In 1995, I carefully printed these thoughts in a journal: I don’t know how to share…release…spill. I keep worrying about how my feelings will make other people feel. I can’t seem to break out and really let go of anything. Even when I start to cry it gets strangled by this “hyper-self-conscious I” that’s controlling me, a precision machination that automatically subverts my feelings. But they don’t go away—they just get compressed back inside.
I had recently started therapy after finally admitting at age 36 that I didn’t have the emotional compass, ropes and flashlight to navigate my dark inner territory alone, especially without self-medication as a prop. In some ways I was painfully together, as in one-day-at-a-time-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-taking-care-of-business together. But in other ways I was disconnected from my true self and lost in a confusing maze of compartments built for control. I was tight-shouldered, tight-assed and brittle.
I instinctively suspected—and felt in the pit of my perpetually-clenched gut—that what I needed more than anything was to fall apart, to let go of what I had been carrying for years—soul secrets, deep trauma and unprocessed grief—but I didn’t know how. Control had been my fortress; to deliberately step out into the open with defenses down seemed perhaps the most dangerous choice I could possibly make.
I feared, as I believe many of us do, that to fall apart—to allow the flow of suppressed emotion to begin—might mean I could never stop.
I was so unbelievably analytical that I drew this diagram in that same journal to illustrate the challenge I saw myself facing. Over the previous 30 years I had strategically built a “forcefield” of control- and performance-oriented coping and defense mechanisms so elaborate as to virtually prevent me from unlocking myself to myself.
What is heart-rending for me now as I look back at that painfully-accurate, almost scientific diagram of a human being named Marva is that the forcefield of control served to screen out more than fears and threats like pain, hopelessness, loneliness, and powerlessness. It also prevented me from experiencing joy, anticipation, love and empowerment. I had suppressed feelings for so long, I was emotionally disabled.
Crazy as it may seem in a keep-it-together-world and in the face of my own over-sized fears and against the advice of my security-conscious ego, I deliberately chose to commit to the task of falling apart. It was by far the most audacious and wisest choice I ever made.
How long did it take? Half-a-second. Five years. The length of a deep exhale. A lifetime.
I am still falling apart in ways that I could not have predicted. I disarmed the forcefield so totally that I can feel everything now. And oh, my God! Wow! No wonder I felt so unalive before. My defenses had cut me off from life itself. And the threats I’d defended against—like hurt, need, shame and chaos—dissolved along with my blockades, as if only shadows cast by the fears themselves.
Now, after 20 years of practice flowing with my emotions, I joke about buying stock in Kleenex. I cry as easily from joy and deep compassion as from grief. If you tell me something deep and real about your life, I will cry with you. I also laugh readily and with abandon. I am deeply touched by the experience of being fully alive, which would never have been possible without falling apart.
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend—as the old Steely Dan song goes—any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.
I am living proof.