I feel like a rotten person for admitting this, but despite my best efforts there are still people who I feel incredibly awkward around: elderly people over 90, people with developmental disabilities, police officers and just about any kid except my own. There is nobody I feel more awkward around though than my mother when she’s crying.
It’s exceedingly rare that she cries. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen it is when she’s at funerals or mourning afterward. Unfortunately, she got some horrible news about my uncle, her younger brother, yesterday about his ongoing battle with cancer.
Despite a year where it looked like immunotherapy treatment was appearing to work, in the last two months the tumor on his liver has grown rapidly. They are going to try an aggressive form of chemotherapy, but the doctor said if he doesn’t respond well, it’s going to be time to have some palliative care discussions.
Without getting into too much history, my uncle is eight years younger than my mother. Their parents weren’t the warmest or most attentive people. She missed out on a lot of typical middle and high school activities because she was required to babysit him. This created a bond that has always seemed almost more like mother and son rather than brother and sister to some of us in the family. In a lot of ways, she was his first kid and they have been immensely close ever since.
When it comes to death and funerals, my involuntary reaction is to mentally and emotionally detach. I’ve probably been to 20 wakes/funerals in my life and I recall crying at one, for one of my best friends when he was 18 and I was 21. I can almost always go look at the body and feel nothing. When people say, “He looks peaceful” or “She’s not suffering now,” I get the urge to say, “He isn’t peaceful. He isn’t anything” or “Of course she’s not suffering, but she’s also not feeling good. She isn’t feeling anything.” This is why I sit toward the back and only speak when spoken to at those things.
Detachment happens when I feel incredibly awkward and/or can sense I’m about to feel incredibly sad. Funerals and wakes are an intersection of both emotions.
Detachment turns off my empathy. It turns off all of my emotions, but the appropriate one in most situations I find myself detaching is empathy.
I perfected the art of detaching as a young kid. I think it was from when my babysitter would put me in a dark room, and I didn’t know how long I’d be there. I learned to trick my mind into seeing two hours as 15 minutes, or more accurately, suspending the typical sensation of time elapsing in my head.
It’s not all bad. I can sit at the DMV, or any waiting room, for an hour and barely notice it. Detachment is what made driving 9,000 miles this past August seem like a breeze and when I was in jail in early 2016, detachment let the days bleed into one another until I somewhat lost all sense of normal time elapsing.
The problem with detachment, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to address throughout my recovery, is that it’s lead to a lifelong lack of empathy. When I hear or see my mother crying, it’s easier – and more natural for me – to shut down than to process it.
I think detachment and lack of empathy go hand-in-hand. I also think that I have empathy deep down, but I know that when I start to let it out, it doesn’t stop. I’m not mean to really old people or developmentally disabled people. They just make me so, so sad. I don’t like watching movies designed to make me cry either. And, in my very grueling therapy appointments that came early in recovery, I had to learn to schedule them at the end of the day because I’d be an empathetic wreck thinking about all the people I hurt. I didn’t want that to happen early in the day because then it was a lost day.
Sympathy I can do. Empathy I still have trouble with. For those who don’t know the difference, I described it this way in rehab once and the counselor said they were going to adapt it because it’s the bluntest they’d ever heard:
Sympathy = That sucks for you
Empathy = Sucks to be you
It’s a subtle difference, but with empathy, you’re putting yourself in a person’s spot and understanding how they feel. It’s relating to another’s emotions. With sympathy, it’s a sterile recognition of what the person is going through.
I’m not an idiot. I can recognize my mother is very sad by the fact she was crying on the phone and will probably be experiencing more of that in the future as this ordeal with my uncle continues. But I also either can’t, or don’t want to relate. I know that I should. I know that’s the right thing to do, but despite my recovery going smoother than most people’s, this is still a giant hurdle. I love my mother and I love my uncle. I don’t know what to say to either of them that is both genuine and won’t leave me a complete mess. In the past, my way of handling it is to just not say much of anything or pretend like it’s not happening.
I know what the comments are likely going to say on this post because I’m telling myself the same things: Suck it up, you’ve got to be there for them. Sometimes life is uncomfortable and avoiding it doesn’t help anyone. What would you want your child to do in the same situation?
I get it, I really do. And to give myself a tiny bit of credit, I’m better at this kind of stuff than I was before recovery. Several people, including my mother, have made mention I’m an overall better human, but that’s easy on most days. The dark days ahead are going to be challenging.
I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me at the beginning of recovery that the toughest part was going to be emotionally connecting and allowing myself to feel empathy for others. Now, it seems obvious it was going to be the toughest part. Hopefully I can learn to better deal with it.