I have had several conversations with people lately about the idea of turning oneself off when confronted with intense pain. Listening to Book of Mormon today, I was struck by how universal this concept is, even among people who consider themselves quite comfortable with their emotions. “When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, / Don’t feel those feelings! / Hold them in instead / Turn it off, like a light switch.” I know that, to some degree, I have done this. So today I would like to share some of those experiences. Please feel free to share some of your thoughts as well–I would love to know what my readers think of this idea.
It is well known that the body will shut itself down in a moment of unbearable pain, when it cannot process the trauma of being torn apart. Even when people experience intense physical pain, they will often remember, not the pain, but the feelings associated with it. In 2011, I was diagnosed with a Chiari I malformation and underwent surgery. If you have not heard of such a thing, you are probably not a medical student. Basically, the hole in my skull through which my spinal cord connects to my brain was too large. My cerebellum was hanging into the hole, and brain fluid was leaking into my spine. I experienced debilitating headaches–at one point, I had to call my mother and ask her to come to Houston (from Austin) because I could not get off my bed without augmenting the severe, vomit-inducing pressure in my skull (I also had superhuman hearing, so that was fun). To correct the problem, they cut my brain sac, shaved the bone where it was pressing on my brain, and patched the dura where it had been cut.
The night after the surgery was a living hell. I was alone in the neuro ICU, where my family could not stay the night with me. I had woken up from a terrifying surgery dream (likely the result of anesthesia mixed with my OCD medication), into a persistent, inalienable haze of pain. I threw up regularly for the first two hours, each time incurring so much pain that I was sure I had popped the patch inside my head (this can happen with any kind of exertion for about six weeks after surgery). I remember darkness, and the cries of my fellow patients, many of whom had mental disorders that kept the ward restless. I could not sleep through the pain–it was a night of fitful attempts and longing for the day and for my mother. There was a constant supply of pain meds, but they only burned sharply entering my veins and did not do enough to mitigate the unearthly ache. I had morphine, and I remember it as inadequate.
But I cannot remember what the pain itself felt like. I remember how I felt, trapped in some strange purgatory of water and chloraseptic, paralyzed and afraid and extremely hungry. But I cannot describe the precise sensation of the pain. The memory simply is not there.
I have learned that some people do this same thing when they encounter emotional pain. I first noticed myself turning my emotions off when I watched The Flowers of War with Carmen. I generally like to let movies all the way in–rather than as an escape, I tend to use movies as a way to participate in the human experience. But The Flowers of War, although an excellent and genuinely redemptive film, was just too sad for me to handle on my first viewing. The movie is about The Rape of Nanking, and it is a very graphic depiction of the range of horrors committed when Japanese troops invaded China in the Second Sino-Japanese War (a conflict later absorbed into WWII). At the most gruesome part of the movie (which I absolutely think you should watch), I could not feel anything else. So I stopped feeling. I simply watched the movie without letting it affect me emotionally.
I understand that this example is flawed, although I maintain that it is a good illustration. I understand that it was only a movie, and that even the reality of the events depicted is very far removed from me. It happened a long time ago, in a place and culture very far removed from my own. Although the whole thing was horrible, the events themselves had no impact on me personally. However, I have removed myself emotionally from situations that were much closer to me, much more a part of my daily reality.
My family places a huge emphasis on Christmas. We love giving presents, and we love the ritual of Christmas morning. Kathy comes over at 9am, and we open our Christmas trays, which have cards and candy from Santa (do not start with me). We eat German pancakes (which are not pancakes), clean up the breakfast dishes, and get completely ready for the day. Presents then proceed in a specific order, and the opening takes 2-3 hours. We do stockings, then Santa presents (just let it go, folks), then gifts to each other, taking turns and marveling and photographing every present. It is one of my favorite family traditions.
In 2013, however, we had to change things a little bit. It was our first Christmas after Omi moved into a memory care facility, and we went to open presents with her first. Walking into the facility, I remember knowing that I absolutely could not handle the experience emotionally, that I would not be able to process the tragedy. We were losing our matriarch, even as she was losing herself. We had presents for her, presents that I knew she would not really comprehend or appreciate, just as she could not comprehend or appreciate that it was Christmas, a holiday that is sacrosanct to our family. So I turned off my emotions. I knew that I could not go through the motions while feeling the love and nostalgia and pain, so I felt none of those things. I simply watched myself and my family celebrate with our beloved mom and Omi, detached from the experience, watching it as I would watch a movie. Indeed, I was the only member of my family who was not a complete wreck that morning.
I would like to say, at this point, that I do not mean to be trite about the sadness of others’ experiences. I understand that not everyone can do this, or even wants to. My therapist friend(s) who read this may say that it is an extremely unhealthy way of coping with sadness. Perhaps it is. But I am grateful, in moments of intense pain, to be able to detach myself from the emotions that can hinder my ability to function. I equate it to pushing back extreme stress in order to accomplish a goal in the short term (which became a lifestyle for me in college). And, like pushing back extreme stress, it is not a sustainable model for going through an emotional life. But, for short periods of time, I find it extremely useful. I do not truly believe that emotional people can (or should) turn their emotions off entirely. But I think that it is okay to push them aside for a moment, to be dealt with later, so that they can hold a smile and help unwrap a few presents.