Swimming through the monkey house

One of my favorite parts of Lost was the story Jack told about fear:

Well, fear’s sort of an odd thing. When I was in residency my first solo procedure was a spinal surgery on a 16-year-old kid, a girl. And at the end, after 13 hours, I was closing her up and I, I accidentally ripped her dural sac, shredded the base of the spine where all the nerves come together, membrane as thin as tissue. And so it ripped open and the nerves just spilled out of her like angel hair pasta, spinal fluid flowing out of her and I… and the terror was just so crazy. So real. And I knew I had to deal with it. So I just made a choice. I’d let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing, but only for 5 seconds – that’s all I was going to give it. So I started to count: one, two, three, four, five. Then it was gone. I went back to work, sewed her up and she was fine.

When I first watched that, I called BS. Once you unleash that horse, fear runs rampant with you. Right? Just like any emotion. If you let it out, even just a little, it overflows its banks and floods all but the highest hilltops. Because that’s what emotion does.


And I still kind of feel that way, to be honest. I think of strong emotions, including fear, like the monkey-house smell Stephen King talked about in The Stand. Larry, one of the main characters in the book, remembers visiting the zoo with his mother, and in particular how bad the monkey house smelled. His mother told him to breathe normally, and that in a few minutes he wouldn’t even notice the smell anymore. And she was right. He forgot all about the smell until he saw some people gagging as they entered the monkey house. Then he remembered – and upon remembering, he could once again smell the stench.

When you first encounter fear, or stench, it’s overwhelming. But if you keep going about your business, it dies down, until eventually it’s background noise. Certain reminders – an overdraft statement, or people grabbing at their noses as they enter the monkey house – can bring the fear back, can remind you of the stench. And then you experience it anew. But if you keep going, eventually it fades once more.

This is how I cope. In the immortal words of Dory, I just keep swimming. And right now, I’m dog-paddling my ass off.

So I was particularly interested in reading Steering Into It, a blog article about coping with extreme levels of pain – the death of a parent, talking with callers on a suicide crisis hotline. The author posits that most people deal with these overwhelming emotions all wrong; they minimize, they bright-side, they try to cheer the grieving person up. What is more helpful, she says, is to steer into the pain. Probe deeper. Ask for more details. Rather than deepening the wound, as most people assume this would do, it helps the person feel heard, and understood. “When you have a pain that can’t be relieved, only borne, it means so much for someone just to be willing to bear it alongside you for a minute.”

Now, losing my job is in no way akin to that level of pain. This is more papercut-level agony: Intense, but superficial and short-lived. However, I do find the approach she describes interesting. It’s more in line with what Jack described in Lost. Feel the fear. Feel the pain. Smell those monkeys.

I don’t know that I can do it, personally. I’m a swimmer. I swim because in the past I’ve stopped swimming, and I damn near drowned. But it is something to consider. An alternate viewpoint. I’ll keep it in mind for the darker moments, when I’m inclined to just stuff everything down like I always do.

Though having an emotional break and running off to build an ice castle in the sky sounds pretty freaking sweet when the heat indices are lodged firmly in the triple digits…


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