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The Emotional Numbness

Posted Feb 17 2012 12:00am
Cover of "Feelings"

Cover of Feelings

Those of us who live with conditions that cause us to be in chronic pain not only suffer from physical symptoms but also from emotional ones. I am bringing this up today because I know that I am not the only one who has these feelings.  It is not something I am proud of but it is something I think many of us ignore as do our doctors and even our families.  Living with chronic pain leaves a person emotionally numb. It is nearly impossible not to feel like this on occasion.

It has taken me a long time to come to this realization and going on four years living with constant pain, I know these feelings are a part of living with the pain from RA and fibro. When someone asks you how you are feeling, do ever find yourself not sure how to answer that question? I think that we focus so much on the pain that we don’t acknowledge our emotions so we shut down.

It can be hard to express fear, anger or sadness if the pain in your body screams louder than the pain in your heart. I, too, am guilty of suppressing my feelings in order to protect myself.  I find that my truest emotions are too overwhelming and I have to control them. The problem with doing that is that they all come out at once. I am not completely numb nor am I numb all the time.  I generally find myself experiencing this numbness during and after a painful flare period. Many of us are aware that this is part of the diseases and the pain we live with.  It is also a result of the medications we take. However, the constant suppression of emotions is unhealthy and has an effect on a person’s total well-being. 

If you are still not sure what I am talking about.  Think about a time in your life when you had to keep it together. Especially if there was someone else involved, i.e. your kids or elderly parents.  When my brother was first diagnosed with cancer, I held things together for my mother.  I made all the decisions for her and I did everything in my power to be strong so as to give her hope and to allow her to feel at ease.  I became emotionally numb and I described it to being a small ship in a storm hanging on despite the damage to it.  After my brother passed away, all my emotions came out at once.  I was angry and sad at the same time.  I took out my anger and pain on anyone who got in my way.  I even questioned my faith in God.  That is what emotional numbness is and it isn’t any good for us.

I have met people that feel anger, sadness and jealousy are emotions that should be bottled up in order to live better – whether it is spiritually or because of certain expectations. Suppressing feelings means that you cannot be true to oneself.  Your underlying feelings become a personal sabotage. This is what you start to see: I am doing everything all right but why is nothing going my way. People who hold on to these feelings do this for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it is a coping mechanism – after all, living with chronic pain requires some resistance and sacrifice.  It could also be because they were raised in an environment where feelings and intense emotions were unacceptable. The problem with ignoring our feelings is that they eventually pull us down. Unfortunately, so many of us have had negative experiences that force us to keep our emotions to ourselves.  In the case of chronic illness, we have gotten to the point we feel no one understands us or even believes us.  We suppress our feelings to the point where we become afraid of them and we try to conduct ourselves despite those feelings.  We know all too well that there is nothing healthy or spiritual in doing so but we do it anyway in the name of coping and acceptance by others.

I say this because I am very guilty of this and it has led me to feel emotionally numb.  I am in physical pain nearly every day of my life.  I don’t want to complain because I don’t want people to see me as incapable or as a constant complainer.  Also, my life doesn’t leave room for complaining and even expressing my feelings.  Life goes on and how I feel has nothing to do with it.  Bills have to paid, work at the office has to get done, my kids can’t raise themselves, etc. Bingo! – I shut down in order to cope with pain and with life.

Up until recently, my numbness was my way of coping.  It has taken me a long time to acknowledge my feelings and to be open about them.  Chronic illness and pain isn’t the only reason I had a wall around me.  My parents were wonderful parents but they taught me that opening up about life’s challenges wasn’t appropriate.  They came from a cultural background that believed in a showing a tough exterior and not allowing anyone to see behind closed doors.  While I love them for always trying to protect from the perception of the outside world, I often wish that they spent less time worrying about what people thought.  When I was a kid, they protected me but as an adult, I was on my own.  While married to my first husband, I never told anyone what I was going through not even my mother.  I got used to hearing “what will people think?” that I learned to suppress my emotions and feelings.  My marriage ended and everyone single person in my life thought I was wrong for walking away because it seemed like I had this perfect life.  But here I was struggling to pick up the pieces after a nightmare of a marriage.  Until I owned up about those feelings and talked what I actually went through, I didn’t believe it myself.

After my diagnoses of RA and fibro, I found myself struggling with my emotions.   I felt this sense of anger and injustice. It wasn’t fair – hadn’t I been through enough already? Was I a bad person since bad things kept happening to me? I felt so helpless and felt like I somehow deserved this cruel fate. In the beginning, I struggled to get others in my life to understand what I was going through and that further added to what I was going through. As a result, I suppressed my feelings in order to survive. Needless to say, that first year after my diagnoses was a pretty tough year.

These days, I know that in order to cope, I have to discuss and acknowledge my feelings.  When I felt myself dealing with emotional numbness, I stop to confront what I am feeling and emotionally process these emotions.  I tell myself it is okay to feel sad or angry at what whatever it is I am experiencing.  These emotions are normal and should be expressed, not suppressed. Self-talk is an important part of this.  In the past, I would tell myself to get over it and move on but these days, I allow myself the occasional pity party. I have also learned that it is okay to talk to someone else. Sometimes, just simply speaking to someone, anyone, including a professional, makes all the difference in the world.

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