly worried about what everyone else thinks, and how to best control what they think/feel. Then again, that is the role of a writer, isn't it? Maybe my tweak-ed-ness has finally led me to the fulness of my vocation!) I am relieved my point came across. Properly lived, I think marriage is just as humbling as it is elevating! :-)

  2. This is a beautiful witness. Thank you.

    1. I am glad, John; thanks for your comment. I have certainly gleaned a lot of hope and wisdom from your work during the last couple of years!

  3. What a wonderfully honest telling of your experience... and hopeful witness.

    I have not done formal therapy, but have had therapeutic experiences that have helped me deal with the various highs and lows of my life. (My past is dotted with many, many dark emotions.) Currently, frustration besets me more than depression. I am learning to feel it without hurling it out at everyone. I am also learning to release it.

    Recently, I have had some decisions to make re prophylactic cancer surgeries. In making them, I realized a larger decision was about how I was going to renew my life -- living healthier in mind, body and spirit. It is a journey I am committed to now -- one TINY baby step at a time. Sharings like yours help me with it. THANK YOU

    1. Martianne, I am humbled that my musings/reflections help anyone. You have been and remain in my prayers.

  4. This is such a beautifully *full* post.

    "because this storm would pass" says so much. I find it incredibly helpful to be able to step outside of myself and evaluate my situation even though I still feel everything directly. It sounds like you have a more robust version of this which is working well for you... eh, I can't seem to comment clearly, but I wanted to say that I really appreciate this post and admire what you have figured out for yourself.

  5. Thank you, Rae. Admittedly, I don't handle every moment with such clarity, but the fact that I can handle any of it with clear vision and an ability to *feel* without stuffing it all, is a big improvement over what had been transpiring. God bless you and thank you for your comment!