I have the emotional control of a toddler. In fact, my toddlers (are they even toddlers anymore?) often exhibit more emotional control than I do. The point is that keeping my feelings to myself is not a strength of mine.
This is a way in which I have fundamentally changed since John died. Until John got his diagnosis, my life had been all about keeping my feeling under wraps. I grew up being tacitly taught (oh how ironic that it was tacit!) that showing negative emotion was a sign of weakness. There was to be no crying, no stormy anger, no pissy sulking, no nerves. It was acceptable to show joy or exuberance, I suppose, but certainly the negative was to be kept hidden at all times. We were A Family Who Was Always Fine or Better.
To some extent, that served me well into adulthood, especially in the workplace. That training has made me even-handed and cool under pressure. Growing up avoiding conflict has turned me into someone who seeks peace and tries to resolve tension. I'm incredibly optimistic by nature—something that has perhaps surprisingly not changed since John died—and I think some of that optimism comes from a sense that life is supposed to be good, that the negative is fleeting and best ignored.
Finding out that your spouse is terminally ill just a few weeks after you marry is shocking to the point of near-incomprehensibility. That diagnosis awakened in me a range of emotions that was not going to be relegated to the back burner or ignored until it faded away. I cried buckets of tears and did a lot of yelling; the tears were private and public, the yelling all behind closed doors. I found that I didn't even know how to identify some of the things I was feeling, and was shocked to discover just how broad the "Wow, this is crappy" spectrum truly is.
Over the course of John's illness, through our experiences with various doctors and counselors, as we muddled through a lifetime's worth of living in just over two years, I got better at identifying how I was feeling. As I got better at naming my emotions, I found myself identifying how I felt not only in the context of all-encompassing grief, but also in my day-to-day life. I was shocked to discover that I felt angry all the time! Sure, some of that was feeling grief all the time, but some of it was an awakening to the fact that I'd been feeling negative emotions my whole life, I just hadn't been acknowledging them. And as I stumbled through life in those years feeling bitter about my crappy hand, emboldened by the recognition of my feelings, I became less and less willing to hide them. I no longer felt like I had anything to lose by going public with what I felt. The spouses of the terminally ill are given a lot of latitude to behave in ways outside what is tolerated in the general public, and I took full advantage. It became a habit.
So here I am, 38 years old, completely incapable of keeping my feelings to myself. Good or bad, they are all out there for the world to see. It's the no bullshit philosophy of living at it's finest. Why waste time pretending you feel one way when really, you feel another? Oh, sure, I'm still able to keep a lid on it when called for at work, for the most part. But outside work, it's a free-for-all.
The good news is that I'm generally pretty happy. I'm also generally pretty tolerant and open-minded. The bad thing is that I find myself to be a short-tempered parent (as has been well documented here) and somewhat volatile friend. I've gone from conflict avoider to someone who'd rather have a knock-'em-down, drag-'em-out fight, only to forgive and forget. I relish releasing negative feelings so that I can get to what I really think rather than having what I really think obscured by a bunch of repressed gunk. I'm quick to anger but equally quick to give a sincere apology.
Processing emotions in this way has made this week—which was Spectacularly Crappy with a Side of Awful—both more difficult and easier to deal with. It's been more difficult because I truly feel the bad in a way I never did before. I shielded myself from that in the past. Now I really feel it. And it's not pleasant in the moment. The payoff is that I get greater peace on the other side, and I get through the bad faster for just allowing it to take me over. But wow: it's both wretched and exhausting while it's happening.
We've had two students die at Reed in the past two weeks. I didn't know either of them personally, but as a now-sensitive soul, a parent, and a member of a small, intense community, I found both deaths disturbing. The most recent was earlier this week, a senior who accidentally overdosed on heroin. He was close friends with a student who works in my office, and between that connection, my mom instincts, and my glaring naïveté about all matters drug, I was pretty rattled on Tuesday morning. I work in the public affairs office, and while my job is shielded from media contact, my coworkers were under fire.
Also on the work front, a project to which I'd devoted considerable blood, sweat, and tears was shelved. I'd handled the editorial process poorly, but recovered and managed to find a way to work well with a challenging colleague only to have our labor cast aside. In the grand scheme of things, not such a big deal, but in the context of an already emotional work situation, it was that much worse.
And then. And then! On the flip side of the craptastic craptasticness of dead students and feeling like an inadequate worker, I was on a total Mr. Brady high. The thing about not having any emotional control is that it works both ways. When I feel shitty, I feel really shitty. But when I feel good, I feel really, really good. All that feeling good can make me impulsive and the intensity of the high can be freaky for anyone who's invited to the party.
And so the charming, witty, adorable Mr. Brady and I had been exchanging e-mail and we went out again this past Saturday and it was intense and fun and probably a little reckless, and just what I needed. The aftermath left me feeling a little awkward, but ready to see what happened next.
Except that what happened next was that Mr. Brady gave me the "just friends" spiel. That was a possibility that had not crossed my clueless little mind. He told me that on Tuesday on a midday, post-lunch walk, when I was completely reeling from the news of the student dying from a drug overdose. And even if I hadn't been reeling, I was completely caught off guard, and all I heard was the "wah, wah, wah" sound of the teacher in Charlie Brown specials, and then I said something, rather loudly, as we walked down the street, about being really angry, followed by the pronouncement, "OK! So! This is really awkward! And I'm too angry to be rational right now! I'm leaving!" and I did.
I've gone from keeping too much in to, at times, letting too much out. My interest in Mr. Brady was obvious and genuine. I'm not into the games. I don't think he is, either. But it was perhaps less obvious that my genuine interest was not the same as a need for things to be instantly serious. In the end, we went out on two fabulous dates and it didn't work out. The end. Yet I find myself analyzing, wondering if it was my emotional oversharing that forced the hand. I find myself thinking about finding a balance between keeping things in and letting things out, and about recognizing that letting it all out is going to freak some people the fuck out. In fairnesss, my emotional transparency was not what Mr. Brady cited as the reason for backing off. But I can't help but wonder if at some level, recognized or not, it was just too much too fast.
I also find myself thinking about what I even want from a relationship. It was unreal fun to go out with someone who was smart, funny, and charming. It was a great distraction to think about what to wear, what to say, to send flirty e-mails. It was fun to feel like woman, not a mom or a worker. I've joked with friends that what I really want in a relationship right now is to have that kind of interaction every two weeks or so, no expectations that it becomes something serious but no prohibition against it, either. I just want to enjoy that exhilarating, dating part, the getting-to-know-you part. The part about going to the movies and eating at restaurants and feeling giddy. I need to figure out how to enjoy that without getting so carried away by it that all I can do is feel, feel, feel. 'Cos I think the feel, feel, feel is pretty scary, scary, scary for most people.
What an exhilarating, draining, crazy week. Maddie, Riley, and I are headed down to my dad's house tomorrow; he's been out of town quite a bit and we're all having Plain Ba withdrawal. The plan is to get up, put gas in the car, hit Grand Central, and head out of town. I'm hoping for some sun and for some calm, for a plateau amidst the highs and lows of this last week.