I have been going through a journey of relearning my emotions. It has been a strange experience, reacquainting myself with the basics: excited versus nervous, disappointed versus angry, and tired versus sad. Despite having considered myself fairly versed in emotional awareness, especially with the majority of my social work career dedicated to teaching others about emotions, the complexity of emotions continues to surprise me. This particular season of reeducation of emotions is the result of a long journey of healing.
One morning back in 2018, I woke up feeling sick. I attempted to go through my morning routine but it quickly became clear I needed to go to the doctor. I made my way to the walk-in clinic and by the time I got there I was feeling terrible. I remember sitting in the waiting room and fighting an intense urge to curl up and sleep. When I was called back to the clinic room, I could barely stand and stumbled down the hallway, grabbing onto the walls. I vaguely recall the nurse retrieving a doctor as soon as I entered the room. She checked my pulse and said, “You need to go to the hospital immediately. Can someone drive you or should I call an ambulance?” Rattled by the urgency of the hospital demand, I called my husband and was admitted within the afternoon. I stayed in the hospital for almost a week, received my first ever blood transfusions, and endured a significant amount of medical testing. The conclusion was that the endometriosis I had been dealing with since I was a teenager had grown on my intestines and caused them to rip, resulting in significant internal bleeding. The solution was a surgery to clear out the endometriosis as well as a hysterectomy. Following the surgery, I was told that they were able to save one ovary. The uterus and removed ovary were incredibly unhealthy by every measurable standard and endometriosis was found not only on my intestine, as expected, but also over multiple other surfaces in my body.
Following the surgery, I entered the slow process of healing. There were several unanticipated side-effects, including one additional surgery. But, eventually the health chaos started to calm down. With the one remaining ovary, my body still had some ability to cycle through hormones and I attempted to understand my body’s new rhythm. I started to settle into what felt like a new normal for my health.
Last year, 2022, I started to feel off. Not sick like before, but just further and further from myself. I was drowning in anxiety, comparable only to the pregnancy and postpartum anxiety I experienced with both of my kids, a topic for a different post. Knowing I was clearly not pregnant, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the intensity of the anxiety I was feeling. In addition, a heavy fog seemed to perpetually encompass my brain to the point that I had a hard time processing information. Add a strange amount of unexpected rage, and I felt unexpectedly out of control of my emotions. It felt unfair. Compounding the situation, I began to experience intense flare ups of additional digestive diagnoses I’d been dealing with for awhile. It seemed like my body was falling apart.
It took several different doctors before someone seemed to actually hear me. I can not describe the relief I felt when the doctor looked at me and said, “We’ll figure this out, something is definitely not normal.” She ordered a ton of blood work and specifically hormone testing, the results of which came back outside the normal range. I went back for my follow up appointment and my doctor, holding printed copies of my lab work and hormone test, smiled and said, “Well, this explains it; of course you feel like crap.”
She walked me through the plethora of results, explaining that my intestines likely never fully recovered from the trauma of 2018, and my remaining ovary had shut down. I was in menopause. I stared at her for a while as she talked about toxic gut and lack of hormones, wrapping my mind around how old I suddenly felt. Finally it hit me: there was a reason I felt emotionally out of control and so far from myself. I started to cry. She interpreted that I was sad about my body falling apart and my unexpected entrance into menopause, but really I just felt so incredibly relieved there was an explainable reason for my physical discomfort and intense emotions. I tried to tell her this, but my words were stuck. Based on what my body was going through, my uncontrollable emotions were to be expected and this realization made me laugh. I finally caught my breath and said, “It’s all fine, continue.” I started supplements, medications, and hormones and, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was taking back control of my body and mind.
Throughout the 2022 holiday season, I found myself feeling a bit better. The treatment plan was helping me settle and the curtain of brain fog had started to lift. I could feel and experience life again. Then in January, my daughter had a tough transition back to school from Christmas break. It involved multiple meltdowns and big emotions from her. She had stories about things she was experiencing at school that caused her to feel afraid. And, she was so sad. I felt it all. I felt as if I were drowning in the sea of her emotions. At my recent appointment, I burst into tears and I said, “It’s not working. The plan isn’t working anymore. My anxiety is back as bad as ever.” My doctor looked at me calmly and asked, “Tell me what makes you say that?” So I told her about my daughter and how sad I felt about it. She looked at me and replied, “Oh Jessica, that is not anxiety, that is love.” I froze, searching for words to respond and finally settled on, “What?” She said, “What you just described to me is love and intense love can feel terrifyingly close to anxiety. But it isn’t anxiety, it’s you being a mom.” I wiped my eyes, dug into my purse for my notebook and pen, and said, “I need to write this down.” She smiled and continued, “You know you are going to be experiencing this often, for a little while. The brain fog has lifted, your hormones are balancing, you are starting to feel things again. Feeling things is normal, but you haven’t felt normal in awhile.”
I finished writing in my notebook and looked up, “I have to relearn to identify my emotions, I can definitely do that,” I said. She nodded and advised me to come back to re-evaluate if needed, but for now, my emotions were a sign the treatment plan was actually working.
It has been a long journey, almost five years, to rediscover and readjust to my new body cycles, health rhythms, and emotions. But, my biggest take-away right now is the reminder that emotions are complex, sometimes intense, and that is okay. As I have made my way through February, I have practiced pausing and identifying the emotions I actually feel. Then I gently remind myself to be thankful I can feel again, the good and the bad. Even when it is hard, this process of acquainting myself with the emotions present in all of life’s journey is often worth it.
Jessica is a wife, mom, social worker, and writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.