The Wisdom in Negative Emotions.

This piece The Wisdom in Negative Emotions was first published in the April 2020 edition of Litgleam: A Literature and Lifestyle Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, please visit here


One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious. This procedure, however, is disagreeable, and therefore not very popular. | Carl Gustav Jung

At the time of writing this piece, nearly one million species on the planet are under threat of extinction due to anthropocentric activities. In India, as the nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 grew in numbers, the national capital witnessed a brutal carnage that left fifty-three people dead, and more than 200 injured. An astounding number that ran into thousands were detained in different parts of the country. Even as the dead were laid to rest, the world spiralled into what would be known as the COVID-19 pandemic affecting more than 150 countries. Locally and globally, humanity has been touched by emotions ranging from anxiety, confusion, dis-ease, and fear to apathy, hatred, intolerance, and violence. In a time, when we deal not only with personal losses but events of catastrophic scale, what wisdom do we rely on?

Western philosophy introduced us to the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy – rational thinking and order personified by Apollo and irrationality and emotions embodied by Dionysius in Greek mythology. A similar dialectic exists between masculine logic and feminine emotion. This dichotomy has been extrapolated further to separate our emotions as positive and negative, encouraging the positive emotions as worthy of our attention and driving our negative emotions as problems that require treatment if they persist for a long time.

Traditionally, our institutions including family, marriage, religion, education, and work have socialised us to aspire to and cultivate emotions that lead to consumption, efficiency, and productivity. As a result, emotions that reveal human fragility or do not promote social integrity, i.e. the negative emotions have been seen as an individual vice or falling under the domain of psychiatry or psychological disorders, serving no purpose.

In her profound and paradigm-shifting book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair (2003), psychotherapist and author Miriam Greenspan throws light on the inevitable need to address negative or dark emotions. Born to Holocaust survivors, Greenspan witnessed her parents grieve and build a life of meaning, finding her initial lessons in the possibility of transformation of negative emotions.

The loss of her first-born son Aaron brought her in direct contact with grief and despair, the ground for “emotional alchemy” that set in motion her healing and return to reality.

Greenspan turns our attention to the wisdom in negative emotions and our cultural disposition to avoid or be cautious of their purpose. Much like the positive emotions, our negative emotions – anger, despair, fear, numbness – require our acceptance, attention, and tolerance. Greenspan reiterates that each negative emotion narrates its own purpose; grief brings us out of our illusion of individuality and makes us find interconnectedness in the seeming disorder; fear creates space for attention and brings us to face the real and unreal; and, despairing emotions are an opportunity to see all that we have suppressed in ourselves.

Befriending our negative emotions is not easy. Greenspan encourages practitioners to prepare themselves for a nonlinear process that is often chaotic than provides answers.

Yet, in the present scenario with its impending challenges, we may need to surrender to the wisdom in the negative emotions. Our consistent exposure to natural and manmade catastrophes, institutionalized sexism, racism, casteism, exploitation, and violence has resulted in a heightened state of anxiety and fear making us prone to aggression, depression, numbness, and violence. Our collective inability to look at the cause and content of negative emotions furthers our collective suffering as a species. The violent disturbance in our natural world is only an expression of our inner state of dishevel and disarray.

Once we embark on the path of negative emotions, difficult as it is, we begin witnessing a change in our responsiveness to events around us. Greenspan writes realising that our emotions are connected to and a result of larger conditions beyond ourselves helps us “de-pathologize” our emotions.

Amidst the chaos and disorder, we often find commonalities in our collective emotions (positive and negative) as we respond to social and global conditions. It is as if new meanings begin to appear where only a few or none existed and we find ourselves redefining what we have learned from our culture.

The path of negative emotions can help us arrive at the point of union where we are one with ourselves, one with humanity, and one with life.

Flowing.

