Enter Alexithymia – When I don’t really feel that bad about myself, but my body sure does.

person hunched over with a burst of frazzled nerves behind them
I am certain that I feel a certain way (awful, just awful), but it’s something my body is telling me… upon closer inspection, I don’t actually logically agree with what I’m feeling

Here’s a thought that occurred to me a number of years ago, when I noticed that during periods of migraine, or right after a meltdown, I felt such horrible self-loathing, I didn’t want to live.

Maybe, just maybe, my feelings of misery and despair are organic in nature, rather than psychological? Maybe it’s my state of body, rather than my state of mind and spirit, that’s making me feel like I shouldn’t even exist.

That path to this realization has been long and torturous. I’d go through periods of such horrible despair and misery and utter desperation, that I hardly felt human. It was crushing, depleting, all-consuming.

I couldn’t believe I was stuck in my wretched skin.

I couldn’t believe I was allowed to draw breath.

I just felt so horrible… broken… rejected… useless…

And I was convinced I was the most worthless piece of sh*t on the planet.

Death was too good for me. I deserved to stay trapped on this spinning rock and suffer till the end of my many, many days here.

But within about a week, I’d get on my feet again, I’d start to feel more stable again, and I wouldn’t have the same level of self-loathing. I was still convinced I was a worthless piece of sh*t, but the intense disgust with myself… just wasn’t there.

And the remarkable thing was, when I thought logically about it, I knew that I was not a worthless piece of human detritus that was just taking up space and using up perfectly good oxygen that others needed more than I. When I took a close look “inside”, I could detect no palpable evidence of disgust, no enduring conviction that never I deserved to be born in the first place, nor any wish to exit from this world post-haste.

I simply was who I was, where I was, what I was.

And that was that.

A lot of people have tried to help me, over the years. Some of them have talked to me about “suicidal ideations” and reassured me that lots of people think that way. Some of them have tried to convince me that I had extremely low self-esteem because of how I was treated as a kid. Some of them tried to reassure me that everybody has bad days, now and then, and to not blow them out of proportion. I know they were trying to help, but nothing they said could penetrate the deep and abiding sense of total, utter worthlessness.

And none of what they said ever felt 100% accurate to me. Granted, I really, really did want to die at times, with matter-of-fact suicidal thoughts… and I was treated pretty badly when I was a kid… and it did feel like something about my thinking was blown completely out of proportion. But none of what those people told me actually felt pertinent to me. And it certainly wasn’t helpful.

I didn’t stop feeling the way I felt. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t get “talked out of it”. So, I just stopped talking to other people about it. I quit mentioning it to anyone, including my partner. It just upset and confused them all, and it was so intractable at times, the only result from people trying to calm me down and cheer me up, was to make me feel even worse.

But then… lo and behold, after I had these terrible emotional issues, I’d bounce back from the terrible depths in a matter of time, and not give another thought to what a piece of crap I was. And when people brought it up with me, I didn’t want to discuss it, because I was embarrassed that I’d felt all that so intensely, yet logically and reasonably, I knew it wasn’t an enduring problem that was anything that therapy or counseling was going to help.

Going from the depths of despair to matter-of-fact normalcy… how odd. It wasn’t a kind of bipolar swing that took me from the bottom of The Pit to the heights of Ecstasy.  It wasn’t like that at all. It was more like… being desperately, morbidly consumed with a mistaken impression of myself, which then dissipated when something mysterious and inexplicable happened. Some days, the transition would be like a switch just got flipped.

Weird, right? So, how come?

I hit on a possible explanation: Alexithymia (before I knew there’s a word for it), a number of years ago, when I “tracked” my suddenly plunging mood and the intense sense of self-loathing to meltdowns I was having. During a period of intense meltdowns that felt almost like seizures to me(I got checked – there’s no sign of seizure behavior, thank heavens), I was reading about people like Dostoyevsky who felt profound self-loathing after their seizures, and that rang a bell.

