Worn-Out Feelings

For a while, I’ve been the kind of person who spends a lot of time thinking about how I’m feeling and feeling about how I’m thinking. (Long-time blog readers know this well.) So it was nearly impossible for me to not notice a distinct… shift… in both over the course of this pandemic so far. And I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how to put it into words so I can better understand it myself, likely thanks to 2 decades of making a habit of crystallizing my thoughts into blog posts for a handful of friends and an unknowable number of strangers to read.

Photo: Arun Sharma

Right now, the best way I can describe it is I feel really numb. The stress of the first half of 2020 exposed all of my thought and feelings to the open and exposed them to unending stress and anxiety and, above everything else, fear. Fear of my loved ones getting sick. Fear when my partner got sick when it was too risky to do anything but hope he didn’t get worse. Fear of getting sick myself. Fear of wearing a mask in public spaces where someone might be offended by my choice to do so. Fear of myself or a loved one being yet another victim of senseless violence.

As the pandemic progressed and things changed but didn’t improve substantially enough, I felt these exposed ends of myself start to feel raw from overexposure to all of this fear. Every little thing sent me spiraling immediately back to my darkest emotional place. My body and my mind were so primed for fear that it felt like the only emotional reaction I had in my arsenal for any situation. Even in the moment, I could tell that fear was not always the right emotion, but it was all I had room for and it was all I had at hand. A friend’s postponed wedding was taking place overseas and I was faced with getting on a plane for the first time since US offices closed. After getting vaccinated, we had to quarantine for weeks to minimize any risk to family members we’d be seeing after a year and a half. Desperate to see a loved one, I wore two masks to a movie theater in an attempt to suspend some anxiety for two and a half hours.
The only feeling I had left to reach for was fear.

And beyond that was nothing.
At some point, my nerve endings became too raw and instead of feeling overly sensitive to every little thing, they became frayed and numb. I’d read headlines about the delta variant and then the omicron variant, and a part of my mind would still go to fear and anxiety, reopening the scars and retracing the grooves from spring 2020.
But everything else wouldn’t yield as readily as before. I was numb and my connection to those feelings had been worn out.

It feels like I have given so much of my mental and emotional capacity to fear that there was simply no room for me to feel anything else. Now that fear has finished consuming me, I feel like a shell of a person, devoid of feelings. It’s a bit scary, as someone who has always identified as maybe too-feeling, too-emotional.
The coronavirus pandemic filled much of my emotional bandwidth with fear and anxiety, but as those feelings ebb after 2 years, after vaccines and boosters and sunlight and a modicum of safety, other feelings didn’t flow back in.

In the absence of fear, I don’t feel much else at all.

I don’t really feel any good or bad emotions. The excitement of seeing my brother after he moved closer to me. The frustration of miscommunications at work leading to a difficult day, and week, and month. The joys of receiving well wishes and thoughtful gifts on my birthday. The sorrow of not being able to see my parents for over two years. My brain registers that these are things I can and should feel, but I can’t feel them to their full extent. While fear carved and etched quick paths to the dark mental space I inhabited 2 years ago, it also smoothed over the pathways to my other emotions.

When I try to feel fully, the emotions I reach aren’t available. I can only feel one thing completely.
And that one thing is always fear.

Things are getting better. I know logically that I’m in a better place now than a year ago, or two years ago.

But it takes a lot more active mental effort to remind myself of this during the valleys of our news cycles. And it feels exceedingly difficult to engage with my friends, with my family, with my community.

Rather than let fear pull me in like a riptide, I’m just focusing on staying still and letting things wash over me. I’d love to feel things again, to experience and express the rich spectrum of my emotions. For now, I just brace for impact of different waves crashing on me and try not to get dragged back to my waiting depths, not to drown in fear and anxiety.

Maybe this won’t end, but despite how pessimistic I feel usually, there seems to be a part of me that is sure I’ll be stronger, that regardless of how much the past 2 years have changed me, I can still salvage parts of myself that I can’t reach right now. That’s what I have to look forward to, and that’s what I persevere for.

By the way, happy Pi Day, all. Enjoy something sweet, marvel at the wonder of numbers, take some time for yourself.

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