The feelings are the path

We sold the rental house we owned up in Lebanon. The deal closed Friday.

You might remember that after a longtime tenant moved out early this year and we started renovations to rent it again, a beam supporting part of the house failed. Read about it here. Our son and his buddy, who have some experience repairing foundations, thought they could tackle it. But they soon realized it was over their heads.

As we looked through the rest of the property we realized it needed lots of costly repairs and updates, probably including demolishing the garage.

Leaning garage

After everything else we’ve lived through in the last three years, the stress of this was staggering. It overwhelmed us. We needed to step back. We locked the doors and walked away for a month, pretending the house did not exist.

This wasn’t the only thing going on in our lives. Both Margaret and I started new jobs this summer. Margaret’s mom passed away. There’s much more, equally impactful, but it all involves stories that belong more to other people than to me and so aren’t mine to tell.

Margaret and I finally agreed that we have neither the emotional nor the energy reserves to handle all of these rental-house projects. There was no good way for us to pay for it all anyway. So we got a Realtor, listed the house, and waited anxiously. After several weeks a flipper made a barely acceptable offer, which we eagerly accepted.

This house hanging over our heads was a source of constant worry and anxiety for me. I felt like I was being stalked by a wolf.

I’m easily anxious, and I feel things intensely. I probably learned to be anxious along the way but I was born with deep feelings.

I wish I had learned to handle my feelings when I was younger. But my family didn’t know what to do with me when I was lost in deep feelings, especially anger and sadness. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. What I learned to get through those formative years, unfortunately, was that I had to stuff my deep feelings down, put them away, pretend they weren’t happening.

As I entered adulthood I found this left me handicapped in forming healthy relationships and in handling stress.

Since then I’ve done a lot of work and have come a long way toward being able to handle myself. I learned that when my feelings run deep I need to pause and give them space to run their course. While I’m experiencing deep feelings, I don’t always think straight. Trying to think then often only prolongs those feelings needlessly. It’s best to just notice them, feel them, let them roll. When they subside and my head is clear, I can make good choices about what to do.

It often takes a lot of time for intense feelings to pass — hours, sometimes more than a day. I hate it. It robs me of the energy and attention to do things I’d rather do, and delays me taking needed actions on whatever triggered the feelings.

But I’ve made it work, and by my late 40s I had found greater equanimity than I’d ever known. Learning how to do this was the best gift I ever gave myself.

These last three years put me to the test. It has truly been one incredibly difficult thing after another. I didn’t have time to process one thing before two or three more piled on.

I’ve had to keep pushing forward. Hard choices kept needing to be made, and we made them. We had to keep working so that we could stay fed, clothed, and sheltered. Everyday life had to be lived — groceries bought, cars repaired, grass mowed, dinners prepared, bills paid.

Layered difficult feelings about our various challenges soon intertwined, became indistinct. I was just raw all the time and could only vaguely explain why.

I tried to cope with alcohol, a dead-end street that I detailed here and here. I tried to cope by escaping with Margaret on getaway weekends. Those were good for us, but only temporarily suspended reality. I tried to cope with leaning into my hobbies. I may have made more photographs in 2019 than in any other year of my life.

But mostly I’ve coped by being angry. Really angry. I’ve wanted to blame somebody, anybody for all of this. I’ve had to work very hard to keep from it.

I’ve also been well beyond my capacity for a long time. I’m in a sort of defense mode, pushing away hard everything that feels like a threat. I’ll bet if I could think more rationally about things I’d see most of them aren’t threats.

I finally figured out about a month ago that being in this angry defense mode feels safer than letting go and feeling what I actually feel about all that’s gone on.

So I’ve gone back to fundamentals. When a wave of hard feelings comes, I let it. I don’t judge it, I don’t try to figure out what triggered it, I don’t even label it as any particular feeling. I just let it happen.

Fortunately, these waves tend to come when I have quiet time alone, rather than in the middle of dinner or a meeting at work. Unfortunately, a lot of my quiet time alone comes after bedtime. I let the feelings roll for an hour, maybe two. But then if they haven’t passed I take one of the pills the doctor prescribed and am asleep within a half hour.

But while the feelings roll, I hold them loosely, and muster as much compassion as I can that I have to feel them at all. That we’ve had to experience all these serious difficulties. That we don’t know when good times will return.

These feelings are not here to harm me; they are not my enemy. They are not obstacles on my path. They are the path.