Posted by: terrapraeta | January 6, 2008

Can I Feel You Up?

Sharp and open
Leave me alone
And sleeping less every night
As the days become heavier and weighted
In the cold light
A noise
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)



  1. Wow. Is this for real? You are really something, woman.

  2. Hi Nicola —

    Yes… this is for real… I don’t really believe that it is a terribly unusual gift, however. I am more inclined to think that the only unusual bit is that it is relatively strong, and I came to at least partially understand and accept it.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  3. […] to turn them to positive action. Acknowledging your grief and moving past it. Having experienced my own empathic growth pains, I find it hard to be… less than sympathetic, yet today I am going to take a slightly more […]

  4. Hello Terrapraeta,

    I haven’t checked in here in a while, but I saw you had a comment on this essay, and it is one that I would like to comment on.

    One of my very best friends just lost his mom recently, and the thought of going to the funeral ended up being harder in some way than the funeral itself. (This was only the second funeral I’ve attended since the death of my brother in 2004.)

    The funeral itself was not as sad as I thought it might be, and my friend did a wonderful eulogy about his mom. I learned much about her, who I did not know well, but I also understand my friend better and how his mom helped to shape his life and the person he is. It actually brought a smile to my face.

    Anyhow, the following day I was pretty tired, and my wife and I talked about our experiences with grief. She remembered one of her uncles many years ago losing his wife of many years, and he died of a broken heart shortly thereafter. The sharpness of his pain at his wife’s funeral was so great that my wife has both remembered it and put the experience of our friend’s mom’s funeral in perspective with that.

    My experiences with grief have been much different. I lost two of my grandparents before I became a teenager, and the last two since I’ve become an adult. All of them saddened to some extent, but nothing like the loss of my brother. I have learned how to talk with others about their grief because of my experience, for which I am ultimately thankful, although each new experience is still something I wrestle with a bit.

    • Hi Joe…

      Good to hear from you…

      I understand exactly what you are saying. Learning to deal with grief, anxiety, dispair, sadness… all of these are hard. But sometimes it can be even harder when you don’t feel as bad as you “should”… but I think that is merely a consequence of real world life. Lose someone that you see ten times a day (no matter how “close” you feel) and that will be far harder to deal with than someone you love very much, but only see infrequently…….. at least that is how it has seemed to me so far…..

      take care…


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