(Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay)

(Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay)

Emotions in a pandemic: Wallow if you need to

We must allow ourselves all these feelings, so they don’t build up and come out in inappropriate ways

By Yme Woensdregt

Generally, I’m a pretty upbeat guy. I lost that for a while about 20 years ago when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. One of the marks of how deep my depression went was that I didn’t know I had lost it. During my healing, I learned that I had forgotten how to laugh. Life had become so serious and so hard for me that I was no longer laughing—and I wasn’t even aware of it! That’s why, for me, laughter is such an important sign and symbol of good health—good physical health, good mental health, and good spiritual health.

All of that is to say that one of the critical things I learned during that time of healing and therapy was to be aware of my feelings: How am I feeling? How am I reacting to what’s going on around me?

It’s a good thing to be aware of what’s going on in your life and how you are reacting to it. Some days are simply good days. The sun is shining, I’m feeling good, I’m content with my life, the soft wind and growing flowers brighten my mood and it’s good. It. Is. Good.

Other days, life sometimes sucks. I’m struggling with my emotions. I’m weary and sad. When I look at life, it’s not through rose–coloured glasses but rather through blue lenses.

I’ve had some of those kinds of days in the last few weeks. I’d be watching a television show and find myself weeping as I reacted to a sad turn in the story. I’d be listening to a favourite musical (Come From Away) and find myself weeping as I listened to this inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland helping with the horrific events of September 11, 2001. I’d hear something on the news, and tears would start rolling slowly down my face. I’d be reading a novel and sobbing as the story took a tragic turn. When I got my first dose of the vaccine, I found myself affected pretty deeply—so much so that the nurse came over and asked if I was OK.

Now, I have a good friend who loves to tease me by saying that I have a heart of pure marshmallow. That may be true. I feel things easily and often pretty keenly.

But I think there’s something more going on here.

Part of what is going on is that my emotions have been on a roller–coaster ride for the last 15 months. This pandemic is taking a toll on all of us, and I’m feeling it. Some days are filled with sheer joy and happiness, of ecstasy and profound gratitude. Other days have seen me deeply discouraged, sometimes to the point of tears.

I’m weary of this.

And that’s OK. It’s perfectly normal to feel all of these emotions. It’s completely healthy.

We’re not used to talking about sadness. We’re rather good at feeling good and upbeat. We like that feeling. It’s a good place to be. As the jazz standard has it, it’s good to live “on the sunny side of the street”.

But when we’re feeling lousy, we’ve learned to “fake it until we make it”. We’ve been socialized to put on a happy face. When someone asks us on the street, “How are you?”, we’re programmed to respond, “I’m fine. I’m good, thanks.”

However, it’s much healthier to acknowledge our sadness in those times. We can learn to welcome that sadness because it’s part of the fullness of our emotional lives.

Before my diagnosis of depression, I was trying to be perfect. I was trying to hide my pain and sadness. After all, I was the priest. I was the helper. I was the one who helped other people with their problems. Did I need help? No, not me. Nuh–uh. And I realized that one of the reasons I wouldn’t allow myself to feel the sadness I was experiencing was that I was afraid that I might be overwhelmed or swept away by my sad feelings.

And how did that work out for me? Well, I ended up making a suicide plan, as I wrote last week. It didn’t really work out so well.

I learned to give myself permission to wallow. It was OK to experience sadness fully and admit it to yourself and others. Indeed, it’s actually quite important to let yourself wallow—for a while. I set the alarm on my phone, I crawl into my bed, and I let myself wallow until the alarm goes off. Then I get up, I face the day again, and my heart is a little bit lighter because I’ve expressed what was weighing me down.

I know that wallowing is hard. It feels like self–pity or self–indulgence.

But it’s not. It is self–care.

I learned that within the word “wallow”, another word is hidden. Allow.

When we wallow, we allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling. We are giving ourselves permission to experience the full range of our emotions.

If we don’t, those emotions will build up within us and come out in all kinds of inappropriate ways: irritability; pain; fatigue; constantly feeling stressed; being short–tempered; taking it out on those we love and then feeling even crappier about ourselves. Or, in the worst scenario of all, making a suicide plan.

When we allow ourselves to wallow, we give ourselves permission to let whatever we are feeling to come out in healthy and loving and gentle ways.

Be gentle with yourselves and with others as this pandemic drags on. Give yourself time and space to feel whatever you are feeling. We are not all doing OK all the time. Some of us are hurting; some of us are worried; some of us feel like we’re living on the knife-edge.

It’s hard. But it’s OK to feel all that.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook