Fucking Feelings.

I’ve spent most of my life suppressing my emotions. I don’t know when it started or why, but it became as much a part of who I am as my shiny bald head, hairy back and biting sarcasm. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept the world at bay.

I built walls. Massive walls of brick and stone that separated me from my emotions and from the rest of the world. I shunned most human connection. I took introversion to the extreme, and even managed to develop an unhealthy dose of social anxiety as icing on my screwed up cake.

The funny thing about walls though, is that something always gets through. For me, it was always anger, frustration and fear. As much as I tried to not to feel, to keep everything hidden from even myself, negative emotions kept coming through.

I kept the fear hidden. It was a shameful secret, the antithesis to the image I needed people to see. I couldn’t allow anyone to see how afraid I was of failure and of being seen as a failure. The fear drove me away from risk and pushed me into a safe but unfulfilling lifestyle. For some, fear of failure pushes them to try harder, to master skills they once thought impossible. I gave my fear the wheel and let it drive. Safety. Security. Low risk, low reward.

Anger and frustration on the other hand, they were like mustangs running wild on the beaches at Assateague. Once they got out, any semblance of control was lost. In some warped way, that anger was the only emotion I felt OK manifesting. It became a trait people remembered about me, and in a truly misguided way, I was proud of it.

This is the part where I tell you about the terrible childhood I had. My abusive parents, dire poverty and prison like home-life. But none of that would be true. My folks were fantastic, I had plenty of freedom, a healthy dose of responsibility and a few close friends. By most accounts, my childhood was idyllic.

I don’t know where the need to suppress the best parts of me came from. I’m not sure why I felt like rage was an acceptable manifestation of emotion. Blame antiquated notions of masculinity if you want. Blame TV. It doesn’t really matter does it?

Don’t get me wrong. I knew I was walking a fine line. I punched walls. I shattered a knuckle punching a TV once, and spent a good deal of my time fixing things I’d broken in fits of rage. Ask me someday about the two shower stalls I bought in the same day for the same bathroom. It’s a hoot.

Discussing my temper though isn’t why we’re here is it? Emotional suppression worked for me for a long time. I kept people out. The few I let in rarely stayed long. I’d let them in a little too far or too long, get scared, and push them out. Nobody could know the real me. They couldn’t see me for the insecure emotionally unstable child I knew myself to be. So I blocked. I parried. And sometimes I ran.

Common sense should have told me I had problems long before I sat on the couch and stuck a pistol in my mouth. Healthy people just don’t go through life avoiding happiness. You’d think a smart guy like myself would realize that right? You’d think. But I didn’t, at least not on a conscious level. I’m alive by happenstance. A friend reaching out at just the right moment kept me from pulling the trigger. The second time, I don’t know what stopped me. Fate. Chance. I just don’t know.

Over time, I became sadistically hard on myself. Happiness would be allowed when I reached some arbitrary level of “good”. I couldn’t be happy because I wasn’t good enough yet. If I just became a better father, maybe then. I needed to be a better husband. If I just made more money. If I finished home repairs and remodels with the skill of a seasoned contractor, maybe then. A better writer. A better friend. A better human being. Some of those things I got better at. Most of them I didn’t.

The more I punished myself for my mistakes, real or perceived, the more I pushed away the people who mattered. The less connection I had to others, the further I sank into depression. The further I sank, the less connection I had. Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

Eventually, I alienated friends. I pushed my wife away. I kept my kids at arms length. And still I battled the demon of my depression and self flagellation. It became an endless cycle. I stopped believing I was a good man. I was something else. I wasn’t intentionally evil, but I saw the hurt I was causing people and I punished myself for it.

I came to believe the lies in my head. I saw truth in the impish whispers. “You’re worthless. Better off dead. Unlovable. Unworthy of trust, loyalty, kindness. You can never redeem yourself. You are a usurper, a leech. A blight on humanity. You can never do enough good to overcome the hurt you’ve caused.” I believed every word of it. Sometimes I still do.

Punishing myself left me hollow and sometimes numb. Except the pain and the fear. They were the only things that got through. Eventually, even anger was an emotion I couldn’t allow. I lost control of life and I existed for no good reason other than I wasn’t yet dead. Don’t’ get me wrong, I wished for death every night when I went to sleep and woke up disappointed every morning, another wish not granted.

A marriage can’t survive that kind of punishment. I retreated so far that I forgot who I was. Any idea of the man I was or could be was gone. In its place was a shell with my face but none of what made me “ME”. I wasn’t much more than a corporeal ghost.

I’ve been seeing a therapist. I think she may be a 9th level wizard or maybe a Jinn. I’m really good at hiding myself, at blocking and parrying as people push and pry. But she persists. And she wins. She draws clarity from the muck mire of my mind.

At first it was exhausting and I was utterly useless when I left the office. My body had energy, but my mind was spent. And something odd happened. I realized how wrong I had been. I saw the changes I needed to make. She didn’t tell me what to do, but I saw it. I saw the futility of what I had become. We are meant for more than becoming automatons and walking corpses.

We are meant to FEEL dammit! Feelings are powerful though, and when you’ve shut down the well for so long, opening the tap too quickly can lead to disaster. I’d never learned a healthy way of working through my emotions because I rarely let myself have them. Imagine a ten year old trying to handle a pressurized fire hose. You get the picture.

When emotions get out of control, we tend to act and think irrationally. Its like being on a roller coaster with no safety restraints. One moment, you feel like maybe it’s going to be OK, that you’ve got a good handle on things. The next you’re grabbing on with everything you have hoping not to be thrown from the ride.

That’s a tough place to be, especially when you’re still trying to forgive yourself for being yourself. In order to learn how to feel, you have to feel. There is no flight simulator with which to practice before getting into the cockpit. Sometimes people will get hurt. Sometimes you’ll get hurt. Sometimes, no good will come of it, and still, somehow, you have to forgive yourself to move forward.

Sometimes panic took me. I hurt people I love, and doing so for the right reasons didn’t make it any easier to stomach. Forgiveness is proving difficult. I still don’t have a good way of managing these newish emotions. The fear still nips at my heels during the day, making me wonder if I can keep it together long enough to get home and cry into my pillow. Yet, I persist.

Where do I go from here? I don’t know. But I know I’m going to be different. I’m going to somehow learn to forgive myself. Along the way, I’ll figure out how to allow my emotions to exist without squelching them and banishing them to the dank recesses of my mind. Beyond that? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

Fucking feelings man. Turns out you need them, ALL of them.

Shawn Henfling is an aspiring photographer and writer and step-father. He has made public his continuing battles with Depression and Anxiety in an effort to let others know they are NOT alone. Shawn currently sits on the Centre County Mental Health /Developmental Disability/Early Intervention advisory board.  One of his proudest moments was participating in the #NotWeakJustHuman PSA (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/shawn-henfling-is-notweakjusthuman-lbkr/)  A salesman by day and writer/photographer by night, he stays busy to maintain a distance between him and the demons in his head. See Shawn’s photography and blog at his personal website.