It’s a mercy, really. I never know I’m devastated until the misery has lifted. Never know how much pain I was in until I’m starting to feel better.
There’s something about me that makes it so I shut down once I start feeling too much. The lights are on of course, but nobody’s home. The emotions of suffering are within me, but I turn my attention away from them. I filter them out.
Can’t explain how I do it. It’s not a conscious process.
It functions more like a security system. A form of automatic self-protection. So long as I’m feeling something, things are not so bad. Even if I’m crying. Or worried. Irritated. Upset.
If I’m still engaged with my own emotions, it’s not so bad.
It’s when I go numb that it’s time to worry.
Only Feeling Pain When You’re Safe to Feel It
I said at the beginning of this essay that this coping tendency was a mercy. And it is. But like most everything else, there’s a duality present. A paradox. Because there’s also a cruelty to it.
Because when I’m out of danger, it’s then that the feelings come and find me. They’re not eradicated but on a delay. They wait until it’s safe enough for me to feel them, and then they emerge demanding payment. And sometimes they charge interest.
Which honestly would be fine — if I were the only person in my life. But I’m not.
And after decades of trauma, years in which I lived my life auto-self-numbing during the most dangerous parts of it, I reached a safe place. A good support system. People who genuinely and authentically cared for me.
And the moment I found those people, I completely fell apart.
It was the worst timing. In survival mode, I had been giving my best to people who didn’t really deserve it. And now here I was surrounded by people who absolutely did deserve my best — and not only was I unable to match my former efforts — I could barely keep myself held together.
In an ideal world, I would have given them more. But I had very little left. I was wounded, confused. Exhausted.
I Resolved Not to Squander an Ounce of Support
And making matters worse, they saw this and supported me even more. They saw not a wretched person but a wounded one who had collapsed. And resolved to nurse me back to health.
I was backed into a corner. I needed their help desperately but resented that I needed it. And yet the last thing I wanted to do was show a lack of gratitude by rejecting their help.
I made a promise to myself then that I would pay them back someday. And in the meantime I would show my gratitude by making sure I didn’t squander an ounce of that support. I would use it to heal and even grow.
The New Best Is Different, Probably Better
Recovery was ugly. Long. Painful.
But it worked.
It would have seemed impossible once upon a time, but my new best is arguably better than my old. Perhaps I was faster once. More colorful, bold. My old best probably had higher peaks (and lower lows).
My new best is more reliable, grounded, patient. Reliable is not what they tell us to primarily strive for as children. Not in Disney movies, intramural sports, or standardized testing. You’re commanded to shine brightly, not consistently.
At best, reliability is touted as a “well, duh, you need to have good attendance and keep your word” level of expectation. Nothing that makes you commendable or special.
But in real life, a little consistency can go an awful long way. Showing up. Being there. And not just when it suits your whims.
You Don’t Always Get Credit for What You Do, and Sometimes You Have to Clean Up Other People’s Messes
I’ve met a lot of other people over the years who were where I was. People who have hit that point in their lives where they’re just finding an environment in which they feel safe. For some of them, it’s the first time in their lives.
And like I did, they find that it’s in this safe environment that they truly begin to feel and process things that they weren’t safe to feel before: Pain, fear.
And of course, it isn’t pretty. It never is.
They, too, express frustration at the unfairness of it. That it’s the people who are supportive that have to work through a mess that other people, people who didn’t treat them nearly as kindly, helped to create.
People who had nothing to do with the original injury are the ones sewing you back together.
Unfortunately, my dears, that’s life. We don’t always get credit for the things we do. And sometimes we have to clean up another person’s mess.
The Best Thing to Do If Someone Helps You Is to Use That Support to Thrive
Is it fair? Doesn’t always feel that way in the moment.
But here’s the thing: If you’re the one being helped, you have a way to make it fair. Not necessarily in the moment, not while you’re emotionally exhausted with your resources tapped. But that’s not your job, to make it fair. Your job is to recover. To heal.
And the best thing you can do to pay back the person who’s supporting you, who’s helping you through the pain and trauma is to make the most of their assistance.
Because as someone who has been on both sides of recovery, as the helper and the helped, I’ll tell you: There’s nothing in life quite as gratifying as helping another person become a happier, healthier version of themselves. Especially if they are truly grateful for your support
The best way to show a person you are grateful for their help — beyond thanking them — is to not squander the support but to grow as well as you can. To thrive.
Even though that progress takes a lot longer than you want it to and doesn’t move in a smooth linear way.