An emotional tale

By the time I turned eight or nine, I had already experienced enough death. All four grandparents were gone. My brother. My godfather. I remember the day my brother died. We had recently got a new typewriter for Mum to type Dad's academic papers on. And it became a play thing for me and my sister. We would sit there and jam on the keys until they all got stuck in the upright position together. We would type our names. Jane Flanagan. Jane Esther Flanagan. Line after line, in red and black.

When Paul died, the house was a swarm of adults and grief and I got lost in it as a four-year old would. I remember that state of knowing but not knowing what was happening, of watching my Mum and perceiving limitless grief, of watching Dad and fearing his grief, fearing for him. But not feeling it myself. My older sister understood better and clung and sobbed as one with them. But I stood apart, trying to figure it all out, trying to summon the reactions I was witnessing, not being able to.

Instead, I sat at the table and in front of the typewriter and found that place in my child's mind where I could play by myself. I quietly typed, whispering and cajoling. And then I felt a gaze and looked up at one of Dad's coworkers looking down at me and smiling. And the man he was talking to followed his gaze and also smiled the same peculiar sad smile. And one said to the other "it's good she's not old enough to understand."

It was unlikely that moment alone. But it's from that moment that I trace this idea I've carried that it's better not to be emotional. That emotion was all caterwauling and carrying-on. And I continued to back away from emotion for decades. I loved my first real boyfriend more deeply than I had ever felt, but I never betrayed it. I shed countless tears over him, but never in front of him. I always withdrew and played with the typewriter in my head instead of giving expression to my feelings, even when there was no longer a problem of comprehension.

One day we had a fight and he pushed me. Hard. My head hit a dresser and split open. And when I felt the warm blood fall onto my eyelid, I started screaming. And I couldn't stop. I cried until my body started seizing, gulping for air between sobs. I stayed like that all night, knowing I should leave him and his room forever. But for the first time I wanted somebody to witness all my soggy, bruised emotion.

That unleashing didn't last. Instead of seeing that I had experienced the kind of pain I thought I had built immunity to, I focused on the end of our relationship and resolved never to be hurt like that again. For a brief moment I had embodied that state that I had conditioned myself to reject and, now, I needed to put distance between it and me. If that's what emotion was for, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I've long fantasized about a version of myself as cool as Estella in Great Expectations but the truth is I'm no more successful at it than she was. And my own inability to express has ruined other, better relationships. And I still hold back with my family, entrenched as we are in the dynamic created the day Paul died. The them and the me.

I can't say I feel entirely discouraged either; being emotionless is something with real currency in our world. Our understanding of professionalism has a lot to do with restraint around emotions (and we could especially talk about this with respect to being working women). It's easy to prize and pursue an emotionless existence. Being cold, calculated and handling situations impersonally is not only respected, it's required of us.

The problem is, of course, that we are emotional beings. And as more and more of us relate our jobs to our very identity, the idea of not taking work personally, of not reacting emotionally, becomes more difficult. The truth is that though I romanticize being unfeeling, I'm just lying to myself. I'm as heart-on-sleeve as they come. And I chase art and literature because it gives me a way to stretch into emotional spaces I find difficult to occupy in my own life. Perhaps it's even why I write.

In much the same way that I've wrestled feminist ideals, gradually allowing my definition to become broader and gentler than the definition I was raised with, I've worked on reorganizing my early understanding of what emotions are about. On having a relationship with my emotional self that's as strong and respectful as the relationship I have with my cerebral self. And on no longer seeing those parts as being disjointed from each other.

But I still feel emotionally inchoate, too vulnerable to being hurt, mistrustful of myself and unsure of what I really think and feel in certain moments. And it sometimes makes me feel very lonely, this feeling that I'll never reconcile it all, that I'll never just learn to be.
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