I used to be the friend that everyone turned to when they needed some advice. I was the stable, rational one who always appeared to have her life together. I was focused, analytical, and presumably wise. I am still that girl, the person I used to be, only now this identity is somewhat buried; hidden beneath the residual aftermath from an eruption of bottled up emotions that I had worked for so long to conceal. This subconscious repression wasn’t intentional; I certainly didn’t mean to internalize such debilitating emotional turmoil. Still, life has, quite frankly, dealt me some pretty shoddy cards in the last few years. But I couldn’t just press pause and wait for it all to hopefully blow over eventually. When my dad died unexpectedly, I was still a 16-year-old high school student inundated with schoolwork to do, extracurricular obligations to fulfill, and college applications to complete. From my perspective at the time, I simply couldn’t afford to give myself a break when all other responsibilities were going to continue moving forward regardless of whether or not I’d be able to keep up. Allowing myself a chance to grieve just wasn’t an adequate option, so I merely chose not to.
Fast-forward a few years, to my sophomore year in college; now, instead of ACT prep, I was able to find consistent distractions within the demands of my undergraduate pre-medicine track. I threw myself blindly and wholeheartedly into the “college experience”; padding my resume for medical school applications, working tirelessly to earn commendable grades, and becoming involved in as many student groups and extracurriculars as I possibly could. All the while, life relentlessly continued to hurl more and more unpleasant circumstances my way; be they in the form of personal medical ailments, friend and family troubles, deaths of those to whom I was close, you name it. Yet, despite successfully dodging these incidents for a while, my capacity for emotional repression finally reached its limit after I was sexually assaulted by my best friend; a boy I thought I loved.
I had never quite understood the term ‘emotional flooding’ until about three months after I was raped; I knew the dictionary definition from various introductory psychology courses but, in retrospect, I held a very surface-level understanding of what this concept actually entailed. That is, until after some of the PTSD-related numbness had subsided and I truly experienced this sensation for myself. And it was absolutely terrifying.
At first, these emotional episodes seemed to be slight, merely insignificant occurrences; for example, although I had never been the ‘drunk crying girl’ at parties, I soon found myself often being the tearful friend crying in the bathroom to a roommate while she threw up her vodka-soda. Embarrassing? Yes. But entirely concerning? Not quite. Without any real consideration of my blatant disregard for emotional well-being, I did at least realize that something wasn’t right. So, despite a handful of failed past attempts, I decided to give therapy another shot. I reminded myself that I couldn’t just fabricate my story so as to solely tell the therapist whatever he or she wanted to hear, as I’d done countless times in the past. No, if I was going to fix this chaotic mess I’d managed to generate in my own mind, I had to do it the right way. This turned out to be the best and worst decision I have yet to make in my lifetime.
The weeks and months that followed were characterized by a convoluted mixture of relief and shame, emanating from my self-assumed naivety. Never had I anticipated the toll of prolonged emotional avoidance to be so powerful; so all-consuming. It was as if once I’d cracked open the mental safeguard embodying my deeply hidden thoughts and memories, there was no turning back. I felt as if I was drowning in a seemingly bottomless pool of pain, anger, distrust, self-loathing, and unequivocal sadness. In addition to feeling overwhelmed, I was also utterly confused. Obviously, these sensations are not completely uncharted territory, yet the entire sensation in itself was strikingly unfamiliar. As if I had forgotten what it’s like to experience genuine emotion.
Thus far, following many sessions and countless hours investigating these repressed emotions, a slight bit of progress has been made. With regard to emotional intelligence, however, any small step in the right direction is, in fact, monumental, no matter the perceived ‘size’. Emotional repression is a coping mechanism and it serves an important purpose. Therefore, increasing your own self-awareness and beginning to uncover those hidden, painful memories and emotions represents a tremendous leap forward, even if it may not feel that way at the time. For me, I’ve come to understand that sure, I can probably interpret the ‘what, why, how’ aspects of certain underlying feelings. But, without the emotional capability to process these sensations, what does it matter? That, I suppose, is the underlying problem and solution in itself.
That is the light at the end of the tunnel.