On the 14th of March 2020 we woke up to a very different World. Kids were no longer going to school. Pubs, restaurants and many other businesses were closed. The only time we were allowed to leave our houses was for work, to buy groceries, or, to exercise within 2km of our home.
Like everyone else I had been following the horrific reports from China and Italy, but it had all felt somewhat removed from reality. Akin to hearing about a plot for a new movie or reading the synopsis on the back of a book. But watching live on TV as our country’s leader explained our new restrictions, it felt all very real. The adrenaline started coursing through me and I had this urge to quickly get decisions made, get plans in place and make sure everyone in my family was updated.
It’s the same way I react to most situations if I’m honest. And until recently I just ran with it and allowed my instincts to take over. But I’ve recently come to realise that it’s my brains way of stopping me from feeling. It’s protecting me from those nasty emotions that can hurt, anger or scare me. My brain figures if it distracts me with actions I won’t have time for thinking and feeling.
But emotions are a bit like fizzy drinks. Sure, when you first open the bottle it’ll fizz and hiss at you, but pretty quickly it will calm down and order will be restored. But if you decide to keep the lid on, carry it around in your bag for a while, and then open it…well, we’ve all been there…it’s a great big mess! The same goes for difficult emotions. You can block them out, pretend not to care, but one day when your brain feels its safe to access a seemingly neutral emotion…the floodgates will open. All the anger, hurt and fear will come rushing out. And just like with the fizzy drink, its much harder to get the lid back on an eruption like that.
So, how do you convince your brain that it doesn’t need to protect you? That you’re able to deal with the bad as well as the good emotions? Because don’t forget, your brain won’t just protect you from the obvious negative emotions, it will try to protect you from all strong emotions. Excitement, joy, pride…it will try to bury them all because your brain knows that those emotions can potentially lead to the opposite feeling too…disappointment.
As a teenager, I allowed my brain to take control of my emotions. Just like every adult knows, the teen years are like a fairground of emotions! And I didn’t want to get on the rollercoaster. Without realising what I was doing, I allowed my brain to protect me and to prevent me from feeling any strong emotions. I didn’t get excited which meant I never felt disappointed, I didn’t get angry, I didn’t allow myself to be in any situation where I wasn’t fully in control. And for many years, it worked!
But then it didn’t. I realised that something felt like it was missing. Feelings were missing. I couldn’t seem to ‘feel’ happiness. And as someone who has always maintained that the one thing I wanted to be when I grew up was happy, that presented a big problem! I had also been avoiding all situations where there may be conflict. This meant I was now living a life based on choices I had made to keep the peace. I didn’t fight for what I wanted, I didn’t allow myself to dream or set goals. But yet I also couldn’t identify the problem because I was so used to ignoring my feelings.
In 2018 my grandmother died. She was one of my best friends. She drove us all a little crazy and she certainly wasn’t without her faults, but I loved her so, so much. And then she was gone. And I cried. And cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t say or hear her name without the tears welling up in my eyes. Every little thing reminded me of her. I was a complete mess.
It took me the good part of a year to be able to think about her without a lump in my throat. Even now, writing this, I still can feel that sadness ready to erupt again. But that’s ok. That’s perfectly normal! And the wonderful thing to come of all of this is that I am starting to feel again. It might sound crazy but if you are in any way like me you’ll know how freeing it can be to experience emotions which you have suppressed for so long.
The only problem now is learning to manage them. Not control, just manage. Teaching my brain that, while I still need it to protect me sometimes, I don’t need it to take over the reins completely. To do that I have started journaling as a way of keeping track of my emotions, and figuring out what triggers certain ones like fear and anger. I also try to sit with my feelings a bit more. Indulge them, figure out what they’re trying to tell me.
So, although on that night back in March I felt my brain try to take over, to give me lots of jobs to do so I wouldn’t have to feel anything, I stopped and chose to allow the emotions out. The fear of what might happen, the joy of no school run on Monday morning, the gratefulness for having a safe home to live in. And since then, every day I have tried to check in with those emotions, as well as being aware of those around me and all the feelings they were experiencing too.
And so, on this, the second day of restrictions being eased and some form of normality being restored, I sit here feeling relieved that our family got through it unscathed. Feeling unease about what life will look like when we return to our usual routines. And feeling grateful for having had this time to slow down, take stock and enjoy some unexpected, absolutely amazing weather!!