Learning to Talk
I wrote a post about a week ago (‘learning to survive’) that pretty much laid my soul bare and shared the fragility of my mental health in the wake of my devastating grief since Michael died. I did this partly as a kind of cathartic way of challenging my ability to face up to my own emotional wounds, but mostly as an example of what we now advocate through the even keel foundation and the need to talk. On top of this, I’ve also had several messages from people this week telling me how difficult they are finding it to talk through their current problems - even to those they are closest to - so I thought I’d just share a little of my own experience of learning to talk, especially during times of extreme emotional turmoil.
For me, the very notion of getting good at talking is an action that can be a lot easier to ‘understand’ than to actually ‘do’ - and, perversely, especially at times when I’ve probably needed to do it most. Shock, pain, anger, guilt, fear...all common emotions that accompany grief, but when Michael first died the emotions were all darting around so erratically it sometimes felt impossible to access exactly what it was I was actually feeling. How on earth could I even begin to explain them to somebody else? At times it felt like my brain was literally stuck on a waltzer fairground ride - spinning, jolting, constantly changing direction, but never stopping long enough to understand quite what was going on. Let alone express that. All I knew was that it felt bad. Really bad.
And the person I wanted most in the world to be by my side helping me was the person who had gone. That in itself gave way to even deeper feelings of isolation, desertion and social withdrawal.
So how did I learn to talk?
For me, it’s been about accepting that it was okay for my thoughts to be all over the place and not to be on a linear path. There was nothing wrong or bad about feeling devastating guilt one minute for not forseeing Michael’s pain, and then feeling overwhelming anger and frustration the next that Michael had left me behind. It was okay to go from being petrified of living through the next hour, to wanting to get on a plane and jet off somewhere - as far away from home as possible. It was okay to go from crying to a point I couldn’t even speak, to a point of rambling so incessantly that I hardly even stopped for air. I realised that none of these things made me mad. They made me normal.
So, I literally learnt to just go with every emotion I had and articulate each one - one by one - in the best way I could. Breaking it down, bit by bit. I was barely left on my own for a second in the first few weeks - one, because my family were all too scared what I might do to myself and two, because I was also literally petrified of what I might do to myself. But what it also meant was that there was always somebody there to listen. By being given that time and patience, my confidence in allowing myself just to talk through each transitory feeling was slowly able to grow. And the more I spoke the more I realised the pressure and intensity of pain that had engulfed my whole being was lifted. Of course it would quickly refill, but the sharing of my thoughts would temporarily unburden me. And I liked that feeling.
A good friend of mine visited me one day. I remember sitting in the garden with her and she said, ‘Sam, there really is only so much shit you can carry in your back pack’ . And that analogy has stuck with me. My back pack was at full capacity, it was overflowing, and the only way of creating space was to keep shovelling out the shit to whoever had the patience to listen to me.
I think it’s really hard to be a good listener when someone you love or care for is in so much pain. As humans I believe we have an instinctive urge to try and make things better. To just fix it. Sadly with grief, or any life changing experience, it just doesn’t work that way so to listen to someone repeatedly talk themselves round in one big circle can be exhausting and frustrating. But I believe it really is the biggest of gifts you can give someone who is in emotional turmoil. Of course some people found it easier than others, but as it’s not about having the answers, that didn’t really matter. What was important for me was going through the process of just ‘getting it out’. And like with anything in life, it took practice; the more I did it, the easier it became. Slowly - so slowly I couldn’t even notice it happening -I’ve now been able to put at least a little distance between my life here and now, and the most crucifying of my darkest thoughts. I’m still getting on that waltzer ride every single day but the difference is that I’ve now got a lot better at deciding when I choose to get off.
As I said in my last post, having a professional counsellor to help with that process has also became invaluable to me. There are many times in my day now when I really don’t want to talk about anything to do with my grief. I like tuning out of it. And I’ve actually built up enough courage to now tell people when I just don’t feel like talking about it. But I only feel safe doing that because I know I also have a regular place to tune-in. There are of course triggers - like photos, songs and places - that mean I sometimes tune in by accident, but by learning to talk about how I feel means I’ve armed myself with what I’ve found to be the biggest weapon against my internal anguish.
I spoke to another good friend not long after Michael died about whether he’d ever been through a time when he felt life was pretty hopeless. Of course he had, as I think probably most of us have. But it’s what he said next that summed up what I believe to be the biggest problem, especially for men. He said that he had felt in a really dark place a couple of years ago and one that he didn’t know how to come out of. He realised that he probably needed to talk to someone but he said, “Sam, I just didn’t know how to say how I felt.” And this was an articulate, sociable, chatty, intelligent 46 year old man. He could talk about ‘stuff’ all day long. But not about HIS OWN feelings. And here lies the danger. If we don‘t learn to connect our feelings with our words when times are light, then that process, that connection, becomes even more distorted in times of darkness.
So my message from my own brutal life experience is that it’s best to start that training now. It doesn’t matter how big or small that worry is; however trivial or unsolvable it might seem, it really is never too late, early, big, small or seemingly pointless to try getting your feelings out of your head; It’s really never too late to start shovelling the shit out of your backpack.
The Even Keel Foundation is not a crisis response service but there are many people you can talk to. Please visit www.theevenkeelfoundation.com/helplines for a list of organisations that are there to listen and help in confidence to any worries you might have. Or you can call the Samaritans 24 hour helpline on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d feel more comfortable texting someone then you can text SHOUT to 85258