Trigger Warning: be kind to yourself as you read. In addition, This guest post does contain language that some may not feel comfortable reading.
What is there to say about emotions? In the life of a Traumatized Motherfucker… a whole lot.
They’re either here, making their presence known in an overwhelming manner that leaves you debilitated to handle the rest of your personal stressors OR out to sea, floating far away from your present plane of existence for indefinite periods of time.
Emotions remain a confusing, sometimes elusive, and always unpredictable part of my life. “Go big or go home” seems to be the name of the game. And for everyone sitting in the stands… well… it’s always going to be a show, that’s for sure.
Somedays you might interact with me and think, “that is the coldest, most monotone bitch I’ve ever met.” Other times, it’s more of a “holy shit, that was a wild ride” theme park experience. Which Jess are you going to get today? Depends largely on what all is going on in my life and my trauma brain.
What’s the difference between these two emotional states, psychologically speaking? Usually my level of dissociation.
Origins; The emotional “Switch”
Growing up, I was always told that I was “too emotional.” Too sensitive. Too full of feelings that inconvenienced other people.
To be fair… Yeah, I cried when bugs hit the windshield. When I saw ten-day-old roadkill. When my brothers mocked me behind my mom’s back.
But also, for valid reasons. Like when my only friend at school ditched me for a cooler kid, just like all my prior friends had. When my dad wanted nothing to do with me as a youngster. When he skulked around the house breaking things.
Sure, I had feelings. I definitely had abundant empathy plus some unfavorable life factors that stirred up emotions. And I wasn’t able to just “turn it off” whenever my throat started choking up… which I vividly remember, made my family mad.
But don’t worry, Fuckers, I learned eventually.
When I was in high school I learned to dissociate very well. I remember the day distinctly – my oldest brother had overdosed, again. Our morning started with the discovery of his near-lifeless body in the bathroom, barricaded in the tiny space with the shower running to hide his activities. What else is new.
After the paramedics came and went, after my brother went from purple back to a pasty white boy after the police came and confiscated his paraphernalia… I went to fucking high school. Pack up your shit, don’t be late for study hall.
Like nothing happened. Like I should be fine. Like always.
During this time, my brother’s penchant for heroin was only part of the problematic family playbook. Sure, he was constantly stealing all our shit, getting arrested, dropping off the face of the earth, dying or nearly dying, abusing my family members, and all the other fun times that come with severe drug addiction.
But at the same point, we were still being threatened and stalked by my estranged father – also a drug addict. Years after he was removed from our household by legal force, he was not taking the hint and fading away. Far from it. I laid awake at night and waited for him to make good on his promises. I lived in constant fear.
What else could be contributing to the madness? Oh, just living below the poverty line as my single mom tried to support 3 kids without any help or college education. Struggling to get by every month and hearing all about it was a super great way to grow up. Definitely didn’t create any scarcity problems for me long term. My mom’s stress-induced explosions were a treat to contend with, too.
As you might imagine… I had a lot of big feelings about all of these events and patterns. But I had no one to talk to and no way to escape it. Our extended family didn’t even know what our household was like, let alone the kids and teachers at school. This drama is not really the sort of thing that brings people together when the other parties have a regular, supportive home environment, and meanwhile, you can’t count the number of times you’ve had the police called to your house in the past month.
So, my only option was to carry on and pretend that everything was totally cool at home while I attended school and worked nearly-full-time in retail. Wipe up the tears, pull yourself up by your Petsmart uniform, and keep that GPA above a 4.0. And that morning when my oldest brother OD-ed, again? That’s the day when I remember something new and interesting happening. Instead of feeling low down, overwhelmed, and emotionally disparate all day as I ground my way through the idiotic public school system… I felt… nothing. Not a thing.
The emotions were there one moment – and poof – they were gone the next.
I went about my business, finished my school day, went to work, and reported back home in time for homework. Get up early, do the whole thing over again. “Huh,” I thought, looking back on my successful day of masquerading as a normal human, “I don’t know what this lack of feeling is, but that’s pretty cool. Like an emotional ‘switch’ just got flipped.”
Ten or fifteen years later, I really wouldn’t think that this sensation was so chill.
I would be battling against it, trying to restore some sense of normalcy in my emotional life which now wildly fluctuated from 0 to 100, but rarely settled anywhere in between.
After this first occurrence of emotional numbing (AKA emotional detachment, or emotional dissociation) it became the normal MO for my life. Rarely feeling. Rarely being present in my body. Rarely having a sense of living the life I was watching unfold before me.
Things didn’t get better for me at home. Life was constantly throwing new curveballs in my own personal development. Events were always unpredictable, incredibly stressful, and necessitating a “hold on by the skin of your teeth,” mentality.
As a response, my brain continued to bolster this newfound defense mechanism of shutting the fuck down when times were too chaotic to handle. It was like my brain and body operated independently of one another; physical sensations and emotions included.
Publicly, I was skilled at showing up with a smile on my face, being the life of the party, and working 16 hour days. Privately, I was adept at starving myself, pumping my body full of chemicals, and keeping my head down so I wouldn’t see all the corpses floating around me.
I did “normal kid” stuff – attended college, held demanding jobs, had more friends and boyfriends than I could remember now – but I never felt very normal. During this time, I don’t think I even realized that I barely felt anything at all.
I was great at telling people to “git fucked” and moving on without a second thought. I was tough enough to withstand long, difficult workdays. I was amazingly ambitious when it came to keeping my focus on my academic obligations. And I never realized that these “abilities” came riding along in the sidecar of my heightened Dissociation tendencies. I just thought I was uniquely work-centered and goddamn tired of people’s bullshit (that last part is true).
