Like a Light Switch

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.


Back Porch Americana

I am sitting on the front porch with Carmen, listening to a Google Play radio station called “Back Porch Americana”.  It is a beautiful Fall day here in Atlanta.  There are more leaves on the ground than I can possibly rake up, but many of the trees still have green and splashes of yellow, waiting to be dropped for Winter.  The sun is shining, and the sky is clear.  We sat here last night, too, watching the light of day go out and the orange Halloween lights go on in the windows across the street, shivering against the progressive chill.  I cannot resist the porch swing, the constant swaying lull and the enjoyable mental occupation of keeping it moving, pushing against the ground or the table in a steady, calming rhythm.  This is why I moved here.

I used to post recommendations in my Facebook status updates, a motley mix of things I was enjoying and vague allusions to my chaotic college lifestyle.  I have been thinking about doing so again here, as there are so many things I have enjoyed lately and want to share.

If you have not watched Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, you really ought to.  It is a news-comedy show on HBO, with clips posted to YouTube.  Every Sunday night, John Oliver picks a topic that was prevalent in the news that week and does a ten-to-twenty-minute segment dissecting the issue, utilizing a blend of humor and intensity to present the issue in its most viable form.  What strikes me most about the show, however, is the true journalism represented as he takes on Edward Snowden, patent law, and the precipitation of Ferguson.  If you are new to the show, I recommend beginning with “Surveillance”, “Scottish Independence”, and “Tobacco”.  Then watch the rest of them.

Right now, we are reading White Oleander for book club (my pick).  I have read this book twice before, and it is definitely my favorite contemporary novel.  As I read it again, I am thrilled to find that it has lost none of its power.  I feel that Janet Fitch uses words the way they were intended by whatever governing secret society determines the English canon.  I cannot stop highlighting, as every sentence which is not thematically paramount is too beautifully articulated to overlook.  But, most of all, I am excited about the many conversations that I know we will have when we meet to discuss it.  My book club has been going for over a year now, and it has been one of the most rewarding gatherings in which I have partaken.  Our choices tend to be intense books, from Blindness to The Passage to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Unbroken.

There are so many wonderful things to anticipate in this season.  I have already started shopping for Christmas presents and checking ticket prices to fly home for Thanksgiving.  But it is the little things about which I am most excited.  I want to drive through rich neighborhoods and look at Christmas lights.  I want to play seasonal music every time I am in the car.  I want to carve pumpkins and make cranberry sauce and drive to church surrounded by flames of dying foliage.  I want to sit, bundled, on the porch with spiked cocoa and think about what I have learned from this awful year as it draws to a close.  Hey!  I did that last night.

Happy Fall, dear Reader.


I have a lot of family, and I love them very much. Since my move to Atlanta, however, I find myself torn trying to keep in touch with my other family, the one I have made out of friends and neighbors, while struggling to create a new one here.

Let me go back a bit. When I was in college, I made a lot of friends, friends who are still an integral part of my life. After we graduated, most of them stayed in Houston, and so did I , cultivating and cementing the friendships we had begun in four years of living together, studying together, and playing together. The girls I spent my time with then became sisters to me, and, as I had no siblings, I welcomed their presence in my life. However, in 2013, they were scattered across the country, and I had a choice to make. I chose to leave Houston, but I also chose to do whatever was necessary to keep those friendships strong.

I made other friends through the life I had in Houston, and again during my brief stay at home, in Austin. But I moved again, and left those new friends behind. And now I am in Atlanta, meeting new people, and putting the same effort into caring for them that I exerted before.

I don’t love Atlanta. Some people do, but I am not one of them. And I know I will leave here at some point. I am struggling, at this point, to maintain all of the important bonds I have cultivated in other places. And I am still trying to expand my circle here, to make a family for myself so far from home. But, with each new person I meet, a problem lingers at the back of my mind: Will this person be someone I care for when I move on to a new place, start a new life? Will I have to bear the dreadful disquiet of missing this person when I am gone?

I know how some others approach such a problem. “Missing” is not an issue for them; whether by personality or lifestyle, they are unhindered by that burden. And some people naturally fall out of our lives. But I regret each wonderful, worthy person whom I have let go. And those bonds are not easily reforged. I miss the people I have loved, and terribly. Am I to go through life this way, feeling acutely the pain of distance or the heartbreak of regret? Will I leave behind a piece of my heart in every place I choose to call home?

I don’t have the answers to these questions–I don’t even have a way to start sorting the problem. But I thought that perhaps you, Reader, have felt this pain and could commiserate. Or maybe I just felt that I had something to say again, as this horrible year finally begins to fade.