NUMB: When being “Strong” is the only option you have

Elisa A. Escalante/ LMSW/ 4-14-2020

“When pain and sadness is forbidden in a society, it causes us to isolate ourselves and live in that pain alone.”  -EaE

On Monday April 13th, my office manager confirmed to me what I already knew, that my client was found dead in his home.  I acknowledged with a work appropriate response, spent the day at work with my work appropriate behaviors and attitude.  Truth be told, I had to numb weeks ago when said client would not return my calls.  When the phone dial went from ringing, to then going straight to voicemail days later.  When I remembered said client was suffering from respiratory issue’s earlier in the year and is past the age of 80.  When I tried calling next of kin and nothing came through, when I dialed 911 multiple times and could not get a thing.  I had to tell my mind: “He is dead, there is nothing you can do but wait and hear it confirmed later”. 

     It eerily reminded me of many other times I used a similar psychological numbing response.  Like many other people, this is not out of choice, but what we feel is out of necessity especially when faced with traumatic grievances.  In High School, when I found out someone extremely close to me (a relative) almost successfully committed suicide.  I went on like life was normal, no one could know, it was no one’s business.  In the military year 2010, learning my mother died via voicemail, but being in the middle of my duty day, therefore I closed my cell phone and went back to work as if nothing happened.  It would be months before any coworkers found out.  When deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, hearing the bombs making contact all around me, feeling the shaking in my guts.  I could sense the danger, therefore I “was still alive and okay”. Intellectualizing a dangerous situation so that my mind can stay “in control”.  Numbing when finding out about the soldier under our care at the Combat stress clinic that shot himself only several hours after I was tasked to reschedule him.  Numbing myself when emotions are too scary or perceived as “too burdensome” for the situation. 

     Anyone with similar experiences of chronically using the defense mechanism of numbing and intellectualizing will often get fed the lines of “You’re so strong!”  “You’re absolutely fine, you are doing well”.  In some cases, we may feel very strong, in some cases we may feel odd.  “Why am I not crying the way everyone else cries when death happens?”  “Why do I not fear what everyone else fears?”  Make no mistake this isn’t strength, and it is not a character flaw, rather it is our mind’s preferred defense mechanisms.  If someone has perfected these defense mechanisms, it is most likely because they have had to “be strong” while everyone else and/ or everything around them was falling apart. 

     A deployed military member must “be strong” for the country they are fighting for.  A healthcare or mental health care professional must “be strong” for their clients.  A protector child must “be strong” and rescue their parent or sibling from abuse.  An abused child must be “empty of emotions” as to not provoke their abuser.  A breadwinner must “be strong” and provide for the family.  A parent must “always be strong” for the kids.  Many are pressured to speak up and ask for help.  However, if people are “unwell” the responsibility is often solely put on them.  “Practice self-care so you do not burnout” is the classic line.  Unfortunately, this can cause a shame response, as “burnout” means “we did not do enough to take care of ourselves”.  Make changes and try again!  Truth be told, many people are at a loss when it comes to proper self-care.  It isn’t a requirement in our education system and many households have different perceptions on what is “good for them”.

      Numbing serves its purpose when surviving our environment requires us to halt all other biological and psychological responses of: fight, fly, freeze.  Also, when our environment requires us to halt many emotions to include fear, stress, anxiety, depression, trauma trigger symptoms and so on.  Numbing is also a systematically pressured and welcomed response.  Family pressure’s, occupational pressures, societal pressures are just a few examples.  Numbing allows us to go about our days appearing to be “normal” and “functional” all the while our minds are ripping apart inside of our skulls with internal conflict.  Traumatic news might just make us want to breakdown and cry, but our minds are not ready to go there yet.  There’s an abuser that has forbid us of those emotions, or there’s another mouth to feed, or another person to save, another mission to accomplish, another employer up our asses with productivity demands.  Therefore, the only option is to “Feel No more” and go about the day like any other day.

     I have learned enough about myself to know that I will numb the moment tragedy hits.  Childhood trauma, military trauma and becoming a social worker have conditioned this response.   However, with that insight in mind, I do have the power to allow myself emotional release without shame.  In a society where we are groomed to produce/consume, lack self-care, pressured to appear “normal”, and expected not to “whine”, the only option is to feel and grieve in the times that are “deemed appropriate”.  Such as when we are alone or with a close loved one that has proven before they will not judge us.  In our pillows at night when no one is watching. (Yes, I did this in bootcamp several times and I’m Woman enough to admit it!  Just NOT in front of the Drill sergeant! Never ever!) Or the classic line of “You take it to the grave with you”.  Trauma and grief do have a way of silencing a nation, a family, and in turn: the individual. 

     My chronic doses of grief do, as a matter of fact, come in waves.  Numb, feel, numb and feel again.  On average I have cried about my mother’s death once a year to every other year.  I cry about the client that we lost to suicide 1 time a year.  Many people in similar situations have expressed that their grief too, comes in strange and unpredictable waves. My only hope stems from the fact that times are changing, people are changing, and perspectives are changing.  Celebrities can talk about mental illness out loud; they also have many spectators reaching out and empathizing. I hear the average person talking about mental health now, I never heard much about it in my childhood.  They always said, “Mental health, well that’s for the crazy people!” 

     Our ancestors before us grew up stigmatizing uncomfortable emotion’s and equating it with “insanity”.  Maya Angelou wrote (in my opinion) the most incredible and heart wrenching words in relation to trauma silencing/ numbing: “There is no greater Agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”.  She herself, was a survivor of horrendous childhood trauma that she eventually shared.  Even as I write and speak of it, I know that half of this world may still label emotional expression as “weak”, and then encourage the numbing/ silence instead.   It seems like the “right” thing to do, just putting it “behind” us.  I’m here to kindly remind you, that the strongest people truly do suffer in silence.   A living, breathing human being will never be immune to emotional pain.  My hope is that anyone who is trapped in a maladaptive environment or system can find their way out, can search for resources, can find an advocate or mentor, maybe find a helpful provider, a trusted ear and/ or a healthy coping strategy.  It is absolutely okay, to not always be okay.

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

2 thoughts on “NUMB: When being “Strong” is the only option you have

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: