As we near the end of 2020 and the first global pandemic I’ve lived through, I’m low on ideas for maintaining social and creative connections when I have no inner life.
I’m writing this from a fairly privileged position – I was only unemployed for a few months this year! my health hasn’t taken a turn for the worse! – and I’m still grappling with how much of a downturn my mental health has taken. And there’s no good way to talk about it.
I know I’m not the only one feeling “Zoomed out,” which has been pretty intense for those of us who taught partially or fully online. And I know I’m not alone in feeling like I’m surviving rather than thriving: feeling drained even when I get enough sleep and do all the self-care tips right.
I’m sure we all know the saying “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” meant to encourage us to set boundaries around our own well-being so that we can continue to help others (especially crucial for those of us whose jobs involve service, like teachers, medical/health workers, food service workers). But what happens when one’s cup seems unrefillable? Does the damn thing have holes in it? Did I somehow wind up with a sieve instead of a cup???
Simply put, I feel dead inside. The spark of life that normally pushes me to engage with the things and people I love is just…gone. I know this sounds dramatic and it’s not like I’m actually dead inside, but that’s the best metaphor I have for how I feel. I don’t really want to dance right now. I don’t feel like writing beyond what I need to do to meet my commitments. Very few things sound “fun” unless they’re fairly mindless and dissociative and numbing. Not great, I know, though it’s not like I’m suffering horribly (because I’m too numb to register suffering that’s beyond sensory levels), I’m just…drifting through life right now.
I’m grateful to have a robust support network and friends who seem to understand why I have absolutely no drive to connect right now. Lots of people have reached out to talk and honestly, that just sounds awful. Why would I want to talk? What do I have to say about my life? “Eh, I’m getting through.” “It’s not that bad.” “I…get out of bed and eat every day? That makes my life better than most I guess?” I don’t even have the attention span to be present enough to listen in order to be a supportive friend.
I can talk about the interesting things I read and write, the delightful foods I cook and eat, the hikes and walks I take. But it’s all superficial chatter to disguise the fact that there’s nothing of substance happening below the surface. I don’t really want anything. I don’t really feel anything. I’d say this feels a bit like depression, but a high-functioning version of it.
I know I’m not alone in this, and I know I have it better than many. It’s just so hard to talk about without shutting down, especially because I don’t always like talking about my emotional state (that’s what therapy is for!).
Unlike other folks, though, I research trauma, and thus I’ve benefited from knowing how completing the stress cycle – whether in cases of trauma, burnout, or chronic stress/anxiety – can help us do a physiological reset and thus move past whatever has us feeling stuck. So I exercise pretty much daily. And the other night I watched Coco for the first time, hoping it’d be a tear-jerker like I’d heard (I got disappointingly few tears out of it; probably yet another indication of how dead inside I am). Speaking of trauma, I know part of the reason this is hard for me is that I’ve experienced gaslighting, and trying to be in touch with my emotions and assert their validity is difficult for me as a result; I am terrified that I’ll try to express myself and be gaslit again, even though I try to only keep people in my life who I know won’t pull that shit.
Apart from acknowledging the importance of completing the stress cycle, I suspect this whole thing is cyclical; I managed a lot of resilience early on in all this so maybe there’s hope for me yet. For example, I spent the summer studying new dance styles online and writing things. Then it was a scramble to get ready to teach in the fall, and then teaching consuming my life. Probably where I’m at now indicates a need for downtime, for relaxation, for healing. But what’s the point of those things if nothing feels enjoyable anymore? (well okay, laying around binge-watching Lucifer while knitting random things and reading sci-fi novels sounds enjoyable but it probably won’t hold my attention forever)
I’ve seen, for example, Dr. Aisha Ahmad’s remarks on Twitter about hitting the 6-month wall as part of the normal cycle of surviving a sustained crisis. It’s common to enter a slump and feel like you’ve used up all your reserves and will never feel creative or happy again.
This part I’m experiencing, though… it feels like I’ll never want anything again. And this has been going on for months. I vaguely want to have novel experiences precisely because I know that’s what old-me valued & enjoyed, so I’m inclined to sign up for some online classes (study a new dance prop? yoga teacher training? sky’s the limit for what old-me could accomplish!) and write new genres and cook new things. But the motivation to actually follow through is missing, and trying to have a conversation with myself about what I actually want feels impossible. It feels like there’s no inner me to get in touch with, because inner me is either hibernating or dead.
And I want to support my friends who are not experiencing the same slump: I want to attend their online shows and classes, and read their work, and have catch-up chats, and otherwise show up for them. It just feels like there’s nothing left in me with which to do so, and while I rationally know this is likely temporary, that feeling of inner death, of inner nothingness, is terrifying…or rather, would be terrifying if I had any emotional depth left with which to feel it. It’s scary in the abstract, because I have lovely memories of my past life and that kind of vibrant life feels utterly inaccessible for me.
I don’t know if old-me will come back someday, or if, rather like other cases of trauma and depression I’ve experienced or read/heard about, the old self is transformed by the experience into something new, something changed by the experience. I know that people change and our experiences change us and this is basically what humans do…but it’s scary all the same, to contemplate whether I’ve permanently fallen out of touch with my inner self, a self that was vibrant and passionate and desirous and able to connect with people and creativity and the whole beautiful world.
So, because there’s no good way to just tell people, “I feel dead inside, please leave me alone for now,” maybe I can link people to this post instead of having to go into the whole painful ordeal of explaining where I’m at right now. And hopefully zombie-me can shamble through life, holding it together at the seams, until I’m capable of actually engaging and connecting once more.