When was the last time someone dropped ‘the bomb’ on you? You know what I mean: the last time you heard someone say, “I love you but I’m not in love with you;” or “I’m sorry but we’re going to have to let you go;” or the ever-popular “The doctor wants to see you in his office right away”? Ouch! For many reasons, midlife winds up being ‘ground zero’ for many of life’s most upsetting moments. Back in the ’50’s, we were universally taught to “duck and cover” as a strategy that was supposed to help us survive a nuclear bomb explosion. I’m not sure that we have any generally-accepted strategies for recovering from these kinds of midlife blasts, though. Emotionally, we’re stuck with a kind of ‘every person for him- or herself!’ sort of approach.
By their very nature, our emotions are reactive. They’re indicative that something (for better or worse) is going on with us. We’re liking or disliking, fearing or fighting something in our e nvironment. When we’re hit with one of these life-bombs, our emotions first generally register shock and disbelief. We feel the emotional ‘kick in the gut’ that initially (at least) sends us reeling. Then, quickly or slowly, we progress through the famous Five Stages of Grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. It’s critical that people develop effective personal strategies for dealing with these midlife ‘bombs’ because, as likely as not, regardless of what our past experience has been, there are probably more just like them yet to come.
Today, I don’t want to talk specifically about the emotional ‘shock and awe’ that comes from experiencing one of these events. There’s already a lot a material out there on handling crises that arrive during midlife: why we’re vulnerable to them and how to cope with them when they come. Many people don’t realize that, even after surviving one of these ‘bombs’ and getting yourself all the way to acceptance, you still have to face the fallout. It seems to me, from my own experience, that there are three kinds of fallout from an emotional blast: there’s the permanent fallout (where your whole approach to life is permanently altered, as in the case of a devastating illness or injury), there’s the temporary fallout (where it may take months or years to recover, as in the case of a death or relationship breakup), and finally there’s the episodic fallout (where bouts of emotional distress will appear at seemingly random moments). I think people badly underestimate the effects of this last type of fallout – and they pay a heavy price for it.
Some months ago, I experienced a major disappointment that caused me to change my whole approach to the way I earn my living. It’s bad enough when your boss lays you off; it’s almost worse when you’re your own boss! Sometimes, the hard facts of economic life come along and hit you right between the eyes with a compelling argument that’s hard to ignore or avoid. Changes then have to be made, regardless of how it may feel at the time (in my case, that would be a lot of pain). Once the die is cast and the changes that must be made have been made, time mercifully allows those of us in that situation to work through grieving process. I would hope that those who care about us will be there for us, supporting us as we work through the not-altogether rational deluge of feelings that come marching along as we pass from one landmark to the next: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, at last, acceptance.
Episodic fallout throws an emotional monkey wrench into the whole process because, just when we think that we have the whole thing under control (if not licked), we experience a throw-back to one or more markers along the road that we imagine we’ve long-ago left behind. Suddenly, I’m angry for no reason (or disproportionately angry over something insignificant). Or, I find myself in the middle of the afternoon wanting to cry or deciding to go back to bed rather than join others in some excursion or other. “Wait a minute!” you might say, “what’s going on? There’s nothing wrong, and I’m feeling rotten anyway! Am I going crazy?”
No, you’re not going crazy. You’re just imagining things. You’re not imagining your feelings. You really do feel awful. You’re imagining that that you’re really ‘over it’, just because you’re not aware of the emotional fallout from what has been, for all intents and purposes, a traumatic event. Perhaps you’ve gained enough acceptance to have made the decision to get on with your life. That’s great! It just doesn’t mean that all of your emotions have caught up with your decision. Every trauma involves flash-backs: if not flash-backs where you re-live the traumatic event, then flash-backs of the emotions that accompanied them. We forget that memory is not confined to our little gray cells. There’s body memory as well. All we need to do is to give our body half a chance, and it’ll allow those buried emotions to come cascading out. And, by definition, it’ll happen when we’re least expecting it.
Now what about that fallout shelter? There’s only one simple (but not easy) approach that we can take that will shelter us from these emotional flash-backs from midlife trauma: beware of free-floating emotions! By that I mean that we can actually train ourselves to spot emotions that come out of nowhere and that seem . . . well . . . just wrong. Let the thought, “Why am I feeling this way?” raise a red flag inside your head. Of course, your first task would be to look around you to ascertain whether something is, indeed, wrong right here and now. Yet, once you’ve done that, and you still can’t justify the way you feel, look around and see if anything is reminding you of past trauma. What are your thoughts telling you? How similar are these thoughts to the thoughts you were having when you were experiencing trauma? What unresolved questions from back then might these feeling be highlighting?
Here’s side note to everyone about free-floating emotions (by that I mean emotions that seem dissociated from your current situation and environment): immediate and past situations are not the only sources for these kinds of emotions. It is possible for sensitive people to ‘pick up on’ the emotions of people around them – particularly people with whom they share a close intimate bond. Furthermore, it is possible to gain or grow that sensitivity. We all have that capacity, and we can choose to grow it. If you are psychically sensitive, or believe that you’re becoming more so, then you have a further distraction that you need to pay attention to. You may have to ask yourself if these free-floating emotions might be coming from someone outside yourself. Look around; see what you can find. If possible, ask the people closest to you how they’re doing.
Turning back to you and to your fallout emotions: I firmly believe that you can learn to manage these feelings, once you’ve recognized them for what they are. Emotions only have the power to disrupt your life so long as they’re not serving their purpose (which is to alert you of what’s going on). As long as you’re aware that you may not be finished with your denial, anger, bargaining and depression, even when you seem to be feeling ‘fine’, when the fallout comes (as it will), you’ll be better able to identify its source and know how to handle it. After all, you’ve already handled it once; this ‘fallout’ is just an encore performance letting you know that there’s more work to be done before you’re finished with it. My parents died fifteen years ago, and I still have pangs of grief once in a while. Your best shelter, then, is this: a) know how to identify free-floating emotions and b) when they come, take good care of yourself, just exactly the way you did when the feelings came the first time. Not all fallout shelters are holes in the ground, you know: don’t forget to turn to your Higher Power at those times. Remember the words of that old hymn: “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”
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