What are my feelings?

This Life asks for pieces to be written in the first person, using
phrases like “I feel”. A natural enough request for an article
about someone’s personal experiences, right?

Well, no. The technical term is, I believe, alexithymic: one who,
although perfectly at home discussing intellectual concepts,
struggles to articulate their emotions. Especially using
first-person pronouns. “You”, “she”, “one” are all fine. I can
write pages on some hypothetical person who may feel a certain way.
But as soon as the word “I” creeps in, my prose stutters to a halt.
The sentences become stilted; the words feel inadequate and false.
I’m left totally at a loss as to how to put my feelings down on the
page in words that don’t make me want to disown them as soon as I
type them.

This doesn’t only happen when I attempt to write about how I feel –
it is always the case. Even to recognise my feelings is a struggle,
let alone identify the causes and deal with them. During the past
seven years my emotions got lost. They got encrypted, translated
into physical feelings with a physical cause and a physical
solution. I wasn’t sad: I was fat. Losing weight would solve the
problem. Therefore, there was no problem. I wasn’t angry: I was
tense. Cutting would release the tension. So, there was no problem.
I had no feelings, I had no needs. I could deal with everything by
attacking myself. Everything is OK.

Then you come to see that this is not the case, and you dare to let
your self-destructive coping mechanisms go. And all the pain that
they held at bay comes crashing in on you at once and you have to
face it head-on. You can’t ignore that you are an “I” because
you’re hurting too much to deny it. And talking about it is nigh-on

I still feel I’m “not allowed” to feel; because I know that I can
deal with it – albeit self-destructively – and asking for help
therefore seems an indulgence… and because, having spent so long
blank, saying the words “I feel sad” makes me feel like a liar. How
can I feel sad when my idea of myself is as someone who does not
feel at all?

I’ve had to relearn the concept of myself as an emotional being.
It’s not easy and I’ve still got a way to go. My first reaction to
any unpleasant emotion is often utter obtuseness. I have to sit
back inside my head and think “what is this?” Then, having realised
I feel tense all the time because I’m stressed, I need to work out
why. This isn’t easy. My brain rebels at the idea that anything
concrete could be making me feel bad. I’m meant to be able to cope!

It’s a step-by-step process. Day by day I’m slowly getting my head
around the idea that I have emotions; that they have causes and
aren’t just down to an innate weakness in me – that it is human,
that it’s OK. And that I can deal with pain in ways which don’t
destroy me. Accepting such a fundamental change in how I perceive
myself and the world is difficult but I am getting there. Slowly,
yes – but definitely.

Holly Davies uses mental health services

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