The key is not to panic.
The first step, with any situation or any feeling, is to calm down. I have realized this. At this stage, I can mostly cope. I might not be able to cope when I am teaching again and there are more stresses in my life and I have less control over the pace of things, but just now whatever is happening I can cope with. Usually. But I have to remember to calm down first.
Feel suicidal? Calm down.
Feel hopeless? Calm down.
Don’t know how you feel? Calm down.
Feel like everything is behind glass and nothing is real anymore? Calm down.
I don’t mean shove things down inside more firmly so that I can get on with life. That is not calming down. I still get confused about this, I think. There are times when I am distressed and I start to realize I have this feeling like I am just bracing myself for the next blow. I am just holding out, trying to keep going through the motions of life, while whatever is distressing me passes. Or I die of old age. Whichever comes first.
By calm down, I mean actually do something soothing so that I am back in range of “warm” again. It’s a lot easier now. I can do something in my body that I can’t describe or explain that is just calm. It makes me calm. If I am not totally a mess it works. The problem is that I sometimes forget to do this. I don’t realize I am in that “bracing myself for the next blow” state and I don’t try to calm down. Or I don’t realize I need to do that thing that makes me calm down. Or I don’t realize the thing didn’t work and I need to go for something stronger. Or I forget what the stronger stuff is.
I am all in bits and pieces today. Sometimes I get sort of the edge of a feeling, like just a bit of it emerged from behind glass, but not enough to make a positive ID of it. Then it slips back again. I can’t see it anymore. Then something else emerges. I think I have a lot of different feelings today.
I think the problem today is that somewhere in my head I have an idea of how I ought to feel and think about what has happened—about C choosing to stay with her family—and my real thoughts and feelings have stepped outside of that. So I am scared. I don’t know what I think I ought to feel, but it’s some idea of myself that probably arose over a lifetime and it probably has something to do with being a person I believe will be safe to be.
And I am not that person. At every step of this journey, I think I have come up against that. I am in no way the person I believed myself to be. It’s quite possible I am the person other people think I am, but my idea of who it is safe to be and who I really am parted ways quite some time ago.
I am scared. I am scared to be this other person. In the back of my mind, I think I have an idea in my mind that the person I really am is doomed in some way. She is someone who can never be happy in life, who hurts too much, who will never make wise choices. It’s as though I think I can just never make it work.
I think it seems impossible to be a person who has really lived the life I have lived, and who carries those events and themes within me and has allowed them to shape my life. I think I assume the correct response is to try to let them go. You are supposed to work through things so that you can forget them faster, not so that you can create a coherent approach to your life or to make meaning of what has happened to you. If you do not let them go, you are allowing the past to control you. You are supposed to fight that. You are supposed to never allow trauma to define you.
It does define me. In every way, it defines me. I am always someone who lived when nearly everyone I loved died. I am always someone who must make my life count in a way that someone else doesn’t need to. I am always someone with a dead village in my head of people who loved me and believed in me and kept me safe as well as they could. I am always someone who feels accountable to them for the way I approach life.
Because of them, I find myself asking, as Viktor Frankl asks, “What does life demand of me?”
C is not here. The day-to-day conditions of my life have changed and I need to ask that question again. What does life demand of me? And I am afraid. I am afraid that question is the wrong question. It is not allowed. I am afraid if I do not live a life that is, in a sense, more selfish, I can never be happy.
I think too, I feel I am supposed to be angry at C. I am supposed to feel taken advantage of and that I have thrown money needlessly at a lost cause. I don’t think I feel that way. It is certainly not the loudest feeling. It’s true I did spend money buying her things I thought she might need in boarding school. It’s just money though. I would not have spent it if the money was going to feel that it hurt. I am not out rent money in other words and, anyway, I am an adult. I took a risk. It didn’t pan out. That happens.
I think I feel I am supposed to be crushed I could not be her savior: my pride should feel hurt. But I don’t think I feel that either. I didn’t expect to be. That isn’t how it works. Maybe it doesn’t work that way with anyone, but it certainly does not work that way with kids. There are no quick fixes in their lives.
Instead, what I wanted to do, and still want to do, is keep showing up. In whatever way is required or possible, just keep showing up. Over a year, or five years, or 20 years, if you keep showing up, it makes a difference in how that person sees themselves and their lives. It makes a change. But it’s a long haul. It’s not a short one.
What I most want to do is show C that she can be loved for who she is. Not loved for her compliance or her performance or her adoption of the correct mask.