When I was very young, perhaps eight years old, I was possessed of a terrible and all-consuming fear of floods. I dreamt of walls of water that swallowed my family and me. I lay in my bed, atop the scratchy wool blanket I had inherited from my dad’s days in the National Guard, and wondered if, should a flood come to my house, my mattress would fit through the window. I had been on airplanes and thought that a mattress might float like an airplane seat cushion would, and I hoped my dog and I would float in comfort until rescue came for us.
At breakfast each morning, when I cried over my terror, my parents were utterly perplexed. “We live in the desert,” my dad said. “And we’re way up on a hill, too!” said my mom. “There’s just no way it could ever flood like that up here. The river is hundreds of feet below us.”
I remained inconvinced. For months, I lay awake every night, certain I’d awaken to find my toys sloshing underwater, my books ruined, and my life in jeopardy. My parents drove me to the river so I could see how far it was, and how far below our how it was. They showed me maps and described the extensive system of arroyos that Albuquerque uses to control monsoon rains and spring runoff.
In the meantime, at school, I learned that the entire Southwestern United States had once been a massive ocean, and a visiting scientist passed us marine fossils from the desert floor to prove it. One of the Steves in our class (it was always one of the Steves) asked, “Could it be an ocean here again someday?”
“Oh, sure. Sure. It probably will be! The earth is changing all the time,” said Super Helpful Science Visitor.
My fear was big and it felt as real as trees and sky, so I worked the science visitor’s words into my worldview and dismissed my parents’ words as the nattering of confused old people who want their child to stop crying at the breakfast table.
Such is the way with feelings.
Such is the life of my son. Where I spent some months pointing amorphous anxiety at an unlikely cause, he has spent almost all of his life in circumspect negotiation with feelings. Big, consuming, terrifying feelings that have no identifiable trigger and are, therefore, unfixable.
This notion of unfixable feelings that come with a mood disorder is actually a truth about feelings in general. That we can usually identify a trigger for feelings like fear and anger does not mean feelings are things we can turn on and off. If I am angry with my husband because he didn’t call the dentist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I will cease to be angry when he makes the call. Feelings aren’t faucets, simple cause/effect responses triggered by environmental stimuli and effectively stopped by some equal and opposite cause.
No, feelings are infinitely more complex than the strictures of reason would like them to be. I, in my suburban childhood bed, had no real cause for fear, and yet I was afraid. If feelings were reasonable, I never would have felt that fear in the first place, or at the very least my parents’ demonstration of the impossibility of floods would have stopped my fear.
Much as we try to impose reason and rationality on human emotion, we are in some sense accustomed to ephemerality and fickleness in feelings (some of us more than others) and we can accept it. Sometimes we’ll say that a person’s feelings are outsized because they’ve been triggered, meaning some present circumstance has brought to the surface feelings about an experience of the past.
For people like my son, who lives with a severe mood disorder, the brain fires feelings at random, with even less relationship to apparent causes than a typical brain. He can be euphoric and hyper as a child on his way to Disneyland when it’s a Tuesday evening at home and we’re having beans for dinner before we all go to bed. He is sometimes overtaken by a bleak despondency on a sunny afternoon, or overwhelmed with rage in the face of a minor frustration.
When I asked Carter what kind of help he needs when he is gripped by big feelings, he said, “Help me feel safe. I don’t like when people argue with me or tell me it’s wrong. I just want to be safe, even if my feelings don’t make any sense.”
So as much as my reason-seeking human mind will allow me, I stop looking for the causes of Carter’s big feelings and enter them with him. Instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?” I ask, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling,” or, “What can I do to help you with your feelings right now?”
Sometimes, Carter is incoherent with rage or fear and I have to use my best judgment (based on my knowledge and experience of him) to help him. Very often, he needs some time alone, or for me to help him get into the shower. Sometimes, we need to call the doctor for an adjustment to his medicine.
More often now, as he has matured and his mood disorder has been fairly stable for several years, he can tell me what he needs. “We have to go for a walk,” or “I need to go to my room and chill out for awhile.” Miraculously, he can sometimes discuss emotions with me, describing a series of events that led to a build-up of anger, or talking about how something that happened reminded him of a scary experience.
What I know is that I am on a journey with my son. I am the parent, so I am guide and teacher, but I am at my best when I spend most of my time walking beside him. He manages his feelings best when I hear him and take him seriously. Instead of demanding that he give me good reasons to justify his feelings, I explore them with him.
It’s a really weird road we’re on. The girl who lived on a hill in the desert and was terrified of floods is happy to have a travelling companion who understands that feelings don’t need to be reasonable to be important.
About the Author
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the hours just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style.
Find links to almost everything she does on the internet at about.me/AdrienneJones.