As a child, sad was my default mood. I was sad about orphans. I was sad about hurt animals. I was sad about dirty rivers and smoggy skies. And I was especially sad that my beloved mom had been swallowed by my addicted mom.
So when I grew up, moved away and began to create my own world – which included volunteer work to mix some sweat with my sadness and consequently make the world and my mood a little bit better – I was able to shake off that sadness like a coat that no longer fit.
Enter D-Day...and the sadness was back. Well, okay it was preceded by the rage – both expressed outwardly and inwardly – but eventually sadness settled over me like a cloud. I gave up thinking I could ever be happy and chastised myself for thinking I even deserved to be.
That first year post D-Day was...sad. I felt trapped in a marriage I didn't want to be in because I felt neither physically nor emotionally strong enough to leave. I convinced myself that my happiness came second to my children's. The martyr role had always been one I sought out and I played it to the hilt, telling my husband that I was sacrificing my own future for the chance to give my children the stable childhood I had been denied. You could almost hear the violins playing the background.
Not to downplay my very real pain. We all know how deep the wound of betrayal goes. And how slow the healing.
Eventually I determined that I was going to rebuild our marriage. That first year had given me a good look at my husband as a man dedicated to making amends. He attended 12-step groups, he spent hours in counselling, he supported me in whatever I needed.
But though I felt myself loving him, I still felt...sad. That was, if I was feeling anything at all. I'd become so adept at numbing myself to the agony I'd felt that, much of the time, I felt very little at all. I could pretend I was normal. Laugh at the right moments, sigh at the right moments, feign engagement with the wider world. But inside, I was getting scared. I wondered if emotions could die. I wondered if my heart was no longer capable of feeling the highs and lows of life. But mostly I wondered if I was destined to experience life through the lens of a pale gray sadness forever.
My husband urged me to try EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It seems a bit like hocus pocus. A trained therapist talks you through traumatic experiences while either guiding your eyes in a repetitive back-and-forth or rhythmically tapping on your hands or legs. Some use a buzzer.
It's a therapy based on awareness that animals in the wild seem to recover quickly from trauma. To put it in the most simple terms, a zebra, for instance, that is chased by a predator, watches another zebra get eaten, relatively quickly is restored to a regular heartbeat and behaviour. Scientists theorized that the bilateral stimulation of walking played a role. Further research led to EMDR.
The idea, my therapist explained, is to access memory stored as trauma and, essentially, refile it in a part of the brain that feels a greater control over the experience. The website describes it as removing a block that's in the way of emotional healing.
However it's described, I couldn't quite believe it worked. And not only did it work on my trauma around my husband's betrayal, it worked on memories I'd buried so well, I hardly thought about them though they were no doubt festering deep down, like a forgotten splinter. What came bubbling to the surface was much of my childhood pain around losing my mother to addiction even while she was alive. I remembered a sexual assault I'd experienced in my early 20s, one that I'd held myself accountable for (what kind of idiot believes a guy when he says all your friends are joining him back at his place for a party...only to find out you were the only one invited! An "idiot" who takes people at their word, which is to say, not an "idiot" at all), and one I'd never breathed to a soul. I worked through the pain of my best friend betraying me at 24.
I felt lighter than I'd felt in years. Free of so much sadness. Liberated from so much self-blame.
Better than that, I was able to access all those other emotions I'd forgotten felt so great. As my therapist explained, when we put the lid on pain in order to avoid feeling it, we also bottle up everything else, like joy and contentment and satisfaction. We don't get to be selective in what we bury and what we don't. By going back in and wrestling with the pain, I opened the way for all that good stuff too.
I still, of course, feel sadness. But I also feel joy. I feel contentment. I feel anger and satisfaction and desire and envy and pride. I feel the full range of human emotions.
Including a deep love for that little girl who found the world unbearably sad.
Count me among the supporters of EMDR. If you feel stuck, consider giving it a try. If you can't afford it (and it can be expensive), get out and walk every day. There's much evidence that the bilateral stimulation of walking can also excavate those buried feelings, letting them bubble to the surface where you can process them, reminding yourself that you're safe now, that you are strong enough to handle pain. And knowing that, behind that pain, lays a world of rich color and emotion that's worth fighting for.