I can tell myself I live my life so packed full of stuff to do because “I have to.” I can convince myself that every single one of these “tasks” is necessary. That these deadlines – which I have set for myself – are somehow real or fixed.
But I think we all know that’s a crock of shit.
We fill our lives up with work and jobs and social media addiction, to avoid …this. What Louis CK would call “That empty. That forever empty.”
To be fair, it’s not really “empty.” There’s something there. It’s a terrifying something and it’s different for everyone, but it’s there. Loneliness, Fear of failure, Self-loathing… and, of course, memories.
Recently, I was teaching a group of students from the Middle East through a State Department program at the University of Delaware. I was teaching them some basic concepts from cognitive psychology – about memory. I explained that memories have to be “reactivated” or rehearsed for us to continue to actively remember them.
An Egyptian student in her mid-20s with sad eyes raised her hand: “But, what if we want to forget something. Can we make a memory disappear?”
Well, shit. There’s a beast of a question.
“Sadly, no. Not really. And the more you try, the higher the likelihood that it will remain salient in memory. And if you actively choose not to engage that thought or memory, it is just as likely to come out in your dreams.”
Unfortunately, the things we want to forget are things that have emotional resonance attached to them – usually fear, anger, or grief. Events and constructs that are experienced with emotion are privileged in memory. I like to call emotions our brains’ “special sauce.” Our brain loves to feel. It treats emotion-laden experiences as special – which makes them, by definition, more prominent.
And the trap of unpleasant memories is that even the act of thinking ‘I don’t want to think about this,” we are activating and rehearsing that very thing. Agh!
The student appeared disappointed and fatigued by my response, but also nodded, as if she knew this truth all too well.
What I did not concede, is that I live this reality, too. Most of us do.
My forever empty is always the same. And I have been pushing my forever empty so far into the corners of my mind lately that it has finally started to fight back. My forever empty is showing up in dreams. It is even making itself known when I’m awake – in the form of debilitating headaches. Throbbing dull headaches that make it impossible to teach, to write, or to get out of bed. From the moment I wake up, I anticipate how it will feel to be able to climb back in bed in just 16 long hours. And I fill those hours with distractions: distractions in the form of work, housework, news, research, and social media bullshit.
But, finally, my forever empty has pitched such a fucking fit – that it is demanding to be acknowledged. So, here I am, dedicating my afternoon not to grading, not to writing my manuscripts, not to article reviews or data analysis… but to my forever empty. Are you happy now, you stupid fucking forever empty?
I think my forever empty started knocking at the door and demanding attention two weeks ago. I was in Tucson, Arizona at a meeting of researchers for the National Institute for Civil Discourse. The director had the thirty or so participants introduce ourselves individually in a novel way, inspired by Native American traditions. We were asked to tell our names, the waters of our birth, a geographical feature of the land of our birth, and then to share our “spirit guide.” That is – who or what guides us.
I was fine with the first questions: Merrimack River in New Hampshire. Geographical feature? The watershed surrounding Newfound Lake, NH.
Then came the question of the Spirit Guide. People listed animals (the wolf, the cat, the bear), celestial bodies (the sun, the stars), and deceased scholars (Hannah Arendt).
As I listened, I became paralyzed. How am I going to tell this room – largely filled with respected colleagues whom I’ve never met in person– that my spirit guide is my dead husband?
Plus, I’m a pretty lighthearted, happy person. I study political comedy for fuck’s sake. And now I’m going to introduce myself as the chick who is guided by her dead husband.
The more I tried to think of a different “spirit guide,” the more I thought of Mike. His smile, his floppy red hair, his artistic director face while he watched an improv comedy scene. Him singing at the top of his lungs to Stevie Wonder in his 96 Saturn. Him scooting me out of the kitchen so he could bake his homemade pecan pie in peace while listening to the Clash. Mike Mike Mike. The more I tried to force it out, the bigger his face got in my head.
After blinking back tears and swallowing the knot that had formed just at the back of my throat, I had a brainstorm.
The moon. The moon is where we told Baxter that Daddy Mike would always be: “In heaven on the moon.”
It was my turn:
“My spirit guide is the moon,” I said, taking a deep breath as the other scholars in the room nodded and smiled politely.
…but really it’s my best friend and dead husband, Mike Young, whose illness and death rattled my whole world and left me feeling that this – all of this – is so fucking fleeting that we better live like we mean it. That means saying yes to things, being open and vulnerable, being kind to people, embracing the imminent prospect of your own death as though it could happen right fucking now. That means making the world better, fixing our broken political system, forging relationships that count, experiencing love and loss with all of our hearts because that is living.
But… I didn’t say any of this. Instead I told my “Spirit Guide” to shut the fuck up and just sat down and sipped on my bottle of water.
And, that’s when my headache started.
Fucking spirit guide.
I often think about that young woman from Egypt who wanted to know “how to forget” something. I’ve been trying to forget the darkest hours of Mike’s illness and death for over eight years. Unsuccessfully. The brain tumor that killed him destroyed his body from the inside out. First stealing his vision and his short term memory and continence. Then, after several months, and multiple surgeries, the pressure in the midbrain was too great. In his final days, he was unrecognizable: swollen to twice his normal size, skin blotched purple with lesions, eyes swollen open, bleeding from the mouth.
Death is grotesque. People don’t talk too much about this, but it is. When our bodies - these complex organisms – begin to fail, the results are horrific. I often feel that the salience of this horrible image in my mind is a betrayal of Mike. He was brilliant, funny, content, passionate, and kind. The image of this dying shell that once contained his spirit… that wasn’t Mike.
But, emotions are the brain’s “special sauce,” and never have I felt … so strongly as I did during those days. I mean felt anything so strongly. I felt anger – at him and the world. I felt grief – in anticipation of life without him in it. I felt fear –how was I going to raise our baby alone? How was I going to pay bills, shop, cook – all the things Mike had done? But I also felt gratitude – surrounded by dozens of our closest friends who had come to be with us in the hospital. I felt love – for Mike, for my friends and family, and for Baxter who I knew was going to be the key to my survival.
It seems that pushing this memory into the corner of my mental basement is a fool’s errand. Given the intense and complex emotions that coat every nook and cranny of this memory?
There is no way it is ever going to go away.
The great irony is that one way to defang traumatic memories is to deliberately activate them in a controlled or safe environment. Yes, it’s the last thing you would ever want to do. The problem is, if you do not deliberately activate and reconcile these memories, the trauma will work its way up again (hence my headaches). For instance, over the past month, every time I have heard a report about the Ebola virus and the toll that the disease takes on the human body, I am triggered. I know what multisystem organ failure and sepsis look like – and I know what they look like when they are killing my best friend - who I just started my life with.
Sometimes, you have to clear out all the noise… all the distractions. You have to admit that all this “busyness” is self-manifested – and is likely symptomatic of other, deeper shit. You have to create a safe space, take a deep breath and go in… and visit your “forever empty.”
I just did it right here on these pages. And it was scary as shit.
But… for the moment at least, my headache is gone.