I was in a crowded room. I knew a large number of people there. I had managed some conversations and got myself a cup of tea. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by an all pervading sense of alienation and aloneness. I have experienced such floods of negative emotions nearly all my life. The sense of being an alien, of being locked inside a glass prison unable to make myself heard or understood, is one that is familiar to me. As I sat there, I had a choice to stay and front it out, as I have done so many times before, or to make what I consider a 'tactical retreat'. Although leaving difficult situations in panic has been a response I have often used in the past, this time was different.
Last week I was having a conversation with someone about the sense of isolation and overwhelming sense of emptiness experienced by people with my diagnosis and symptoms. She too has experienced these feelings, but would make herself get involved in groups of people and 'do' things. I think there is a right time to do that, for me. But yesterday was different. I have had a week of giving out to a lot of people in different contexts. In order for me to be able to regulate my emotions I need to be able to identify them. When I am tired I find my ability to feel anything is impaired because it takes so much energy to manage any emotions. Numbness is easier to manage, but clearly, makes it difficult to function at any social level. Over the past couple of weeks I have recognised that I was lapsing into numbness, because, for me I had had too much general human contact with a wide range of people, some of whom I struggled to connect with. I retreat into numbness when I am in a group of people and I am beginning to feel overwhelmed by my emotions.
Essentially, in the past couple of weeks I have not experienced negative emotions, but around people I am deeply uncertain about my ability to read other people and my acceptance in their groups - fear of rejection is an emotion often in the background, particularly when I am feeling uncertain or vulnerable.
I work hard at recognising and responding to emotional signals. Something most people take for granted. The development of my emotional abilities was fractured due to my experiences in childhood, this coupled with the emotional amplifier in my brain which means that all of my emotional responses are in dolby-surround-sound and full glorious HD technicolour, means I do need respite from being around people. I am happiest when I am on my own. That may come as a surprise to many who know me, because I have learned throughout my life, and from many embarrassing mistakes, how to behave around people. Again, it is not something which came easily to me, I would describe myself as a quiet, almost shy child. The sense of being an alien was ever present. One of my family nicknames was 'Moon-man'. Another was 'Droopy' after the little depressed dog, who when he got mad, he got 'real mad' - my angry outbursts were epic!
Emotions are exhausting for me, even with the DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) Emotion Regulation skills which help me maintain equilibrium most of the time. Today, I am back on an even keel. Here's what I did.
1. I gave myself a break. Yesterday was not a day to challenge myself to stay in a difficult situation. It takes self compassion to know when I need to accept things as they are and when I need to push myself to change the way I react. I needed some groceries so I went shopping before going home. This meant it didn't feel like I was running away. In the spirit of self kindness I bought some treats.
2. I watched some comedy on catch-up until I felt myself relax.
3. I breathed mindfully until I was able to identify the emotions I was feeling. Having named them, I accepted that, given the week I've had these emotions were understandable.
4. I listened to my 'belters' playlist which has some summery, upbeat songs on it. I spent time in the sun, colouring mindfully. Eventually I enjoyed and fully participated in the music and ended up dancing in my back yard. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun.
The process of bringing myself back from numbness used to take weeks or even days. Looking back on yesterday I realise it is progress that I was able to use skills to look after myself and bring myself back to equilibrium in an afternoon. It is now four years on since I started using DBT skills and it has and is taking time. Good to remind myself that I had over 40 years without using them. Rather than feeling unable to reach people across the gulf caused by my emotional dysregulation I am becoming my own bridge builder.
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