Experience an Emotion for Once in Your Life

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When I emailed my therapist in March, depressed out of my mind, I tried to make it all seem as glamorous as possible. “Imagine me,” I wrote, “as a Victorian woman of some status, lying on a velvet chaise with my hand on my forehead, shedding tears as fat as quails eggs.” Right before I admitted to wanting to die so I thought I needed a joke to lighten the mood.

My therapist was in Cabo at that time with a spotty wifi connection and her beautiful family of four. I was sitting on an unmade bed with sheets lined in snot from crying about a gallon of tears a day. I lay down a lot. I was cold all the time. I forced myself to eat bland food (bagels with cream cheese, congee fortified with tofu, avocado sushi) despite waves of nausea, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting to die but putting nourishment in my body. I emailed my professors begging for extensions and leeway.

I’ve always tussled with emotions, having both a lot of them as well as a Chinese family who told me feelings were to be compartmentalized then destroyed. Before being depressed, I dealt with emotions by dismissing their validity or utility. I would think, “As a privileged kid coasting through college on my family’s dime, I don’t deserve to be stressed out.” Or, “What’s the point in being sad? It’s not going to un-rape me.” Usually, it was fine. I hunkered down, got good grades, maintained social relationships, widely avoided any major hang ups or breakdowns. If I got really distraught I’d treat myself to Triple-Os or something.

My last year at UBC was crappy enough that didn’t work. I took too many classes, got too little sleep, had a few unfortunate breakups, and carried around the knowledge that in a few months, I’d be out of school; jobless, directionless, and living in Trump-ruled America. By March I was ready to give up. While I knew everything I felt was only temporary, it was intolerable to go on any longer.

I knew I couldn’t commit suicide. My high school, within which I had a very good time, has an unfortunate history with student suicides. In 2015 the Atlantic sent a reporter to Palo Alto to write a long article about the treachery of Silicon Valley school districts and the horrors of my high school. I felt that if I jumped off the Granville Island bridge someone would write another article about how Gunn High School destroys its students so thoroughly that even years later they succumb to its effects, and I couldn’t let that happen on my watch. I recognize it’s pretty silly, but it was enough to keep me on the 14 bus past the bridge and into downtown, all the way to my therapist’s office.

I started seeing my therapist in my third year at UBC, after I realized I never dealt with being assaulted at 18. I spent most of our sessions making blithe jokes about being assaulted (“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times, holy shit Christina! Get your life together!”) and complaining about my parents. Once in a while, my therapist would hand me a stack of tissues and say, “It’s okay to be vulnerable here.” I’d pack back whatever I was on the verge of and crack another grin.

This time I rolled into her office and went for the Cottonelles. It didn’t make any sense to invalidate or deny how fucking horrible I felt. I cried, we talked, I cried some more. I scheduled an appointment for the next week. Since I didn’t have any more therapy insurance for the year, I paid for it out of pocket, and for the next one as well. The tone of our appointments changed. While I was always honest and open during sessions, I didn’t always apply her advice to my life. It felt a little romantic to feel bad sometimes; I liked that I was stoic and humorous about pain. When I saw her in March my only goal was to stop wanting to die all the time and I was pretty much willing to do what I needed to get there.

Her solution ended up being pretty simple. I had to let myself experience a damn emotion for once, then take care of myself. Turns out, feeling bad about feeling bad really just makes the feeling bad even worse. I gave myself the space to ask for extensions from my professors, and to temporarily pause the job search. I leaned on my friends a lot. One day, a friend hauled her PS3 and TV to my house, and kept me company all day. My roommate lent me a much coveted fuzzy plaid blanket. I called a friend from high school for hours some nights, and she patiently listened to me ramble all the way from Berkeley, California. After months of feeling totally anguished, I slowly started to remember what it was like to be a little happy. I still liked to cook, even if I didn’t usually feel like eating. It still felt good to sing along to 2000’s pop music in the shower. I still liked the way I looked in a new red lipstick.  

Telling myself it was okay to feel what I was feeling was a difficult shift, even though it was one I wanted to make. I always thought emotions were some great Everest I had to overcome. In actuality, emotions are just another vital aspect of being alive, like having a conscious or a sense of smell. My therapist told me to treat myself like I’d treat a friend (“Would you tell your best friend to just ‘get over’ a breakup?”) and from there I started to become more comfortable addressing emotions in a neutral, rather than destructive, way.

When I left school I was shaky but standing. I wasn’t really happy, but I wasn’t so much of a mess. When I arrived back in California after my last final, I found another therapist and continued where I left off.

My new therapist is really nice. She’s kind, and she’ll listen to me talk, but she also knows when to be firm (“When you’re done beating yourself up, we can get back to the topic at hand”). Even though I’m not a total catastrophe anymore, I still see her every two weeks just to debrief and optimize. It’s been eight months since March and overall, I’m doing a lot better. I have a job that I really enjoy, and I’m slowly figuring out how to function outside the structures of academia. I’m still friends with the friends that supported me, despite leaving Vancouver. I still have bad days, and really bad days, but I’m better prepared to deal with them. And I have plenty of good days as well.