How to kick ass at being sad

Last week, I said goodbye to a dear friend. She isn’t dead (and neither am I), but she is leaving. She moved 2,000 miles away to begin medical school, and I am left looking for meaning in being sad.

Although sad is a routine part of human existence, I’d argue that the best ways to handle it aren’t intuitive. In the same way that my cavemen brain is attracted to the highest-possible caloric content in every meal - also known as fried cheese curds, poutine, or anything else served in Wisconsin - I’m looking for maximally pleasurable (or at least, minimally painful) ways to deal with being sad.

Over-drinking is out, but what about Over-eating? Over-spending? Over-staring at my phone? The possibilities are endless. Nearly any verb can be modified with “Over,” which is in itself the plight of the addict.

Unfortunately, grief done right isn’t always maximally pleasurable. Rather than getting creative with our avoidance strategies, author Regena Thomashauer describes getting creative with sadness. After the loss of her partner, she describes a process called Swamping:

“I decided that instead of hiding my emotions inside–which is what I had done my whole life–I would instead wear them on the outside. Truth was, I felt like garbage. So I went to the kitchen and pulled out a black trash bag. I pushed my head through the top and punched my arms through the sides until I was wearing it like a dress. I tied a babushka on my head and went to the fireplace and wiped some ash on my face. I blasted loud music, stomped around and pounded pillows.
As soon as I did this, everything about my internal chemistry changed. I began to feel delighted with myself instead of hating myself. Having my outsides match my insides felt celestial. It gave me a whoosh of energy. It was also hysterically funny. And yes, I felt divine...I began to notice that the more I greeted my inner bitch with warmth, love, and honor, the less frequently she visited. All she ever wanted was to be heard, and to be given a proper seat at the banquet table.”

Thomashauer’s swamping somehow feels novel to me. It't not, of course; people have been quite literally wearing their grief on their sleeves for thousands of years.

But traditionally, we alcoholics are averse to processing big feelings in plain sight. Some of us drank in order to escape feelings. And yet, just as frequently, we drank in order to feel them. I didn't notice this until I first got sober, and suddenly lacked the outlet to be totally out-of-control once in a while. Part of me missed the bigness and messiness of being drunk.

This past week, in grieving the absence of this friend, I’ve swamped in my own way. I haven’t worn makeup or earrings. I went five days without washing my hair. The other day I looked at a free mint and thought What’s the point? (Seriously: as if the point of mints had been friendship.) I’ve gone to a recovery meeting every day, and at each my outfit has been less deserving of the term “outfit.” This morning the first thing I did was call up Chase Services to cancel five fraudulent charges in Las Vegas on my card. (That’s not part of swamping, but it is the kind of day I'm having.)

I’ve also worked out incredibly hard, slept incredibly hard, and I’ve written. A lot. Most of it is garbage, mostly just for me. But what can I say? When I form a soul connection with someone, and then they leave, I’m left wondering what my responsibility to the universe is in all of this. If people are chapters, perhaps that chapter has closed. Learn, move on, appreciate the significant but limited role in the broader narrative. But if it turns out that people are people - well then, I have no idea. I don’t know much about people.

Although swamping hasn’t been fun, exactly, it isn’t something I’d miss. It hasn’t been so bad that unconsciousness is better. It's certainly preferable to taking a drink. When I think of all those age-old artists who drowned their feelings in booze, I wonder if what they really wanted was permission to feel - in big, dramatic, potentially embarrassing ways. Sober. Perhaps their historical context didn't provide that permission, or perhaps they simply withheld it from themselves.

The next stage of swamping, for me, is to dance. (Woo-woo, I know; stay with me.) A year ago at this time, when I heard of people starting blogs, or when I read the writing of one of my favorite authors, my appreciation mixed perceptibly with yearning. I want that too. These days, I have the same yearning when I search “shuffle dance” on YouTube. My heart and body say, “let me try that!” and my brain says, “you can’t.” Shuffle dancing is big, powerful, assertive. It’s even a little mean. Fit for a swamp.

Sometimes, I think I’m afraid of getting stuck in feelings. If I let myself feel sadness, or grief, or anger, what if I stay there? But sometimes, like today, I suspect there’s more to it than that. We aren’t just afraid of staying, getting stuck. I think we’re also afraid to leave. We’re afraid of movement, of momentum, the change that feelings can create. Part of swamping, then, is to wear these feelings proudly and corporeally - to dance, dance poorly, and see where it takes us.