On Turning Thirty
When the wave of emotions hits me, I inhale sharply, as if breath could divert the onslaught of feelings alone. But, catharsis is impeded, blocked, contained by a knot in my throat. In this way, I am not special. Many people experience their emotions physically. But not everyone. For some people, emotion is something that comes and goes. Something controllable. Like a switch.Anger, sadness, confusion, hurt–all these feelings manifest themselves for me as acute physical reactions. As do joy, happiness, excitement, and fear. My endorphin system goes haywire constantly and consistently–this has always been true of me. When I was a kid, and something got to me… I couldn’t help but feel it. All of it. The unsettled peach pit of my stomach. The panic that there’s something I’m not saying or doing or getting right. The idea that I can say something or do something that makes it better, if only I could figure it out. The rush of giddiness and tide of excitement that would wash over me. The crazy smile of intense satisfaction I could not turn off. I used to get these rashes on my forehead during moments of intense feeling, good or bad. As if my body itself beamed over the rush of hormones and adrenaline that tended to saturate my every thought. This hasn’t changed much today–I drown in emotions. Parts of me will rationalize, it doesn’t matter that you got made fun of, it doesn’t matter that you fell, it doesn’t matter that you won, it’s not good to be smug when things go well… but the knot in my throat will prove impervious. A dam that keeps me flooded. Reminding me. Pushing me to value emotion over logic. I can’t let go until things run through completely. Until my chest stops pounding. Until my breathing gets right. Until the niggle dissipates. Then I can re-slide into neutral. Okay, reason and logic, where did you go again?
Memory: Summer of 2000. My friend Erin and I swim in a pool. I complain about my parents, like all incoming high school seniors do. Why, she asks, do I even care what my parents think of me? Why can’t I be like a duck, and just let it go? She swims in imitation of a duck, showing how the water just glides right off. See, be like a duck in water. Just let it all wash right off you.
I always thought that this physical connection to my feelings would go away as I got older. That I would grow up into someone cool, calm, sophisticated. The kind of woman who wears chic perfume and doesn’t care about naysayers and pesky things like feelings. That I would part my hair on the left, collect ash marks on the sleeves of my silk shirts, and let everything go. Like a heavy stone dropped into an unfathomable lake. Yes, I longed for ennui. For release from the interminable prison of self-doubt and obsession.
But that’s just not who I am.
Yesterday, I turned thirty. Thirty, several people told me yesterday, is the new twenty. Your twenties, someone else said, are so fraught with hurt and confusion, that’s why thirties are awesome–you know who you are. So who am I?
Jean Valjean? I wish! That guy at least had a plan. 1
I am an Adri. Utterly flawed and full of mirth. Feeling too much for my own good. But feeling has done me good. The kind of good that comes from suffering. From having experienced. Lived.
Memory: 2010. The poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley reads at Pitt. I am in the audience. At the end of the reading, I am so moved by her words, I sneak up, trying to figure out how to put all the feelies into words. 2 “Your poems,” I say, “they were brilliant!” And I smile my biggest “you write brilliant poetry!” smile and hope she knows how sincere I feel about it, how incapable my words are of articulating everything happening inside me because of her. She just looks at me and says, “You are alive.” She turns to the woman next to her. “This one,” pointing at me, “this one is alive. I can tell.” And I know, I know exactly what she means. “I feel.” I say. She nods. We understand each other just then.
When I turned twenty-nine, I was in the middle of a hailstorm of emotion. My boyfriend of almost eight years left me. My health and mental health took a turn for the worst, and I found myself having an honest to goodness breakdown. The feelings were too much. During this time, my ex blamed me. For feeling too much. For not being to let go and move on as quickly as he had. For drowning slowly in a pool of my own making. I tried. I tried to be as normal as I could. With my forehead aflame and my duckish qualities faltering.
Instead, I isolated myself from the people I shouldn’t have. Pushed friends and family away, went a little mad, and thought it better to face it all alone. I didn’t call. I didn’t write back. I decided that my feelings were too much. That I needed to teach myself how to glide. But I realize, after lots of therapy and good friends who didn’t let me disappear, that that’s wrong. That there’s nothing wrong with feeling.
This year will be about rebuilding. Reconnecting with friends I let float away. Answering emails that have been lingering too long in my inbox. Trying to learn from myself, from my life. I’ve learned that the initial nouns of love are not the same as the verb of love.3 That there are two ways to reacting to another’s disappointment: you can rise and do your best to no longer disappoint, or you can resent the other for expecting things of you. I’ve learned that I’m more the former than the latter. I will keep trying, even when there’s no point in trying. I firmly believe there’s no one so gone that they can’t be saved. I feel it, in my gut.
Memory: Summer 2013. A boy holds my hand for the first time.4 I like the way your skin feels, he whispers, I like the way it warms up. I try to apologize for the incoming sweat. Oh god, I think, my stupid body needs to cool down.“Sorry,” I mutter, “I’m sweaty.” “No,” he says, “it’s just you. I like that.” He says it so quietly, that I can’t help but smile. Oh, I think, he doesn’t think there’s something wrong with me already. And that feels good.
There are people that infantilize you. For example, no matter what my age, my father asking me to pick up my room makes me feel like a child. My father still does this. Why do you feel the need to put your purse on the chair, instead of neatly hanging it on the purse-hanging rack? I will look at him, forever fifteen, and shrug. Dunno. Even my internal monologue reverts to 1998.
Anyway, I want to say that this will be a good year. That my mental anguish has receded. That I’m happier. I actually am. I tried really hard this morning to make peace with a ghost, but I think I’ve forgotten how to speak to ghosts. We have this habit of picking up wherever we left off, me and my ghosts, and sometimes that place has too many feelings to ever do it properly. Perhaps that’s why I call the people who’ve left me–old friends and lovers past–ghosts. I can’t bury them, they still haunt me a little–some friendly and some not so much. I prefer it this way, though, it keeps me humble. I don’t like people who pretend they can start over from scratch. I don’t start over, I simply build and learn.
I love hard. No doubt. I fight hard. I succumb to impulses good and bad. I say yes to danger. I jump off cliffs even though I’m terrified of heights. The thrill of it all. I’ve let myself feel abandoned, depressed, worthless. I’ve felt elation, and yes, alive. I can die knowing that I fought too much, gave too much, and never settled for something because it was easy. I make hard choices. I feel for others. I empathize, I sympathize, I go beyond that and really try to understand. It’s how I can forgive. Even what to others is unforgivable. It’s how I apologize without thinking that an apology is compromise. Apologizing is not admitting I did wrong, it’s knowing that what I did hurt someone else’s feelings, and acknowledging I could have avoided that. By seeing the feelings involved. It’s how I slowly, but difficultly, move on. By allowing myself to experience all of it. The ups and the downs, and while I’ve made the mistake of retreating inward or striking outward when the emotions got too hot, I’m hoping this year to harness my feelings into good. To make something of it all.
It’s what I do best. It’s who I am. It’s why I am.
I tell stories for a living. I imagine possibilities from raw material. I am a sculptor, moving clay in my fingers, making manifest what’s only now a flicker in the mind. I am poised, ready to chip away until I make something beautiful out of what could only be wet dirt to another.
I’m just waiting for the feeling to strike. Hopefully it strikes hard. I think I can take it. I am thirty, after all.