The armrest on the bus was stabbing me in my side. The seat on the small van was too small
You're Not Dead Inside. You Have Alexithymia.
Why you think you can't feel.
It's always interesting to hear what some people describe as traumatic. An annoying date. A heated argument. A skipped meal.
A friend of mine used to go on about how a professor gave her PTSD. Those were the days I genuinely believed nothing bad had ever happened to me. I got ambushed by crying fits. I had night terrors. No matter how my day went, I was five minutes away from freezing over with rage.
It never occurred to me there was a reason.
Then one day a colleague was describing a feud with her parents as traumatic. I wanted to say, "Sure, but has your mom ever tried to kill you?" Fortunately, I thought better of it. Then my mom died. Somehow, that finally prompted me to start unpacking all the horrible stuff.
If there's one thing I've learned from psychology, and life, it's that going through trauma changes you.
We're four years into a pandemic. We're fighting fascism. The planet's ecosystems are collapsing. Before all this, only three or four percent of the population really understood trauma.
Now lots of us do.
Trauma survivors deal with a specific problem, something I didn't know there was a name for. We struggle to feel. We struggle to see what we're feeling when we feel it. We struggle to explain what we're feeling, to ourselves and everyone else. Sometimes it feels like numbness.
But that's not quite it, either.
Often, we don't know what we went through was "abuse" or "neglect" until later in life. So we wind up in adulthood, struggling to form connections, struggling to make friends, struggling to relate to others. We come off as rude or indifferent. Everyone calls us names. They describe us as cold, antisocial, toxic, even psychopathic. They say we're dead inside.
Well, maybe you're not.
You have alexithymia.
A psychologist at Harvard named Peter Emanuel Sitneos came up with the term in the 1970s. Since then, there's been decades of research on the inability to feel and express emotions. Humans are supposed to be "adept at differentiating, regulating, and responding to their emotions."
Not you, though.
You stare in awe at people who can just rattle off how they're feeling at any given moment. It looks so easy for so many. Something happens to them and they have an emotional response. For you, it can take hours or even days for something to sink in and then rise back up. You find yourself having to sit down and think long and hard about your emotional state.
Sometimes, you get it wrong.
It's not that you don't feel. It's just that you don't want to. You don't have time. So you just do what you did when the trauma was happening. You go into survival mode. You get through the day.
Nobody ever cared how you felt anyway, right? Nobody ever asked. And if they did, it was just some kind of trap. It only led to criticism, someone telling you it was wrong to feel that way, or you should change how you feel. So you learned to just keep it all hidden, especially from yourself.
It was safer that way.
Now things like pure joy or carefree happiness feel impossibly out of reach. Even when good things happen, even when you've ostensibly got everything you want, there's this thing in the way. It's like a scratch on a camera lens. You don't know what it is or how to get rid of it.
You can't tell the difference between a state of arousal and an emotion. You think they're the same thing. You know irritation and frustration all too well. You know pleasure and comfort. Sometimes these basic sensations are the only things you've got. You can't handle anything more complex.
Nobody ever showed you.
You see these traits in autism, but you don't have to be on the spectrum to experience them. In fact, experts have estimated that roughly one in ten people struggle with it, and that was before.
These days, I suspect there's more.
You've probably noticed that people are having trouble dealing with their emotions now. You see it everywhere from school to work. It's like everyone has forgotten how to regulate themselves.
Let's put aside Covid brain damage for a minute and think about the trauma that everyone continues to live through. The waves of death, disaster, and disability haven't stopped. We've simply been forced to pretend they're okay. Do you know what happens when tens of millions of people stuff their emotions down and pretend they don't exist?
When you experience alexithymia, your symptoms can look a lot like other personality disorders. You'll miss social cues. You'll find it's hard to know what someone else is feeling, even when they try to tell you. You'll see their emotions, but you won't know how to respond.
You won't know what to do.
A Stanford study in Psychological Bulletin found strong links between alexithymia and child abuse and neglect. You know, it makes sense. Your parents are supposed to teach you how to process your emotions. If they're too busy hurting you, that's going to have consequences.
Our ability to read and respond to emotions requires a certain amount of bandwidth. It requires a certain baseline we can call "normal." If years of trauma disrupt your sense of normal, you're going to have a harder time parsing out what you feel. It's going to alter your perceptions.
Your brain might try to forget.
The rest of you can't.
If you've been through trauma, you know the strange split that happens when your brain and your body are crosswired. That's part of the reason we don't know how we feel. We have lots of residual pain and anger that color our perceptions of what's going on in the present. You could think of them as shadow emotions, feelings that linger and haunt you.
They're there, even if you don't know.
In fact, there's more than one kind of trauma. The higher your level of trauma, the more likely you are to develop alexithymia.
There's acute trauma, where something horrible happens to you once. That's bad enough. Then there's chronic trauma, like abuse. And finally, there's complex trauma. You live in a state of unending stress and fear for years, even decades. As Bessel van Der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps The Score, that kind of trauma rewires you.
There's no going back to a pre-damaged self. You have to make a new person out of the pieces.
Stop for a moment and consider the fact that you've been living in a state of perpetual stress for four years now. Sure, it doesn't feel like that every hour of every day anymore. Your brain and body have adjusted somewhat. There might be times of the day when you don't think about it at all. You've developed safe routines and automatic responses. Still, we live in a world now where a simple lunch could turn your life upside down.
That's a lot.
On top of that, you've seen a side of humanity you can't unsee. You've witnessed a depth of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and deception you might've suspected. Now it's confirmed. It's been confirmed a dozen times over, and now you have to carry that with you.
As someone who spent three decades losing their mom to severe mental illness, I can relate. As someone whose dad used to make fun of her until she cried while blowing cigarette smoke in her face, I can relate. As someone who's been called a vampire and a sociopath their entire life, I can relate. It's no wonder you can't figure out what you're feeling.
You're feeling ten things, all at once.
It's not that you don't feel.
It comes in a haze, and you can't pull it apart. So the feelings just envelop you in a cloud. And so you go through your day with a cloud of emotions hanging over you.
You just ignore it, as long as you can at least. If you've already been through trauma, you're used to that. You're good at it.
Sometimes, it's the only way.
It's not hopeless.
The research on alexithymia has come a long way. Therapy helps. So does reading, especially literary fiction.
Even watching a good show can train you to identify and process emotions. It's called affect matching.
When we affect match, we seek out forms of art and entertainment that reflect our emotions. Those forms of expression help us unravel the chaos. They teach us what to do. They show us a path.
So don't feel guilty about your sad, angry music. Don't feel guilty about your apocalyptic shows and movies. Don't feel bad about sitting in a dark, quiet place and listening to disturbing music.
You aren't dead inside.
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