I announce at work that my last day will be September 1. This generates a wide range of reactions, from “Oh no, it won’t be the same without you!” to “Well, you’re going to finish this project before you go, right? Because I can’t take anything else on.” I am relieved to have told everyone. I am sad to think of leaving the people I care about. I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I am expected to finish before I go. I wonder if I will spend the rest of my life worrying about money. I feel dizzy thinking that I have no idea what I’ll be doing three months from now, a year from now.
Though I try to self-soothe, I feel a lot of emotional turmoil that is hard to quiet. My thinking slides right into old familiar modes: I am bad, I deserve to die. The difference between now and a year ago is that I recognize now that this is my brain on stress, and this brain doesn’t always speak the truth. Still, it feels bad. I want some relief. I know that hurting myself will bring some relief.
A few days after the last time I burned myself, in late July, my husband saw the burn. He was concerned and caring. He didn’t judge me. He asked if I could share my pain with him, so I wouldn’t have to be alone with it. It was a very loving, moving thing to say. I remember it almost every day.
So I tell myself, he wants me to share this with him. I owe it to him to try.
Me: I’m not feeling so good.
Him: What do you mean, not so good?
Me: You know, agitated, distressed. Like it would be a relief to burn myself.
Him: Oh, no, don’t do that. You don’t need to do that… You can talk to me. What’s going on? Do you know what the distress is about?
So I tell him it’s about work and all the strong and confused emotions. Sometimes I think it’s just the intensity I can’t take. I don’t want to feel so much.
Him: Oh, it’s going to be fine. I know what it’s like to change a job. I have done that many times, including leaving jobs without knowing what I would do instead. But things always came to me. Like the time I gave notice when I worked for [airlines], and everyone thought it was crazy because it was such a good job, but I was deadly bored… [more about that job]… And then when I did all the IT work for the bakery, after a while I couldn’t do it anymore… [more about that job]. And it was all fine. Opportunities just come up. There’s no reason to worry. I never worried.
I look at him, without saying anything. I think: he is missing the point. I think: it must be nice to be so automatically confident that everything is going to be fine. I think: it also must be nice to grow up with encouraging, supportive parents in a country that provides a wide range of economic, social, and physical supports for its citizens (yay Scandinavia!). But this is not my reality.
He continues talking, clearly enjoying the memory of leaving different jobs he did not like and moving to other work he liked better. Inside I am nearly rolling my eyes. Until I remember, wait, the whole point of telling him things is to build closeness. Rolling my eyes does not build closeness. So I interrupt him.
Me: Honey? It’s really good that it was like that for you. Which, actually, I already know, because you have told me these stories before, remember? And I imagine you are offering them to me as encouragement, but it kind of feels like you are telling me my angst is no big deal. And that’s not really helping me cope with my feelings.
Instantly, he sits up taller and looks at me.
Him: Oh my gosh, of course, what am I doing? I’m so sorry, I’m just wandering through my memories. Of course, of course that’s not helpful. It’s not like your own experience at all.
Right away, I feel better. He’s hearing me. He asks me how he can help.
Me: Just be here. Sit by me.
Him: Okay, that’s easy. But is that enough? I feel like I should do more.
Me: You can drive me to my meeting tomorrow morning. I like when you drive me places. I feel cared for.
So he sits by me on the couch, and we watch the Olympics for a bit, and I don’t burn myself that night. He drives me to work the next day. He texts me and checks on how I am feeling.
I know he doesn’t fully get it; he can’t. All my craziness is outside his experience. But he tries, and he lets me tell him when he gets it wrong.
I feel kind of proud that I was able to stop him when he was going down a path that wasn’t helpful. I spoke up. I’ve never done that before. It makes sense that he can’t really get it (and I’m happy, after all, that he doesn’t have a similar background). It makes sense that I have to explain things to him in a way I don’t have to with E. It’s more work than telling her things. But he’s in my real life, not in a therapy relationship with me. It’s worth the effort, I think, for me to keep trying to make him understand, and for him to keep trying to understand something utterly foreign to him. That’s how we reach across the abyss of silence and misunderstanding and find a way to touch each other.