One of the things I have been working on over the last two or three years is understanding and managing and exploring emotions. I started off having to do this in order to be an acceptable human for my red mare. It was a fairly basic equation: if you don’t get your own head straight, you will never get your horse’s head straight. Also, I did owe it to her to be the best person I could be. She is magnificent, and she deserves as much magnificence as I can muster in return.
Then I discovered that I could translate all the techniques and perspectives I was learning for her sake to my human life. I was better with people; I was better with myself.
Then the stakes ramped up a little more, because I was starting to tutor young people and I was teaching and mentoring writers. I couldn’t just throw out stuff that I wasn’t doing myself. I had to find as much wisdom as I could and then put it into practice. I had to learn and explore and make mistakes and be brave so that I could offer all that to my students.
And then, then, I discovered that life gets more complicated as you get older. (It gets simpler too, in a weird way. Maybe I mean the world gets more complex, and your reactions to it grow more simple. Something like that.) More and more existential and cultural battalions start marching over the land, looking for territory. There is social media, and Trump, and Brexit, and the coronavirus, and political tribalism, and wars and hatreds and revolutions. That’s the crazy wide world. And there is the immediate world, where people you love die and unexpected events whack you round the head and you’ve got forty-seven things to do every day and never enough time. You have to learn to work and grieve and get better at time management and grow the hell up about money. (By which I mean: I do.)
And in all that, there are going to be a hundred streaming emotions and some of them are going to hurt. There is panic and overwhelm and lunatic amounts of amygdala hijack. There is despair and surliness and self-laceration. There is the horrible, plucking finger of the Imposter Syndrome and the insidious voice of the You Will Never Be Good Enough and the flat statement of You Might As Well Give Up.
So, I thought, I’d better be able to do something with the painful emotions, or my boat – and I always think of myself as a plucky little craft on a stormy sea – will sink.
I learnt emotions like I once learnt the piano. I learnt them like I learnt how to write decent prose. I read about them. I found TED talks about them. I asked wise friends about them. I practised different techniques in how to deal with them. If one method did not work, I’d try another. I start to suspect this might be my life’s work. I’ll still be having a new theory when I lie on my deathbed.
And here is one of the things I have discovered so far. You have to feel them. They are sometimes so scary that you want to run away. You want to shove them in the cupboard of doom and slam the door shut. You drink gin or eat too much or plunge into a Netflix orgy or do any damn thing so you don’t have to feel crappy. And the emotions, who are stunningly crafty, simply wait you out, and twist themselves up into something worse, and sneak round the back, and grab you when you think you are safe.
So, I believe, you’ve got to plunge in. Not because you are brave or noble or brilliantly emotionally intelligent, but simply because that’s the only thing that works. In the last four days, I have had shock, despair, rank terror (so that I was awake at 4.45am, rigid with fear), sorrow, regret, resentment, and a hollow feeling of abandonment. It was like a twisted Greatest Hits of Crappy Emotions.
A voice in my head was shouting, ‘You can’t cope with all this. You are going to fall apart.’
I so, so wanted to run away. The cupboard of doom looked like such a perfect option.
But I went right down into the pit. I was in the hole. It was dark down there, and lonely, and very cold. I stood there for a while, for longer than I might have wished. Damn, it hurt. Yet it did not kill me. After a while, I realised two stunningly lovely things. I was still here, still me, still alive, and I had agency. I could make choices. I could decide which story I was going to tell myself.
This is when I draw on Hamlet, because I always end up drawing on Hamlet – there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
This is not an actual hole, I told myself, gently. These are only thoughts. You can change your thoughts. You can write a different story.
My theory is – my experience is – that you can’t write yourself a new story until you’ve looked the old story straight in its rheumy eye. It’s not as simple as an act of will. It’s an experiential choice between two different realities. Which sounds a bit abstruse and fancy-pants, but is true. I mean that you have got to experience them both before you can make your choice. You’ve got to know the hole before you choose to clamber out.
I chose to clamber.
And here’s my second point. I don’t think you can do this stuff alone. So I looked around for help. I went to my Dear Readers. When I share all this with you, it’s my way of connecting myself to the great human family. You, the person who is reading this now, will know all this by heart, because you’ve been through it yourself. No human escapes the slings and arrows.
And then I brought it closer to home, and went to my three or four most trusty friends, the ones who have seen me straight and seen me curly, as the great Nanci Griffith once sang. They are the ones with whom I can be at my most raw and honest and vulnerable. I tell them all the crappy stuff and somehow we end up laughing so hard that we can’t speak. That’s healing, right there.
This is the process. After all that, I wake up and the terror and the shame and the hurt have gone. The hole closes up. I am back on earth, back in the light. I know there will be a few aftershocks, a few wobbles, an occasional regression, but I also know that is all right.
I feel intense gratitude to all the kind hearts who have listened and helped and encouraged. They are there, for all of us, if only we know how to reach out our hands.
And, at the last, I go down to the red mare. She is dreaming and dozing in the sunshine, very present and very real. She blinks at me and gives me her head to stroke and sinks gently into her Place of Peace, the place where her most profoundly calm and whole sense of self lives. She gives me a little look. It’s as if she knows I’ve been away for a few days, in my mind, and now I am back. She is pleased that I am back.
I have a student on the line, so I stomp about the field, shouting into the telephone about Sartre and St Paul and the meaning of life. (She is reading philosophy. She also kindly understands that I tend to bellow when I get excited about a subject. The meaning of life always gets me excited.) The red mare dozes and occasionally opens one sleepy eye to check whether I am finished yet. She knows that when I am done with the marching and the hollering she will get a scratch in that special place behind her left ear.
I finish. I scratch the special place. The grand thoroughbred sighs. And the world, which had tilted so far on its axis that it was threatening to throw me off, steadies itself. I have found my balance. I can move forward again, into the hopeful day.