The Somatic Coma: My Body’s Inability to Feel Emotion

The other day, my friend and I were speaking about meditation and other anti-anxiety techniques we have been using. I have been trying to meditate five minutes at night and five minutes in the morning every day for about 10 days. I’m not sure it’s really doing anything but I figure it takes a while to “see results.” We started talking about other techniques. I have a few from DBT: I will count all white cars or the letters on each word of a sign. She said that for her, sitting outside and feeling the breeze on her face or the sun on her back; her sensory feelings – directly impact her emotion-mind.

I started seeing my new therapist because she works with sexual trauma. We haven’t actually gotten to any of it yet since I’m evidently having an existential crisis, but one thing did come out a few weeks ago. A while back I wrote a post about how mood stabilizers kill your ability to be creative. That when I saw beauty, I couldn’t feel it, and how sad it made me. But what I have come to realize is that I do not allow myself to feel anything that would elicit a feeling of pleasure. And I’m not talking just¬†sexual. I’m talking about when I am with friends and we are all laughing together and I start to get that excited,¬†tingly sensation of happiness – and then my body shuts down. I still laugh, but it’s not deep from an authentic place of joy. I often find myself turning around or excusing myself to go somewhere – to escape. When someone is complimenting me and I start to feel that warm feeling of love and care, once again my body shuts down and my mind takes over with narratives denying everything that is being said. When I get to the top of the ridge and I look out into the distance, I start to feel what may be a sense of something beautiful, and then I feel void. Empty. Blank. What I didn’t realize until recently is that there is a step (quicker than a blink) between the incident/image that causes pleasure, and the blank, disassociated non-feeling I arrive at only able to look at what is occurring from a rational, intellectual mind.

Growing up as a sensitive, empathetic child (perhaps a little too much so,) I absorbed everything. When I felt happy, it was ethereal and joyous! I can actually remember the tingling in my body, the overwhelming warmth in my chest when we would scream at recess or my family would all be laughing at the table. When I watched my parents fight, I could literally feel each of their feelings from their perspective. And with age, their increased fighting, my sexual assaults and rape, and years of being bullied and rejected, I think my body did one of two things, or maybe both.

1) It started to have a hard time differentiating between excitement and fear. They both started to feel the same and so even when I was excited about something, it felt awful.

2) Pleasure and joy were feelings that left me vulnerable and open to attack. It was this naivete of happiness that allowed so many to beat me so hard when they rejected me without reason. I no longer felt safe feeling anything positive.

Clearly, I was an emotional machine when it came to pain. Thanks to my depression, I could feel the deep throb of hate, the visceral feelings of wanting to die that make it hard to breathe, that could only be released through self-harm. And I assumed I did not feel joy because I was depressed. And I think it’s fair to say that definitely contributed to it considering my brain was literally not receiving the chemicals it needed to allow for emotion regulation.

But I think my body also taught itself to distrust feelings of pleasure, excitement, sexual energy, curiosity, playfulness, freedom, and trust. As a child, I still allowed myself to be vulnerable but around seventh grade, the bipolar II kicked in and never felt “good,” given my hypomanic episodes didn’t last long.

It is only with the unmasking of the depression through medication in the past few years that I have noticed that when those feelings come round, especially since the rape when I was 22, I disassociate and disconnect from feeling. In fact, the other day, I started to feel the excitement – sadly I can’t even remember why. I started to feel that tingling in my chest, I recognized it, and then it was gone. I couldn’t feel it. I could remember why I began to feel it but my body was numb and I couldn’t get it back. And I think there was a part of me that was terrified of getting it back. It’s like my body has created a DO NOT ENTER sign with a guard who tells me to step back for my own safety.

So maybe my system got fried and stopped being able to tell the difference between good and bad feelings. Or maybe, because I needed to survive, it just shut it all down. Not fight, not flight – just freeze.

The odd thing (though not surprising,) is that I still feel shitty feelings: like anxiety, jealousy, insecurity. Old habits die hard. Luckily, the meds have mellowed the intensity and I have learned some tools to steer my emotional brain away from some thoughts.

I don’t know how therapy will be able to shed the layers of shame, hate, doubt, and disgust that are so deeply connected to feelings of love, desire, passion, and curiosity. I’m not sure if EMDR would help – if I could somehow reprogram my mind to understand the differences in feelings that are good and bad; between excitement and fear.

I am jealous that my friend can allow the feeling, sights, and sounds around her to seep into her body and calm her being. For now, I’ll just keep counting white cars.

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The Dulling of My Creative Spirit

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Hot 9 by Jackson Pollock

I would never have called myself an artist. However, I did DIY cards and gifts. I dabbled in different areas – knitting, charcoal, paint, ceramics, photography, poetry, etc. Drawing could calm me often – even if I didn’t like what I created.

But the medicine dulls that desire. My mind goes blank at the page. I know a lot of people on mood disorder pills suffer from this. Many stop taking their meds because it’s not worth the sacrifice.

I miss that creativity because it also allowed me to see a deeper beauty in things. I would spend time looking at wind blowing the trees, or look at each individual piece of grass. Now, I can acknowledge something is pretty, but I don’t feel the beauty.

And while I miss my creativity, I can still feel excitement, love, sadness, charm. Things still make me cry and laugh, or both at the same time. I think if I had pursued acting or comedy, perhaps my depression would have made me better, more intense. But I didn’t.

I was worried when I started to feel better that I wouldn’t be as gregarious without the depression and definitely without the alcohol. I was wrong. And I can still be just as pessimistic and misanthropic as before – I guess cynicism is not necessarily a symptom of depression but a personality trait you can hone over time.

A lot of time, with depression, it’s all about weighing options and often times both aren’t ideal. I suppose life is really like that but with depression the stakes feel higher, especially because making the decision when you are anxious and depressed takes far more energy. When it comes to creativity, I am willing to dull that part of myself for the chance to feel a greater variety of feelings, perhaps more muted, but also greater in range.

But I do miss it. Putting a pen to paper and watching my hand move on its’ own. Going to a gallery and feeling a painting all over my body, wanting to immerse myself in its’ unique ambiguity or feeling.

It’s a price to pay to not feel the intensity of pain that helped guide my hand. A price that allows me to view art and not spend the rest of the day enveloped in feelings that immobilized my brain and my actions. I’m not saying it isn’t worth the price but that doesn’t make me miss it any less.