I have had a sense recently of how things are for me—how things are when you are in parts. It is different than it is for other people. Qualitatively different.
I had one sense of this as I went to the shop to buy vouchers for the second time that day and I thought to myself the aunty who runs it might judge me. Indeed, she might, and I shoved the shame down and didn’t care. Of course, the shame is still there. I have just ceased to allow it to enter my brain for processing—like cutting a part of your body which has lost feeling. And I felt different. I felt like I don’t give a fuck what she thinks.
That is me making sense of me in the absence of one of my feelings. It isn’t the other way around. I am not imagining I don’t care and shoving down the shame. I am cutting off access to my feelings like I have turned off a spigot, and then I am imagining myself as the person without that feeling. And I do this. I do this to get things done that need to be done, that are important, like helping my daughter to feel like I am there even if she doesn’t know the appropriate way to ask for support. I see C doing this also. It looks like a switch being flipped. It is quite dramatic. I think it isn’t dramatic to anyone else—I think it looks like normal C to other people. But I know her and I can see the change. So we do this. We turn things on and off inside us so that we can behave somewhat normally in front of other people. To cope with overwhelming feelings of shame that come up in response to our expectation of how other people might feel about our needs, we turn off our awareness of our own emotions. And then we feel like different people.
Neurologically, or whatever, I think this comes out of our natural ability to filter sensory information and selectively use our attention so that relevant information is given importance and irrelevant information is ignored. Even though it is relevant, the shame is filtered out because it is too overwhelming, and we have a subjectively different sense of ourselves. If you are switching things on and off like that, it creates a sense of discontinuity. Intense emotions creates a sense of discontinuity also, because they indicate to us that we should pay attention to different stimuli. Anger tells us pay attention to threat, for example. Distrust says pay attention to anything unusual or different. We respond to stimuli with emotions and then the emotions affect the stimuli we are most attentive to. Extreme emotions create very strong shifts in our attention.
Something else I realized this week is how fractured my experience of life has been. I was thinking of this because I was sick, and when I am sick I want 2 minute noodles. It’s a very definite craving. I feel unwell or upset and I want Wai-Wai. I don’t even like Wai-Wai. And I think this is because when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I stayed overnight at a friend’s house. There were four of us friends and we all had a sleep-over and the arrival time was something like 6 or 7, which to my family was dinner time. So I didn’t eat dinner. I thought we are going for dinner. Then I got there and everyone had already eaten dinner. I was the only one who hadn’t realized we would not eat dinner together.
I was hungry. And there was no dinner and being 11 years old maybe and me, I didn’t say anything.
There was, however, dessert—strawberry ice cream. I ate a big bowl of strawberry ice cream on an empty stomach and very soon afterwards vomited. I don’t even remember the parents, but they were solicitous. They wanted to know if I wanted to go home. They were kind. And the story came out that I hadn’t eaten dinner, and the mother made me 2 minute noodles. I had never had 2-minute noodles before.
I am sure I crave 2-minute noodles when I am sick because of that one experience of having been cared for when I felt sick. She wasn’t an important person in my life. I never went to that friend’s house again, and she moved away at the end of that school year. But there was this single experience of being treated like a human being, being cared for when I didn’t feel well, and it made an enormous impression on me. And 30 years later, I still want 2-minute noodles when I am sick.
Until recently, I don’t think I would have had any way to understand that. It would not have made any sense to me that this experience would make an impression on me. I might have eaten 2-minute noodles as comfort food without knowing why, or I might have ignored the craving because it did not make any sense to me. I wouldn’t have understood that they would be comforting to me, or that there was any reason for the craving.
A lot of my life is like that: little bits of disconnected things, moments of aliveness and safety, when it seemed okay to feel, and those moments are sometimes brilliant and indelible and sometimes completely darkened: that moment of care with the 2 minute noodles is flattened. No emotion to it, and yet I can infer what I must have felt. It’s so strong I don’t feel anything.
Other people’s lives aren’t like that. They aren’t this coming in and out of a flatness that is mostly my normal. And also a lot of stuff I am doing impulsively, without knowing the reason behind it. It might not look impulsive—my life has been pretty sedate, not a lot of thrill-seeking, but I haven’t known my own mind or what motivated me. No one else has either, and that has been the hard part.
I think that has been hard, to have a different internal life than most other people do, and to be unable to make sense of my own mind. There was nothing cultural, nothing handed down to me, about how it works. Other people do have the same kind of mind as I have had—I am not the only person with childhood abuse and attachment problems. But they don’t understand themselves either.