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Against feeling numb

For the longest time, I believed that the smart way to deal with sadness was to power through it. Hide your grief and carry on as though nothing had happened. I stayed productive when bad things happened to me, and that made me feel like I was healthy. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the things I try to bury don’t disappear. They hide somewhere, deep in my psyche, and they make their presence known from that black box. These shadowy feelings are harder to deal with; I set myself up for failure. It would be better to simply feel.

Although I won’t ‘experience’ my pain, its existence, and its lack of resolution, make it hard to be happy. Without my noticing, it becomes an obstacle between me and any sense of joy. Achievement feels less rewarding, conversations feel duller, and my hobbies feel boring. On most days, the best my mood can get is neutral, and even then, there’s a nagging discomfort. A sadness which doesn’t go away. It takes something special for me to feel anything at all. This is how, from the back of my mind, the pain reasserts itself. I can’t register that, though, because those thoughts aren’t “on my mind.” This hidden grief also changes my intuition—my gut sense. I become markedly more pessimistic, and I lose the ability to imagine a better life. Although I’m never quite in pain, I sacrifice a lot of my ability to feel anything.

It’s frustrating to spend most days feeling numb. What’s worse, I can’t pinpoint the source. The responsible thoughts are suppressed, after all. It's impossible, then, to develop coping mechanisms; I don’t know what needs fixing, so I become self destructive, trying to help myself without knowing how to. It’s like rummaging through a medicine cabinet, and taking pills at random, in the hopes that one of them is a cure. Sure enough, my attempts make the pain worse, and they leave me feeling stupid, too. 

Then, the deeper those thoughts disappear into the psyche, the less likely it is that they’re ever resolved. Eventually, they become part of my psychology, whether or not I find a good way to mask the pain. My pessimism turns to a lack of intrinsic motivation, and I’ll only work when I must. The pains turn to depressing patterns of thought, and those affect my ability to deal with other problems. Without recognizing it, I become a worse person.

That being said, numbness is not debilitating. You can write an essay while numb; a pessimist can study for an exam; frustration won’t stop you from doing homework. For all the misery, and the lasting damage that it wreaks, suppression is a productive habit. As long as you can handle the consequences, you will be a highly effective person. In fact, if your unhealthy coping mechanisms are turned inwards—if you suffer those quietly, too—you’re a bona-fide ‘healthy person’ in most people's eyes.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten sick of living life in greyscale. The constant, vague sense of sadness was exhausting. It sucked to have all my joy be muted, filtered through an abiding sense of pessimism. I hated the dark thoughts which would cross my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. My inability to find a ‘fix’ finally forced me to try digging up the pain that I’d avoided. Almost immediately, I became unproductive. All I wanted to do was process the backlog of feelings which I’d been keeping down. Now, I’m having trouble focusing—I have too much to think about. Perhaps I’ve brought too many feelings out of dormancy, but I think that I’ll be ok once I deal with them.

In any case, it feels good to feel again. I know how to help myself now, because I know what’s hurting. Maybe I feel bad, but I’m free from the daily torture of being confused. Finally, I can do something about the things weighing me down. I know where to turn. The only problem is that I still have a GPA, career, and a future to worry about, and those require me to be productive this instant. Maybe I’m happier, but I’ve also become defective.

I wonder, then, what it should mean to be ‘mentally healthy.’ For the longest time, I believed that I was well-adjusted because I got my work done, and because I didn’t miss class or turn in assignments late. Sure, I had my hang-ups, and those sometimes cost me friendships and sanity, but I was successful. To me, mental health was synonymous with the ability to get stuff done—you became unwell when you were unable to work. I realize now that this is absurd, unless your only metric for human health, human value, is the ‘ability to labour’. It should be immediately obvious that this is an inadequate rubric. Things like happiness, hope for the future, ability to enjoy life, are more obvious measures of a good life, and that’s off the top of my head.

Still, I’m seeing the work pile up, and watching as I run out of ways to excuse my lack of productivity, and I’m tempted to push everything down again. I won’t, though; I don’t want to be numb, upset, and confused ever again. Still, I hate the feeling that I must choose between success and health. It makes me think that the way we approach work—the way we expect people to work—is incompatible with mental health. At the very least, it is incompatible with a coherent idea of it. 

For example, it should not be the case that someone who misses two weeks of school (to deal with their feelings) has to then work twice as hard upon their return, or risk failing their finals. It should not be the case that someone must invent an excuse to avoid a class when they’ve had a terrible day. All that does is create a pressure to deal with one’s pain in an unhealthy way, to simply swallow their pain in the name of ‘the hustle’. It pushes people down a road that leads to them being unhappy and apathetic, motivated solely by threats, and other extrinsic motivators. If we want a society that is healthy, happy, and organically driven, then we need to give people the space to feel, productivity be damned.

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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