Hey! I felt that way, too. Maybe I was having seizures – ah, no, there’s no sign of aberrant electrical activity in my brain. And when I really thought about it, there seemed to be a correlation between how I felt physically, and how I felt emotionally and spiritually. I realized that my self-loathing usually accompanied me feeling physically ill. Then it would evaporate and be nowhere in sight, when I was feeling healthy and strong.

When I wasn’t having meltdowns, I had an excellent self-image. When I wasn’t tired or in pain, I was a happy, happy camper.

But no sooner did I start to feel like crap, with a migraine, fatigue, or the fallout from a meltdown, I suddenly began to hate myself with a venom that surprised and alarmed everyone (who knew about it), including me.

Science for the win. It’s amazing what you can sort out, when you step back and look for evidence and patterns — which is one of the things I can do exceptionally well.

I didn’t really have a word for the phenomenon — not yet. And all the while, the counselor I was seeing was lecturing me about how I was “compartmentalizing” my life too much, I wasn’t in touch with my feelings, I was too stunted and too reluctant to fully experience my emotional side. How annoying that was! It’s all he could talk about, at times, and all my best rationale for why that was a good and healthy way for me to handle my life fell on deaf ears — it even seemed to strengthen his argument and resolve to get me to be “more emotional”.

Gah!

Shut UP about it, already!

Anyway, a little while back (maybe a few months ago), I stumbled across mentions of alexithymia online. To quote Wikipedia:

Alexithymia /ˌlɛksəˈθmiə/ is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. It is distinct from the psychiatric personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, with which it shares some characteristics, and is likewise distinct from the abnormal conditions of sociopathy or psychopathy.[1] The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating.[2] Furthermore, individuals suffering from alexithymia also have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding.[2] 

It sounded slightly familiar to me, as I honestly have trouble identifying my emotions — especially when I’m put on the spot. If I’m going to be honest (which I am), I have to say that I follow an awful lot of prompts about how I “should” feel — especially with clinicians who are in a position to medicate me or do some other sort of mind f*ck with trusting little me. So, I cover up a lot, I pretend a lot, I try different emotions “on for size” and label them the way I think I’m suposed to, in order to see how that feels.

I also have some difficulty figuring out what other people are feeling. I can’t tell if my partner is angry or upset or happy with me… and I have many tense moments in the course of our life together, when I’m waiting to figure out what’s going on. And she complains that I’m not emotional enough, at times.

So, that could relate to me. But the proverbial motherlode is in this sentence:

Typical deficiencies may include problems identifying, describing, and working with one’s own feelings, often marked by a lack of understanding of the feelings of others; difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal;[4] confusion of physical sensations often associated with emotions;

Bingo!

That seems to nail it exactly — and I envision a massive spike being driven into a plackard with the above quote, pinning it to a telephone pole I drive past every single day.

It’s NOT that I’m depressed. It’s NOT that I’m suffused with self-loathing, marinating in my intransigent despair. It’s NOT that I feel like a piece of sh*t who doesn’t deserve to die.

When my body feels like unremitting crap, my whole physical system is on ragged, jagged edge and throbbing with pain, my mind interprets that as a sign of depression, despair, self-loathing.

And since I realized this connection, I haven’t had nearly the amount of problems with a durably foul mood and the wish to die.

I know better now.

It’s not my mind and spirit that are suffering — it’s actually my body. My mind is just getting confused and mistaking physical suffering for emotional and psychic distress.

This seems to me a very Aspie sort of thing. With me, it’s less about not having emotions, than it is about mistaking emotions. Getting confused. Misinterpreting — and as often happens — taking that misinterpretation and running with it… getting all bent out of shape, for all the wrong reasons.

As I said, I know better now.

I just need to remember it.

Workin’ on it…

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3 thoughts on “Enter Alexithymia – When I don’t really feel that bad about myself, but my body sure does.

  1. Pingback: Of Alexithymia and Anger and the Urge to Do Something – Under Your Radar

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