The gift of growing older is that you eventually realize some of the things you learned as a child weren’t healthy. With age comes the opportunity to shift those beliefs into ones more nurturing and life-affirming.
In my life, the biggest shift has been how I respond to my emotions. Changing my relationship to my feelings has transformed my life, in many ways making it feel like I only recently began truly living.
Your relationship with your emotions affects everything from how happy you are to how well you can identify your passions to whether your relationships are deep or shallow. That’s because if you numb one emotion, you numb all emotions, creating an internal environment that’s just numb.
In my case, it wasn’t until I almost died that I learned how to embrace my emotions and in turn, embrace my life.
As a young girl, my family wasn’t very close. We never discussed things, but rather swept them under the rug.
Later in high school, I remember crying about various things and my mother would say, “Suzanne, you’re not being rational.” Now, I want to tell her, “of course I’m not being rational. Feelings are not rational, and that’s okay. They’re not meant to be.”
As a child, I cried all the time. This is partially why, starting in first grade, my parents sent me to therapy. I learned that emotions were weak and expressing them created an opening for people to label you as crazy.
Fast forward to freshman year in high school: My dad had recently died. We had moved to a new town, where I, a wanna-be skater girl who wore baggy jeans and listened to Nirvana, was struggling to fit in to a high school where most girls wore spray tans and black dress pants fit for a nightclub.
My mother was unraveling. My sister, Meredith, was seven years older and turning to out to be the one I could turn to. Then a police officer knocked on our door one night with the news: Meredith had killed herself.
Meredith and I had never been close, but we were starting to bond. The year in between her death and my father’s was intense, and Meredith showed up for me in a way that my mother was not able to. But Meredith had her own demons, and nobody was there to show up for her.
After she was gone, I felt very alone. My mother retreated further into herself; we didn’t even drive in the same car to my sister’s funeral. My mother drove her with boyfriend and I with my best friend’s dad, who let us smoke cigarettes out the window as he backed up an exit ramp on the highway after missing the turn off.
The cocoon of comfort, of people around who cared, evaporated after the funeral. Everyone moved on with their lives, and I struggled to figure out what, exactly, my life was. I slept a lot. Hung out in my room. Counted the days until college.
A while ago I found a short story I wrote around this time, and it encapsulated my highest desire: to appear strong and cold and never hurt.
I needed help, desperately. I needed support, desperately. But I had no idea how to get it or who to ask. My pain made me feel flawed, so different from everyone around me with supportive, close families. I tried to hide my pain with a pasted-on smile, but it didn’t work. The more I hid my sadness, the more separate I became. I felt numb.
I tried to make other people like me by pretending I was happy, but it didn’t work and that made me feel even more alone, isolated from other people, but worst of all, separated from myself.
Fast forward, through college, through a few months living on Maui that truly melted my heart open — it was from Maui that I called my mom to talk about my sister and we cried together for the first time ever, 10 years after her death.
Fast forward through all of that. I’m 27 and living in a small Arizona town while working at a newspaper. I had moved there for my then-boyfriend, now husband, and we had just arrived home from a cruise. I was taking a shower and randomly decided to check my boobs.
My father was diagnosed with cancer after returning home from a cruise, and that mental connection probably saved my life. Because I felt a lump and immediately knew that it was not good.
Throughout the ensuing months of doctors and treatments and sickness and fear, I kept it together. I did. I was practiced at navigating grief and trauma and knew from experience that this pain would ultimately become wisdom. I caught the cancer early enough that my chances were really great. Everything was going to be okay.
On Dec. 1, 2009, I awoke from surgery cancer free — bald and with fake boobs, but ready to start living again. Only I couldn’t stop crying.
I’ve talked with other cancer survivors and everyone says the same thing. During treatment, you’re in battle mode. You don’t have time to think. And then it’s over and you’re left sorting through this rubble, like what just happened to me?
And in the rubble, I felt rage. I was completely traumatized, felt like I had been chewed up and spit out by toxic treatments, dramatic surgeries and difficult decisions, and now everyone expected me to just pick back up and be normal again.
I had never been an angry person, but was now literally losing it. I threw temper tantrums in grocery stores and in restaurants. At work. Everyone wondered what was wrong with me. I had just survived cancer. I should be happy.
Everyone wanted me to be strong and cold and never hurt. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. And I didn’t care what everyone wanted.
I had to honor my feelings.
I had to make people uncomfortable as I healed from trauma. I had to ask for what I needed. I had no other choice. And of any other thing I’ve gone through, this experience of learning to meet my emotional needs transformed my life.
It was more than feeling my feelings — it was being honest with how I felt, and valuing that honesty over the need to make other people like me.
After my family died, everyone told me I was strong. They had no idea how much I hurt inside. After cancer, nobody told me I was strong because I was visibly broken. But for the first time in my life, I understood what true strength was. It was the ability to break open and then heal.
This pain humbled me, forced me to re-evaluate who I thought I was and wanted to be. It turned me inside out and started me on this journey, as a feeler of feelings, a see-er of human strength and teacher of spiritual potential.
And this is the gift of our most harrowing moments. If we accept the assignment and allow them to transform us, they will.