Sharp and open
Leave me alone
And sleeping less every night
As the days become heavier and weighted
In the cold light
A scream tears my clothes as the figurines tighten
With spiders inside them
And dust on the lips of a vision of hell
I laughed in the mirror for the first time in a year
The Cure, The Figurehead
When I was in high school, I had my first, personal experience with death. My grandmother died. She and I had a rocky relationship. She had lived with us for a number of years, but had returned to her home town a few years before her death. Traveling down to the funeral, meeting members of my family that I had never known, the service and the meal following – all of it is sort of surreal in my memory. Perhaps it was surreal at the time, I don’t know for sure.
But I learned something about myself that week. For all of the sadness and loss that I felt, it was nothing compared to the overwhelming grief that I experienced in the presence of her children and grand children. You see, I discovered that I am empathic.
Of course, all humans have empathy: the ability to recognize and sympathize with others positions, conditions and emotions. But hat is not what I am talking about. I literally feel others emotions. Particularly intense, concentrated emotion. So the funeral of a much loved mother, grandmother, friend was devastating for me.
Once I returned home, I was able to ‘clear my system’ so to speak and go on with my life. But it didn’t last long. Shortly thereafter, there was a tragedy in my school: a couple of senior classmen were involved in an industrial accident and died. I knew one of them, just a little. My best friend at the time knew him well. The other, I had no connection to. Nonetheless, a wave of grief swept through the school and I was overwhelmed.
My classmates recovered, as everyone does, after a few weeks. I however, had soaked up so much sadness and grief that I entered a deep depression. For the remainder of the school year, I stayed home ‘sick’ a day or two of almost every week. When I did go to school, I ditched classes as a matter of course. So much so, that I should have been expelled, but my Dean withheld many of the demerits I should have received and did everything he could to prevent me from hitting the benchmark that would have required expulsion.
A few times over those months, I swallowed jar full of aspirin. It didn’t have any effect beynd making me feel really ill. Of course it was a cry for help, on some level, but I worked very hard to make sure that no one in authority ever found out. And I laughed at myself ( in a weepy and self depreciating way) that I never really tried to kill myself, because I knew that a hand full of aspirin would not do it. What it did do, however, was give me a focus aside from the emotions that I could not contain.
During those months, I also embarked on a foray into self mutilation. We used razors to inscribe words and patterns into our forearms. When that wasn’t enough, I used matches to burn a series of circles into my arm in the shape of a cross (I still have the scars for this one). I used a dull point to carve an anarchy symbol into my ankle. Eventually, even that got boring and I stopped. But for a time, it distracted my from the emotional pain.
Eventually, I recovered. But it was a long process of gradually purging, or perhaps diluting is a better description, all of the emotional baggage that I had absorbed.
This was my first experience with my ability (failing?). Over the course of my high school years, it happened several more times, but each time I was more adept at dealing with the influx, quicker to dilute and purge, less inclined to slip all the way down the well into full depression. Part of me even believed that I ‘grew out of it.’ But recently I have come to understand what really happened. I learned to block out those emotions. I built a wall, high and deep that protected me from those unwanted intrusions. It was probably the best thing for me.
A few years ago, that wall suddenly and unexpectedly evaporated. Just for a few moments. I won’t get into the details, but I found myself with a group of like minded folks, saying goodbye, spending a last moment in silent reflection and all of a sudden I was overwhelmed. This time with positive emotion, but it shocked me, I all but ran from the hall, got in my car and took off at break neck speed to get away from it.
Once I had time to reflect, I was thrilled, I was awed and I was intrigued with what it all meant. The empathy was still there, but my subconscious had locked it away. So now the question became, can I control it? Over the years since, I have learned to open myself, to intentionally feel and it is a beautiful thing. If only I had known, all those years ago that this was not a curse, but a blessing.
(Originally Posted October 1, 2006)