In the middle of April, one morning I woke up and decided to stop taking the antidepressant I had been taking for over two and a half years. It was a decision I had been thinking about, reading and researching the complications and risks, withdrawal from SNRIs (Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors) can trigger if stopped abruptly. The push to stop taking the antidepressant came from Elaine N. Aron’s remarkable research documented in The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Aron writes, and this is the paragraph that gave me strength and the final reason to stop the medicine,

“Here are some of the issues I would consider in making a decision. First, how dissatisfied are you with yourself as you are? Second, are you willing to take a medication for the rest of your life in order to maintain the changes that you like? That decision requires carefully considering the potential side effects and delayed long-term effects, none of which are yet known about such a new drug (emphasis mine).”

The Rains, second term of the 24 Solar Terms. No rain, just drinking a cup of tea in the sunshine.
image courtesy: baoputang365.tumblr.com

Aron’s chapter on Medics, Medications, and HSPs encourages us to question our assumptions about antidepressants and their success in helping highly sensitive persons (HSPs) in managing depression, stress, and over-arousal. Neither Aron nor I have the intention to affect a decision that is solely an individual’s prerogative, particularly one that pertains to his/her mental and physical health. This piece, therefore, is only a documentation of my decision, which comes with its fair share of reasons, withdrawal symptoms, and challenges; more importantly, it should not be taken as sufficient evidence to stop the use of medication without consultation.

Weeks before I stopped taking the antidepressant, I was looking at my journals from the last two years. Documented in them was the progress I had made in my career – I had steadily held a job the entire period I was on medication, written and published articles and essays, and had managed to enrol and finish courses on art, writing and more. Professional growth, financial security, and stability were important personal causes even when I did not want to accept it. I was deliberate in my actions and speech to the point that my dear ones would mock me of having attained enlightenment. But there were other things I had written as well – pages after pages also mentioned the deterioration my body had suffered in the last two years. Most changes weren’t remarkable; anyone looking at me would not have been able to tell them. Yet, it felt as if, over the course of two years, I was battling complications that were new, profound, and without any relatable cause. Of course, there was and still is little research to tie the complications with the antidepressant; it was only a feeling but it was strong.

For instance, one of the symptoms that I suffered from, under the influence of the SNRI, was an inability to cry. A fundamental human response, the ability to cry, is often seen as having a cathartic effect, one that allows transcendence of pain and suffering, brings together individuals in joyous and melancholic moments. For two years, I lost the ability to cry either way; it is not that I did not have the urge to cry, I wanted to cry, my chest heaving and heavy, but I could not cry. There were no tears. There were other symptoms including pain (physical pain that had no origin and no end), sleep disturbances (at times, sleep paralysis), headaches that lasted for days, gastrointestinal ailments (that I did not suffer before taking the medication) that required over-the-counter medications, fatigue and heaviness that limited physical movement and activity, irritability, rage, musculoskeletal stiffness, tinnitus, palpitations, and more. For over six months, I suffered from leukocytoclastic vasculitis, a condition that affects the skin and internal organs. Several medical tests confirmed that the condition, in my case, was idiopathic that is, arising without a known cause.

While it was a risk and a decision my psychiatrist did not support, I began researching the withdrawal symptoms that I can expect once I stopped the drug. I did not have to research for long – there are many groups and sites that talk not only about the withdrawal symptoms but also about the side effects of certain antidepressants. There were thousands of testimonials of men and women, young and old, who had suffered from similar symptoms that I had been struggling with. Each testimonial was validation and brought further determination to stop subjecting myself to such recalibration and experimentation. But there were many warnings. Each testimonial, each withdrawal support group warned of symptoms after an abrupt discontinuation of the drug. That alerted me, stopping me to think before taking a decision that could put me at considerable risk. It was not until I had weighed all my options, made arrangements for alternative supplements to manage symptoms, and had informed my dear ones that I stopped.

During the first seventy-two hours, the withdrawal symptoms peaked. Brain zaps, also known as brain shocks, a common symptom of withdrawal of SNRIs, came and went throughout the day. Sometimes they came in pairs, or in 3s and 5s. There were other symptoms that were equally persistent – insomnia, fatigue, dizziness, episodes of depression and rage (mood swings), headaches, severe pain in the arms and legs, lack of appetite, gastrointestinal issues, and nausea. It took more than ten days for the frequency of the brain zaps to come down. I am taking my supplements religiously and they seem to have helped me with other withdrawal symptoms.

