Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Resurrecting Humpty Dumpty

I used to fall apart regularly. Sensitive children do that. Interactions with unfamiliar people or with familiars angry or sad chapped my insides just as bitter cold does exposed skin. Young, I tended to seek solace in my left thumb, my quilt, and the floor of my bedroom closet. Like the boy in the film The Sixth Sense who could see dead people, I claimed a sixth sense, but mine involved the ability to see through straight into a person's emotional core. What I observed often terrified me, because as a child I lacked the experience to attribute feeling to its proper source, or indeed to any source at all.

Today we use the term 'empath' to describe a kid like me.

I never much enjoyed it, my radar for others' emotional pain. I ended up deliberately structuring my life to involve a small but close set of acquaintances and friends, and by and large this strategy has limited the number of times I fall apart. Also, I choose to invest my energy mostly in the daily obligations of life as a parent, spouse, and co-worker. When I feel myself getting pulled into another person's emotional life, I take one step back. Please understand: I am not a bad friend. One step is not very far, but it seems enough to preserve my well-being. 

I had planned to be a therapist, and I would have made a damn fine one, it's true. (Does this show of confidence make me seem boastful? I've committed to being honest here.) But even early in my training I understood, with some shame and more regret, that I would never be able to leave clients' woes in the office, where at the end of the day they surely belonged. So I chose differently, and I have not often been sorry.


All this is to say that I haven't felt truly overwhelmed in a long time.

Until this week. The details are trivial in and of themselves. It was their timely conspiring that felled me. And so I found myself parking my car in the lot of a grocery store where I'd intended to shop and sobbing noisily into the steering wheel. The ugly cry that Claire Danes has perfected in the TV series Homeland, you know the one: hiccuping breaths, squinchy eyes, puffy red cheeks, snotty nose. A look even less pleasing on an adult than it is on a child. A woman settled herself into the car facing mine, and her gaze met mine, briefly. She smiled, not unsympathetically, and I was grateful, both for the flash of understanding I saw there and for her seeming respect for my privacy.

I called my husband, and I was blubbering, but he listened, and said the right things (things that reminded me: We have known each other for over twenty years, and those two decades, they do matter), and offered to do the right things, and there I was, grateful again, both to be known, really known, and to have a number I can call when I fall apart. More than one number, in fact: how lucky am I! My thumb, my baby quilt, my bedroom closet: two of these are lost to me, and the other is not the comfort object it once was. But at the other end of the line, a person who gets me, and in spite of all the petty grievances is willing to catch me should I stumble. When you think about it, isn't that why we marry?

And so what I am grateful for, on this Thanksgiving, is that I am known, through periods of strength and frailty, and that my partner does not turn away but towards.

With that comes my wish that you might feel the same about a person in your life, someone who will gather up your pieces and sew you whole again, no matter how crooked the seam. And if there's no such person, may there be a stranger in another car, observing you not with indifference but with love. An empath. Yes, may there be an empath.


Amanda said...

Gorgeous. You, the messy, and the love. xo

Veronica said...

I had an intense experience over the weekend which I was having so much trouble processing. Sunday morning after a rough Saturday night, my husband said and did all the right things. Later, a phone call with a family member did the rest. By Sunday afternoon The Big Scary Thing had been disarmed, downsized, and put into perspective.

Quadelle said...

Having an empath along the way can definitely help, but there is no substitute for being known - truly known, and truly cared for.

InTheFastLane said...

I am so glad you have that one. Sometimes it takes us time to really understand what a blessing this is.

alejna said...

I, too, am glad that you have such a person in your life. And that I have one in my own life, too.

Much love to you, dear friend.

Christine said...

I am an empath, too. A sponge that sops up everyone's mess. My husband routinely helps me hold it together when it is all too much. We're lucky to have these men. xo

De said...

A doctor of mine (a man) once described me as a house with 60 amp electrical service in a 200 amp world: I have to choose carefully what gets plugged in when, or risk blowing a fuse.

Sometimes deciding where to "invest my energy" leaves me feeling both of the women who approached King Solomon with the baby.

juststormy said...

This is wild. I just found myself in a parking lot this past weekend, crying in the car against the steering wheel just so. Unfortunately, I had no other acknowledgement or anyone to call. It's good that you did. That's nice. Thanks for sharing this. I need to look more into the "empath."