If you’ve read my last two blogs, you know that things have been rough on my side of town recently. Aside from the global pandemic that everyone else is struggling with, J & I lost our sweet fur baby Comet on April 10. Losing a dog or any member of the family is never easy, but doing so amid the chaos of a worldwide crisis makes it all the more heartbreaking.
We also still don’t know what’s going on with our vacation in May, and we’re having some struggles with other obnoxious crap, like horrible neighbors and job stress.
Going through all of this reminds me of other times in my life when literally everything seemed to be working against me, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I handled things then and how I’m doing so now.
I’m okay, as in I haven’t needed to increase my medication or the frequency of my therapist appointments, and I’ve really been making an effort to concentrate on small positives like springtime and funny YouTube videos. I’m trying to keep myself busy by reading, cleaning, and doing organizational tasks, but I’m not going to lie — I’ve definitely been on edge.
My fuse is incredibly short and I feel like there’s a mountain of things I want to fix or accomplish and the tasks seem insurmountable. There’s a lot of frustration and grief coursing through my body and my mind, and I’ve been crying a lot more often and spending more time on the couch than usual.
But the main difference about how I’m dealing with grief and other negative feelings this time around compared to several years ago is that I’m doing everything I can to not get stuck there.
So what does that mean? In the three years that I’ve been doing EMDR therapy, one of the most important things I’ve learned is how to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way and to not let them take over your life.
When I say “negative emotions,” I’m talking about things like grief, sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, or jealousy — those ugly feelings that literally everyone on the planet experiences at one time or another in varying degrees, but for some reason we frown upon people who express those feelings.
I wrote about Toxic Positivity a few months ago, and I truly believe that this bizarre phenomenon is one of the major contributors to people getting “stuck” in negative feelings. When it seems like the entire world is pushing you to be happy, grateful, bright, and “blessed” 24/7/365, we tend to forget how to properly handle ugly feelings when they inevitably pop up, and they end up getting buried and suppressed. Let me give you some examples —
In 2010, my mom was hospitalized for three months battling a life-threatening infection due to complications from kidney dialysis and an autoimmune disease. During this time I literally zombie-walked through life. I was barely eating, I couldn’t sleep or concentrate at work, and probably spent three quarters of every day crying. Everyone around me knew what was going on and acknowledged how terrible and frightening it was. Yet once I provided them with the latest round of bad news, they’d say things like “you gotta stay strong,” “you have to hold it together,” or my personal favorite, “you’re too young to be going through this.”
Why thank you person three decades older. This is ever so helpful advice.
Similar words and phrases were used in 2003 when my grandfather died only a few days after my graduation from high school. I was already struggling with leaving my friends and first love, and losing my Pap was one more devastating blow. I was also experiencing serious trepidation about starting my first job and was entering community college kicking and screaming. Add it all together and you have the perfect recipe for an almost total breakdown.
But yet again, everyone around me kept repeating senseless phrases — “Enjoy this time; you only graduate once,” “Pap wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and “this is supposed to be the best time of your life!”
Again, my sarcastic thanks. I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to be hiding in the bathroom at a graduation party, dabbing uselessly at uncontrollable tears while my friends laugh and pose for pictures a mere 20 feet away. I didn’t realize it wasn’t healthy to clench my teeth so hard to stop those tears from flowing, even at the funeral, because everybody else is crying and someone has to be strong, right? And what kind of horrible person thinks longingly of their sorta boyfriend and the last summer with their classmates while her grandfather’s casket is being lowered into the ground?
On both of these occasions, I spent so much time focusing on “being strong” and trying to “look for positives” that I literally ended up numbing myself just to get through the days. I didn’t know how to process my grief, so numbness became the default. I got so used to this that it became habit for me to not confront any negative emotions I experienced. Anything from traumatic losses to slight disappointments or annoyances became negative beliefs that stuck in my subconscious and eventually led to near-paralyzing anxiety and depression. Sure, I cried and raged and ranted and maybe even threw some things, but then I shoved it away.
It wasn’t until I confronted and processed these “negative” feelings in EMDR that I was able to free myself of those negative beliefs and move forward.
So what am I getting at?
My main point is to not let anyone tell you it isn’t normal or okay to experience negative emotions. When you suffer a loss or experience disappointment or trauma, of course you’re going to be sad, frustrated, or angry. It’s healthy for you to cry, scream, and even spend a day or two lying on the couch and eating your weight in Cherry Garcia. But please don’t stay there.
Coping with losing or Comet is a good example. I know it’s okay to cry and mourn, and it seems like first thing in the morning and right before bed are the most difficult times. I allow myself to kiss his picture, shed a few tears while fingering his collar or paw print impression, but then I have to force myself to turn my attention to something else. Sometimes that’s a TV show or a book, sometimes it’s writing or cleaning. Sometimes when I’m crying over his loss, I catch that pesky inner voice being hyper-critical. He was just a dog, the voice says. It’s been a few days, get over it.
But he was my fur baby for 12 years. I’m allowing myself to mourn him and remember him in a healthy way.
Because despite what Facebook memes say, you cannot actually drift through life in a constant state of happy positivity, whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah out of your ass even when the world seems to be crashing down around you. In my opinion, a sense of fake happiness is even less healthy than negative emotions.
This is true for nearly every circumstance involving loss — in the times of COVID-19, so many people are hell bent on making others feel guilty for having cabin fever or being frustrated with disrupted plans. But this is normal!
Yes, we’re grateful that we’re safe and healthy. Yes, it’s nice to relax at home and not be running a million places all the time. And yes, we know we can still enjoy the sunshine and springtime from our front porches.
But it’s also okay to be bored out of your mind. It’s also okay to be pissed off and devastated that your graduation or wedding or vacation got cancelled or postponed. It’s okay to miss your friends and your Zumba class and reading group. The key to coping with all this is learning how to do it in a healthy way.
Now obviously I’m not a therapist or licensed professional of any kind, but I’m sure that anyone who has been through something difficult in life will tell you that the key to recovering or simply surviving is allowing yourself to feel everything — the good, bad, and ugly — and not getting stuck there.
If you need help doing this, and you’re having a hard time finding support through friends or family, please don’t take it personally if they don’t “get it.” I learned the hard way that a lot of times people tend to say nothing at all or accuse others of being dramatic or “too emotional” when they themselves don’t know how to handle certain situations. If someone has never lost a parent, of course they’re not going to know how to act towards their friend who has just buried their mom or dad. Try to keep in mind that their ignorance is not necessarily a marker of their loyalty and their lack of empathy doesn’t mean you don’t deserve comfort.
Remember, if the people around you aren’t giving you the support you need, seek out someone who’s been there. In person or online support groups can be really helpful, and if this isn’t an option, a professional therapist is never a bad idea.
Stay safe, blogger friends.