My senior year of high school I found out on a Sunday night in October that a wonderful teacher of mine had passed away. I remember being in the bathroom of my house, feeling confused, and trying, unsuccessfully, to cry. I knew I was sad and yet it felt like the appropriate grief circuits weren’t firing. The next morning, wading through the thickness of the air in my high school’s hallways, my mood changed. Closing my locker and walking to my first class, the realization our teacher would never again be in the place he was supposed to be overwhelmed me. And the tears came readily.
Five years later, in my first months out of college, I was again feeling overwhelmed, this time with a kind of inadvertent gumbo of sadness, longing, and loneliness. While I had broken up with my college girlfriend months before I felt like I was struggling more with the fallout as time went on. I was increasingly feeling like I was on one of those carnival rides where the whole platform moves clockwise but your individual car moves counterclockwise; progressing through time but simultaneously stuck in retrograde.
These events happened years ago, but they were formative for me in how I understand pain, loss, and grief, specifically, how I deal with them. Which, if you’ve never really been taught how to process those emotions, is basically up to your imagination. Our imaginations are fantastic at creating coping mechanisms. The quality of those coping mechanisms though is highly questionable.
The after effects of significant life events are not unlike those of culture shock.
Though it is important to know, the way we typically talk about culture shock, the instantaneous awareness we are jarred into like an ice water bath, isn’t quite accurate. I know this because my college intercultural teacher, a decidedly eccentric, pot-bellied man from India was emphatic about conveying this to my class. He tried to explain the difference between immediate shock (a feeling we were all familiar with), and the time-released slow waves of shock being in a new culture brings.
His words failed him. When our classroom full of half-interested college seniors barely responded, he looked at us blankly in return. And then he took off his shirt.
As the two dozen students gasped and laughed, he seemed greatly pleased. “See! Shock, shock!”
His point was, culture shock is very different than the shock of seeing a college professor violate the code of conduct for teaching professionals. It takes time, weeks often. Only after the nuance and excitement of a place full of new people and customs has worn off do we really begin to understand how different, for better or worse, our new environment is. Our surroundings will not change, so we must adapt or return to whence we came.
Having experienced the culture shock of living abroad, I know it feels very similar to the way in which I respond to traumatic experiences in my life. While I can generally understand the importance of an event at the moment, I am often not able to grasp the true weight of it. I am struck with a sense of curious and subtle numbness that prevents me from feeling the range of pain, sadness, or loss that might be appropriate. The feelings in my heart and the questions in my head are often the same: What does this mean? How do I go forward?
My life regularly demands more context. Something to help me feel the difference before and after the event to truly comprehend its significance.
I do not imagine that feeling is unique only to me. To believe we are, any of us, capable of immediately processing and contextualizing the important events in our life is to believe we are a species far more evolved than we currently are.
We are a DIY culture. A society that heralds the entrepreneur, the explorer, the heroic success story of the self-made. It is not a good fit for those stories to discuss the mental toll, the emotional anguish, or general strife any of the decisions we have made take on us.
So what are any of us to do? Or a better question might be, what are any of us actually doing in those moments when we feel alone, desperate, or helpless? “Not enough” is probably the answer. Which is not to say we aren’t doing something.
We have somehow decided needing help is something we can rectify on our own. Rather than pursue professional support we turn to self-help, by some accounts over a 10 billion dollar industry. Self-help is books and courses. Meditation and mindfulness. Inspirational hashtags posted by a legion of self-anointed gratitude influencers skewing our point of view with perfectly staged photos of their over-exposed, minimalist, positivity.
Well-intentioned as the individuals behind all this might be, what they provide is only a part of the whole. It is the idea, but not the practice. It is the frame but not the work. It is a map but not the journey. Most importantly, it can make us think that if we aren’t able to solve our problems on our own, something is deeply wrong with us.
There is a special type of guilt we give ourselves for going to therapy, or that prevents us from going in the first place. Somehow, admitting we can’t do this all on our very own, makes us feel less-than. Perhaps there is a finality we feel, an arrival at bottom, or perhaps even an admission we are not who we thought we could be.
We put far too much emphasis on being self-made. I do not know any true success story that did not involve some sort of help from others
It seems as though there are stages we go through. Admitting we need help. Actually pursuing it. And being open enough to discuss the process.
During the first months of my first experience with therapy, I often felt like I was walking around with a secret that anybody could discover at any moment. As though if somebody looked close enough at me they could see it in my face. Like that time in college when my friend Geo spotted a hickey on my neck from across the room. Therapy was a hickey caused by something shameful and embarrassing.
And so I would joke about it, though nobody had asked. A one-liner or joke would pop up in conversation and I would say “That’s what my therapist told me.” I wasn’t actually looking to talk about therapy, I was trying to be funny. It was a way of vomiting up this bit of medicine I had ingested and wasn’t quite OK with.
But this is what I find so fascinating. Nearly every single time I said that, and I said it quite often, the person I was talking to responded with something their own therapist had actually told them. I became an immigrant on the other side of the world discovering somebody from my home village.
The way we respond, how we cope or deal, will never be uniform. Nor will the pace at which our own context informs our understanding. Life transpires quickly, unpredictably, and sometimes seemingly unbearably. We can continue to go it alone, force-feeding ourselves a diet of DIY self-sufficiency, or we can ask for help. It is not a symptom of weakness, shame, or an indicator of finality, but rather, an act of courage we just have yet to understand.
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