I was remembering the merry-go-round last night. I suppose there was a park nearby. Nata and I must have gone to it and played there.

They weren’t clear memories. They were jumbled up like trauma memories, only nothing bad happened. It was just ordinary. I remembered touching the sand as the merry-go-round spun, how it felt to sit in the center, holding a hand, the sensations inside me that were emotions. Everything had the same quality as a trauma memory—that sense of disorganization to it, that feeling of “What even is this?”

It makes me think, growing up, this is what happened to me. I mean, psychologically, developmentally, this is what happened. It’s so different than what I imagined. It’s like I didn’t learn to process emotions at all.

It used to seem to me enough to be able to identify the emotion: I am angry, I am sad, I miss someone. Whatever. I used to think it ought to be enough to be able to name it, to be able to identify the cause of that emotion, to be able to talk about it. That ought to be enough. But there is this whole other thing going on inside that is necessary, that happens even when I ignore it and refuse to acknowledge it or make sense of it.

It’s as though I used to be colourblind and I thought it was acceptable to know “this is red,” “this is blue,” “this is green,” based on the shade of grey it was. I mean, I knew I was angry based on sensations in my body that weren’t happening in my core. Or maybe I knew I was sad from my thoughts. I didn’t have this whole complex, physical experience plus sensory emotions plus thoughts to put together and try to understand the way I do now. And now someone has given me those special glasses that make you see colour, only I have no context for the colours I am seeing. I have to begin again.

I was completely wrong about how I understood the entire problem of denial and feelings and the effects of dissociation. I think my misunderstanding of it has made things harder for me. It made it seem as though what is happening within me cannot be happening. Healing should not look like this or feel like this. I must be doing it wrong. Or something.

I used to assume the way I experienced emotions was the way everyone experienced emotions: the sensations I had inside when I felt emotions were all there was to feel. Not true. I don’t mean they are stronger than I thought. I mean there is such a greater variety of physical sensations going on in that space between my shoulders and my abdomen. That whole area of throat and chest and stomach is just a lot more active than I ever dreamed it was, and there are so many more little twitches in it, so many more tugs and squeezes and burning feelings and all kinds of things. Other people feel this all the time and don’t notice it particularly. It is not anything new to them.

What I also did not realize is that the newness of it would mean I did not have a way of dealing with it. I don’t mean I wouldn’t have a way of coping. I mean I wouldn’t have a way to understand it. Other people have a lifetime of these sensations. There is a context within which to put them, a network of previously established associations, and a set of life experiences to relate them to. The process of doing that is automatic for them.

It is not automatic for me. I suppose it is a natural process—it will happen on its own without a huge amount of conscious effort on my part. I hope, anyway. But it is like learning to walk. Nearly all of us learn how to do it, but it takes a long time. We have to keep trying until we get it right. I am still just learning to scoot.

I also used to assume that I was experiencing emotions in the way everyone else did, but perhaps refusing to acknowledge the ones I didn’t want to have. That seemed to be kind of the theory. You’re angry, but you refuse to tell yourself. But I did know when I was angry. I did tell myself about it. What I didn’t have was all those feelings inside that tell you that you are angry. I noticed I was angry based on other clues: my thoughts, or some other physical response that was not so visceral.

I suppose in a family like mine, total compliance is necessary for survival. You can’t have a spontaneous expression of joy. You can’t get angry and fight back when you are being hurt. And maybe the best way of controlling your impulses is to dampen your experience of the emotions leading to them.

Because I also used to assume I would have trouble only with particular emotions that were disallowed. But it is all of them. It is whole, connected, complex webs of emotions: a feeling of safety of being with Nata, a sense of longing for it again, a sadness that it cannot. It is all of them, not just the ones that were not allowed, because maybe nothing spontaneous was allowed, or maybe nothing was consistently allowed. Maybe everything was dangerous at some point. I could never tell. It was best to try to dampen my entire experienced.

Finally, I assumed once I had access to my emotions they would be exactly like everyone else’s, but they are not. It’s not that I just have to feel safe enough to have the experience of feeling angry, for example, and then feeling angry is exactly like it otherwise would be. I have not been sorting and organizing “angry” for 40 years the way someone else my age would have done. I just have this jumble of stuff that has never been made sense of. Every time I have a feeling, I also have 40 years of it to sort. Thank God, I don’t get the whole lot of it at once, but I usually get some considerable confusion every time I feel something.

It’s so different than I thought it would be. It’s scary to feel so different from other people and to think I have so much work left to do.


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