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Seeing Numbness as Progress While Confronting Childhood Trauma

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“I cried the other day,” I said as I sat on the familiar blue couch, fidgeting with my shirt sleeve, forcing myself once again to look towards my therapist sitting across from me.

The usually passive, blank face she tries to maintain slipped for a second as the tiniest smile broke loose before she was able to reign it back in. “You did? and how did that feel?”

I just shrugged and stared at the ground, my own personal code telling her that I wasn’t going to verbally answer.

As usual, she waited a minute before moving on to her next question. “When was the last time you cried before the other day?” The stoic face was back but now her head tilted to the side as she waited patiently, letting me know she wasn’t going to just let this one go. Harder questions she would move on to if I didn’t answer but the simple ones; she’d wait the entire session for me to answer.

Talking about feelings is hard. Acknowledging how I’m actually feeling in that moment seems like a hurdle I’ll never be able to clear.

In fact, for the past few months, letting a therapist ask me how I was doing that day when I first walked into the session was simply off the table. When someone asks me how I’m doing and I know they want to know the hardcore truth and not be fed a simple platitude, my mind swims. Should I answer truthfully if I know it will make them uncomfortable? What if I answer truthfully and they think I’m just being dramatic or overly sensitive? Worse yet, what if I answer truthfully and I get hurt because they can’t handle it and leave? It’s happened within the past year that people have walked away when they hear me tell them how I really am doing in that moment. I’ve been there and the fear of going through that again is debilitating.

The truth is that since my breakdown over a year ago, crying has been impossible. Most feelings and emotions are diluted and masked by a fog so deep I wonder if they’re lost forever. I live in a place of numbness that’s safe.

Yes, numbness is safe for me. As I go back through the past 39 years of my life, I’m learning that for the entire time, I’ve run from feelings and emotions. I’ve run from them so long that I don’t know what they all are. I don’t always know how to identify what I’m feeling. The advice, “sit with your emotions,” still throws me for a loop. I’d rather ignore my emotions or go back to my past coping skills of pretending everything was rainbows and sunshine than try to identify them or accept them.

Months ago I had to face the facts that horrible, torturous things happened in my past and I can no longer pretend they didn’t exist. I’ve had to learn the pain of grief, the rage of anger and the depth of emotional pain I’ve carried for so long. In order to feel those things, I’ve also had to look at how living hiding behind a wall of perfection to avoid feelings has shaped me, and the truth wasn’t pretty.

The pain was so bad as a child that I couldn’t deal with it, so I pushed it away and erased it from memory. Now it’s come back in a time when I’ve avoided all feelings except for happy and happier for over 20 years. When you haven’t felt anything for so long, it’s overwhelming to allow it into your body once again. Most days, I can only stand a small taste of emotions before I have to pull down the walls and become numb again.

Numbness to me, for now, has become a neutral safe space that’s a step above the fake perfection I lived in so long but not a headfirst drop into fully letting myself feel. Slowly I dip my toe in the water of emotions until my body can’t take it anymore and then I retreat back into the numbness to hide and rest for a while.

Within the walls of the therapist’s office, I’ve started pushing harder to figure out those feelings and let go of some of the numbness for those 50 minutes. A few weeks ago I asked my therapist to finally start asking me that dreaded question, “how are you today?” Such a simple question holds the ability to break down huge walls of protection and all the while, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

On this particular day, I had spent the whole drive to her office coming up with an answer yet when the moment came, I just shrugged my shoulders and looked at the floor. As usual, she picked up where I cannot yet go and led us into a deeper discussion about my past and how it influences my current life.

“It has been three months since I last cried,” I answered when she asked me how long it had been since I last cried.

“But you cried,” she said, the smile trying to peek through.

“Yes but I shut it off. The emotions are gone again,” I said as I pulled my sleeve down further over my hand and then waded the edge of it up in my palm.

“Oh, we’ll get them back,” she said as the smile grew into a grin without a single attempt to hide it. “You’ll see, we’ll do it together. Just give it time.”

Silently I nod as I acknowledge internally that numbness is a step forward and for now, it will be a safe place. But it’s not where I’m going to stay. I will be here for a while, that much is true, but daily I can push myself ever so gently towards feeling the feelings and learning about the emotions that scare me. I’m not the hurt child anymore or the young adult that made poor choices. My emotions and feelings are part of me that I’m having to get to know, just as I’m having to learn who I truly am right now. Numbness isn’t forever — it’s just helping protect me for now.

Photo by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash

Originally published: June 18, 2020
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