I never even noticed that these drives came with the absence of, well, feeling any feelings…. Until the day that my feelings came back.
The rubber band effect
What happens when you suppress your emotions for ten years or so in order to put on a high-functioning mask for the world?
Fucker, if you’re like me, they come back. With a vengeance. Making up for lost time. Ready to bowl you over after years of being ignored.
Somewhere in my early 20’s (I say “somewhere,” but I know I was 23), something changed. I met a boy who I fell head over heels for – it has been my only instance of love at first sight, which I never believed was real before this split second changed my mind forever.
I was full of the feels, unlike what I had experienced in 5 years, easily. The excitement, the longing, the confusion. It was butterflies, day and night, from our long-distance semi-relationship. I thought I had found him; the boy who was always meant to be mine. It was a pre-teen movie, in real life.
And then… it fell apart. And I was catapulted into MUCH WORSE FEELS than I ever thought possible.
Not only was the failure, rejection, and sadness from this romantic relationship dissolution dancing through my head and broken heart, which is enough to drive plenty of men to the brink of madness… but with it? About 10 years of long-lost, deeply repressed, emotions came pouring into my brain and body. And I had no idea what was going on.
Imagine, going from a deep sleep under the influence of anesthesia to waking up in a room full of blaring sirens and flashing emergency lights. This was my early 20’s.
All that depression, anxiety, fear, frustration, and heartbreak that was gathering dust from the past decade while sitting hidden in a dark, untouched corner? Get the fuck ready, it’s coming at you hot. All at once. With no emotional education or coping skills under your belt. It’s like being hit by a train.
You fucking KNOW I fought against those emotions with all my might. I didn’t WANT to wallow. I didn’t WANT to be angry about my shitty, struggle-bus life. I didn’t WANT to recognize the shit I had been blocking out since age 14. But here it all was; the repressed pain, fear, and shame bubbling up to the surface after a decade underground.
And that’s the year that I fell sick with my autoimmune disease. Coincidence? Ha.
The emotional ebb and flow
And so it continued. For the next several years I flip-flopped back and forth; desperately trying to repress my feelings, and finding my world was crumbling down when they popped back up anyway. Being blindsided by every emotion I experienced and having no idea how to deal with them.
I saw feelings as being negative, dangerous, and unnecessary. Even as I lost my grip on that emotional switch, I did everything I could to just turn them away at the door. Distract, detach, desensitize.
For weeks or months, my emotional-shutdown efforts would work, and I genuinely prided myself on being a cold, numb bitch. I bragged about my unemotional lifestyle. I kicked back, feeling superior to everyone who was so busy complaining about their personal pain I was untouched by life. Unbothered by the assholes who continued to test my last nerve. Unmarred from the early life that clearly hadn’t impacted me (ha).
But inevitably, these feelings would present again whether I was ready or not. And now, the years of avoidance made them sticky like jelly on my hands without access to running water.
So began my era of falling into deep pits that I couldn’t climb my way out of. Getting “trapped” in depressive spells. Being overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. Finding guilt and shame were unshakable. Laying, isolated, and alone in my apartment, unable to think straight, to quell the raging waves in my body, or to place the constant discomfort that plagued my everyday living.
Sick with physical illnesses. Packed to the brim with mental illnesses. Churning with unresolved, unnameable negative emotions. And unsure how to separate the three.
Just, royally fucked, to put it simply. An entanglement of issues that no one wanted to talk about, even if they had the words – myself included. The consequences of a life avoided from a first-person perspective.
My emotional life today
So, surely I’ve got a grip on these *feelings* at this point, yeah? I mean, I write as if I understand them pretty solidly… “Don’t avoid them, lean in, it’s okay to feel what you feel, resolve them before they stick it to you…” Yeah, it’s great to hear that everything is all ironed out and neatly folded, right?!
Haha, Nah, not exactly.
Today, I’m still in a constant battle of me versus my dissociation. It’s better – don’t get me wrong. When I notice that I have something going on inside, I can actually deal with it and move along very rapidly. But there are many times when it feels like I suddenly “wake up” from a long dream and realize that I wasn’t really experiencing my life as it happened.
There are many times when “dangerous” emotions are still shuttled to some inaccessible tomb, deep inside my rotting gut. When things are too overwhelming, too powerful, or challenge my personal progress, my brain box still shuts that shit right down with dissociative and avoidant defenses.
And, just like before, I’m usually none the wiser. No internal alarm system goes off to tell me that I’m in defense mechanism mode. I don’t seem to realize that I’m living with one foot in a dream world, hiding the more nightmarish aspects of life for an equally-inconvenient future date.
I just go about my business, keeping myself tied up with working too much and caring too much about other people’s shit to pay any attention to my bodily detachment.
Until one day it presents itself again – a bloated, churning, aggressive batch of pissed off inner experiences that could have been handled one by one, instead of dozen by dozen.
So begins the long, arduous task of unraveling old emotions as new ones continue to flood in. So marks the start of my “emotional days” when my sensitivity and agitation peak around level 11/10.
So invites all the comments from unknowing onlookers, repeating the same sentiments I’ve heard since age 5; “You’re so emotional, you’re too sensitive, I don’t understand your feelings.”
Me, either, Fucker. Me, either.
Former biomedical researcher, crafter brewery logistics manager, and Traumatized mess. Current force behind a no-nonsense Complex Trauma recovery blog, podcast, and support community proudly named Traumatized Motherfuckers. With a mix of research, personal insight, and honest vulnerability (without the toxic positivity), the project is aimed at helping others find the education, support, and connection they need to feel less personally doomed. Search “Complex Trauma” wherever you stream.