I’m learning to handle tough emotions without losing my grip
Beneath a tangle of weeds that crowd the flower bed alongside my house is a deep hole, its hard mouth perfectly rounded like a donut. At the bottom lies a disjointed white PVC pipe. I search the gap between the two sections of pipe for the glimmer of something I know I won’t find. This pipe carries rainwater from the gutters of our house to the street. It doesn’t carry sewer water from the toilet where, in a seething rage 20 years ago, I chucked my wedding ring.
This awful memory surfaces only because I have uncovered the pipe in a weeding frenzy after five months of lockdown. As I dig to release my COVID angst, images of this frightfully low point in my marriage and my life emerge. I see my husband desperately trying to fish out the ring with a wire hanger that pushed it forever out of reach. I see the broken-hearted look on his face when he said, “It’s gone,” my hands deep in dirt, a stone in my throat.
It’s tempting to re-bury this excruciating memory along with the pipe. Instead, I trace it to other things that were happening back then. Most wrenching was my beloved brother’s dying, which undoubtedly triggered my meltdown. I conduct this kind of emotional excavation — albeit grueling — whenever I near an emotional edge, to put into perspective moments of suffering that feel insurmountable.
The edge appears frequently these days, as the same answerless questions loop in my head: How many more people have the virus or have died? Will a vaccine be approved by the end of the year? Will I ever have freelance work again? How much longer will it be before I can hug a friend, or feel comfortable eating in a restaurant or shopping in a store?
On some days I accept the not knowing and think, ‘I can do this.’ On others, the enormity and seeming endlessness of the pandemic overwhelm me. I feel like I’m standing at the base of a mountain, straining to see the top.
Yes, this is narcissistic. I am, after all, a white woman with many privileges. But emotion often clouds reason, as it did when I pitched my ring into the toilet; as it does when anguish over lockdown and joblessness awakens me at 3 a.m.
Even if there were enough soil to bury these emotions, they’d push through like weeds because unattended feelings fester. Attempts to deny or disqualify only magnify them. Instead, I dig them up and acknowledge the involuntary phenomena that they are, without letting them drive what I do. Had I done this 20 years ago, I’d still have that first, beautiful wedding ring.
What I do have, however, is clarity and the ability to harness this memory as a life lesson. A pipe is just a pipe, a ring is just a ring, and emotions, however painful, are just emotions. Peering into the hole, I’m not looking at the pipe that carried away my wedding ring but at a memory and the out-of-control emotions that created it. Letting thorny emotions be and not expending the energy to conceal or erase them frees my mind to think rationally about how to manage them in the moment.
Every morning I recognize the knot in my stomach that reminds me of the crisis gripping this country. Then I schedule an English tutoring session with one of the refugees I teach, and the knot loosens. Anxiety chokes me when my daily work hunt produces nothing. Then I deliver groceries to the homebound and breathe again. Isolation makes me want to pull my hair out, but visiting a friend (six feet away) recharges my spirit. Lack of work floods me with panic, so I head for wooded trails with my husband or alone, and let nature calm my nerves.
Day by day, I am learning to step away from the foot of the mountain, and instead of looking up, or even back, I’m looking within and moving ahead.