“When someone gets on the roller coaster to big emotions, you can choose to stay on the platform and wait for them to get back.”
“Just because you have a clown in your life doesn’t mean you have to buy a ticket to the circus.”
I heard both of these ideas in different places, but they’re very similar. If someone is negative, manipulative, demanding, or experiencing extreme emotions, you don’t have to let them drag you onto their ride or into the circus tent. If your parent or your spouse or your friend gaslights you, you can say “you know what, it’s unacceptable to speak to me that way” and walk away. I understand the point of these sayings, and it’s an important message. But what if I’m the only one on the runaway theme park attraction? What if I took myself there? Someone else’s coaster is one thing, but mine is another. Please stop the ride. I want to get off.
When I was younger, I would often become emotionally overwhelmed. At night in my room when I couldn’t sleep, in the back of a church service, in line at the dining hall in college, after giving a presentation, after meeting a group of new people. A shorter list would be of the situations when this didn’t happen. I had no idea why this happened to me, and I wouldn’t find out until I entered my 30’s. In my early 20’s, I learned to take deep breaths and imitate the confidence of the friends I encountered in college. I realized that people often don’t know what to do when someone bursts into tears, can’t stop, and can’t explain why. It’s off-putting and uncomfortable and vulnerable. In the defense of others, I needed professional guidance. Friends weren’t equipped to help me. Friends need to prop one another up once in awhile, not every day.
With my newfound fake-it-til-you-make-it social skills, I did all kinds of things. I became something of a leader among my classmates in college, and later my colleagues in my department as a professional. I gave half hour presentations in another language, I did door-to-door evangelism (I would never do this now, early 20’s me had very different opinions), I organized a committee at work, I crash-course learned how to run an entire academic department, I taught Sunday school, I taught undergraduates. I learned how to make people laugh. People like quippy and snarky and relatable self-depreciation. People like no problem, I’ve got it, I’ll make it happen, I’ll stay until 11 PM, never say no, never get upset. People liked this me. I knew how to get shit done and how to get it done well. One of my bosses said I was the best person at handling stress than anyone he’d met before in his career.
My therapist likens this lifestyle to a kind of big, teeth-clenched smile. You can only hold it for so long. It works in the beginning, but it starts to feel uncomfortable. Eventually it hurts. In my mind, if I kept it up, everyone would love me, and nobody would know I was still a completely terrified, broken homeschooled little girl inside who was afraid to leave the house. And those who knew would forget. But my “keep it together” method started to crack. I broke down in all the in-between times. The always-empty computer lab at school, the bathroom at work, or the shower. I would spend so much energy holding emotions back that I was flooded.
Even after several years working with a therapist, I still have times when my emotions suddenly become overwhelming. It’s not always a deeply rooted issue to be worked through in a therapy session. Sometimes it’s my body reminding me that I didn’t get enough sleep the week before, and this is how that feeling is coming out. Sometimes it’s my mind telling me that I need to stop and learn something. Sometimes I just don’t know the reason.
Two weeks ago we were at a friend’s house for a Pampered Chef birthday party and sleepover/reunion with other friends. I was excited, but nervous. Within thirty minutes of arriving, someone I barely know asked if I was that person who used to have crippling health problems. I truly think she had kind, well-meaning intentions, but I did not expect for someone I met once a decade ago to ask a question like that at a random party run by a kitchenware demonstrator. I flinched. I said yes, but that I’m better now. An hour or two later in the party, she approached me again. In my mind, I wanted to say “I’d rather not talk right now.” Instead I heard myself say alright, and I put on the Big Clenched Smile and over-explained that everything was better, I’m good, life is good. Eventually someone else joined the conversation, and it became about how she uses oregano oil instead of antibiotics. I had a second glass of wine and more cheese to distract myself.
Later that night after everyone else went to bed, I found myself absolutely paralyzed with anxiety. Here was the progression: what could I have said instead, why did I do that to myself, everyone is talking about parenting, everyone here has kids, how do I support my friends who are moms, I don’t want to have kids, what’s wrong with me, what if I have nothing in common with my friends anymore as time goes on, why am I so upset, I can’t calm down, I can’t believe this is happening, this is just like college, my friends are going to think I haven’t changed for the better at all even after all the work I’ve done. You get the picture. It was a classic spiral, or to use our earlier terminology, a roller coaster corkscrew. I couldn’t stop shaking. I could only say to Walter, “I am so afraid. I want to go home. I want to go home.” Stop the ride. I want to get off.
By the time others were waking up in the morning, I had succeeded in bringing my anxiety back down, but the aftereffects of the sleepless, fearful night remained. In the afternoon, my two friends left the kids with the husbands so that the three of us could go for a walk alone. I couldn’t keep two thoughts together in my mind, and I was scattered. I couldn’t tell you half of what we talked about. I was grateful to them for making the space for me to talk, but I was tired from successive nights of no sleep and angry with myself for not able to be in the clear-minded, concise place I know I’m capable of being in nowadays.
In the days since, I have more perspective on why things went down the way they did. And I’m working on being kinder to myself. It helps me to remember that God is very much in the business of loving people who are off-putting, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. He doesn’t cringe or walk away. Regardless of what other people may or may not see, I know I’m learning. I’m spending way more time on the platform than the roller coaster these days. And I like it that way.