But it is not only supplements that I am depending upon – most important of the withdrawal management has been looking inward and slowing down. At first, the slowing wasn’t premeditated, it was necessary. It was necessary because the brain zaps and dizziness prevented me from sudden, quick movements of the head and body. Things I could do before without thought – getting up from bed, washing a coffee mug, walking from one room to another, sitting down on the toilet seat, tilting my head back to drink water after a period of thirst, bending forward into the downward-facing dog, or turning around in bed – became slower. I have found myself reaping the benefits of these slow, deliberate movements in the early days of the withdrawal and even now. Without work to distract and demand my attention to the outer world, I have the vastness of the inner world to tend to, look at. Even so, I keep observing and documenting my symptoms on a day to day basis; any distinct change is important.

I divide the length of the day into segments; each segment flowing into the next as easily as a river. One minute, I am reading; in the very next minute, I am preparing a bowl of fruit while humming to a song, the lyrics to which I have long forgotten. Not all symptoms have subsided and I understand some will take a longer time to leave. But when I am not focusing on the withdrawal symptoms, it feels as if I am flowing, from one segment into another, one activity to the next, one state of mood to another. There is a lightness in my body, which after suffering from a long period of heaviness, I cherish. Then, one night, listening to the Avalokiteshwara chanting by the nuns and monks of The Plum Village, its river-like movement through my body, perhaps because I was in withdrawal or I was overwhelmed and my heart was open, I cried.

Limbo.

The migraine started on Monday evening just after I had finished an article due its deadline. For three days, I stayed in bed, feeling nauseous and with no appetite, moving to relieve myself or to not feel the entirety of the illness. When I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, I stared at the ceiling. A lot. None of the usual existential questions appeared, now that I am, like many others, living one day at a time. Days have been numbered – today is day two. Tomorrow will be day three. From the limited perspective of one day, nothing much has changed. I am at home just as I have been at home before the global epidemic started. On the whole, everything has changed.

I do things that were never necessary. Each morning after waking up, I step out in the balcony, look at the sky. It is not prolonged, nor mindful, almost a ritual. In the evening, I have a cup of coffee in the balcony again, sometimes with a book in hand. The book is put down more than the cup. Occasionally, I look at the corner of the neighbourhood park that is visible. No one is walking. But I spend a minute to listen to the bird songs. There are many now. The day ends, often, without an entry in the journal. There is little to write – there are no events, only feelings.

There is panic, a lot of it. It springs from all corners. The television is on throughout the day. There are many phone calls. If not at home, somewhere, someone is talking about it. People in the neighbourhood pray, play music, talk, yell, or remain silent. On the other side, people suggest learning, upskill. I cannot learn, I know that. Nothing within me wants to learn. I don’t meditate. I don’t refrain. I don’t hope. I don’t read things to better myself. This is unlike me. But for the moment, this is what I can do. I can wake up each morning. I can feed the fish. I can make coffee. I can respond to texts. I can make the bed. And, I can complain. But nothing more.

Sometimes I think of loneliness, of long walks, distances between one place and another, of lies, of insanity. Most of the times, I am numb or looking in the distance. Humanity. What is it? Then I stop. It is as far as I can go or reach out. Then I remember numbness doesn’t work. Therefore, I get angry. I cry. Or I smile in response to a friend’s text. Minimal efforts. I sit in the dark and when it has been too long, I turn on the light. I read the news and when it has been too long, I turn off the screen.

I know this is not mindfulness – this living, one day at a time. Nor is it having detached from the future. Time, past, present, and future, is there. It is in a continuum. Like a prolonged moment. In limbo. This is how it is. This is how it appears. Short spans. Short sentences. Short sight. Nothing too far in the distance. Nothing too new that wasn’t done before. Just the immediate and the known. Like get out of bed. Feed the fish. Two times a day. Today. Tomorrow. Day after tomorrow. And, the day after that.