I was 17 when I realized I was feeling dead inside. I know I had already felt like this as a child. I did not have the words to describe it, but the experience was there already. Unfortunately, it followed me into my young adult years.
If you ever felt dead inside, you know how dark this place can be. It’s the fabric of depression. It prevents us from enjoying whatever is good in our lives; it can destroy our relationships, our successes and our health. It can leave us unable to feel love and caring, unable to mourn a loss – and ending up wondering if indeed we are able to love at all. It can prevent us from reaching our goals, even if we have the necessary energy, intelligence and skills. It can even prevent us from wanting anything at all.
We are going through the motions, disconnected from other people, life, and ourselves, and we are wondering what is wrong with us and if that’s all there is.
What is the not the cause of us feeling dead inside (even if we feel it is)?
Let’s explore first what we sometimes believe the cause of this emotional void, but really isn’t:
- It’s not because we are defective: there is nothing wrong with us, and we definitely shouldn’t feel ashamed of not feeling anything except shame – even if we often do.
- It is not because our life is boring (and everyone else’s life is dazzling). Once the fog is lifted, a normal life can be pleasant and joyful. And as some of us do know, living or achieving great things, or starting a new life somewhere else will not wake us up: wherever we go and whatever we do, here we are (the same).
- By the same token, if we don’t feel love it is not because people who love us are not lovable. Unless they are abusive or taking advantage of us, they are most probably fine (but we know this already, don’t we ? Unless we are narcissistic ourselves of course, but we wouldn’t be reading this blog then.)
What is the real reason for us feeling dead inside ?
I really appreciate the still small but priceless community who follows this blog, and I know you are intelligent, dear reader. You probably know already where I am going with this, but I will write it anyway: the real reason for feeling so empty emotionally is what happened to us. Trauma.
We don’t make the connection initially, because essentially everyone around us avoided the topic. Trauma (especially sexual trauma) does not happen, so of course it cannot be the cause of anything.
According to the CBC, one if five americans experienced sexual violence involving physical contact. But how many of us were asked if we experienced trauma when seeing someone because we were depressed ? According to my experience : none. Sexual violence is written all over my life, my body and my mental state, and I saw a lot of shrinks and doctors over my life but nobody ever asked. So how could we make the connection ?
Even in the medical profession, denial is everywhere. One of my close friend, a GP, still insists there is no proven relationship between what happened to us and our mental health. How is it possible ? Frankly I don’t know; there are now hundreds, if not thousands of studies demonstrating the correlation. Maybe it has to do with the fact that her brother is drowning in alcohol, but she absolutely wants her family of origin to be normal ? We don’t want to see what we don’t want to see.
Speaking of which, we also don’t want to be shaped or damaged by our past : we want our emotional life to be under the control of our great qualities, our will, and our present life. Not the result of what a horrible person lurking in our past did. I fervently did not want my emotional state to have anything to do with my past.
And still, still….
The best explanation of the feeling dead syndrome, ever
I’m currently reading The Body Keeps the Score, from Bessel Van Der Kolk. I now understand why it has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 130 weeks: to say it is an excellent book to read for trauma survivors is an understatement. And yes we are many, hence the success of the book.
One of the great things it brought me is the explanation of this feeling dead experience:
“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement with their lives.”Bessel Van Der Kolk, The body keeps the score
This is why I went through periods of absolute emotional chaos (usually centered around difficult relationships activating my past, vulnerable self), followed by periods of feeling dead emotionally when the chaos had become unbearable. This is exactly what happened to me when I went through a major depression at 17. Thank you Bessel, you do truly get it.
Mr Van der Kolk writes how you can see this state of dissociation when looking at someone’s brain activity: it looks like a blank page. Nothing is happening here. Somehow still, our body is flooded with stress hormones.
This is why, counter-intuitively, looking for strong emotions or sensations when feeling dead inside is not a good idea. We all try to do it, but will only make matters worse and push us further into dissociation.
What we need to do rather, like when we feel chaotic, is to calm down and regulate the best we can. Like Dr Perry states: regulate, relate, reason. More on that next week, in the meantime take care of yourself.