embracing emptiness

*Trigger warning: This post mentions physical abuse. If you’re a survivor of trauma/abuse, please proceed with care.*

A Session with Dr. Drew

In Season 4 of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Drew Pinsky sits in what I assume is supposed to be his office. He’s all silver-gray hair and Dockers and crisp pale collar and muted cream walls. His patient, seated across from him and also angled toward the camera, is an actor named Eric Roberts. His manner reminds me of an on-stage spoken word performer, his voice cooly lilting to an imaginary walking bass. There’s some dissonance between that performed self-possession and his loose pants and flimsy tank top. I have the sense that his facade is in the process of crumbling.

Drew asks Eric how he’s feeling (it’s Day 7 of rehab, and, therefore, Day 7 of detox). Eric begins to describe the unfamiliar emotions he’s begun to experience without the daily dose of marijuana he’s been using for years.

Anger. Disappointment. Frustration. 

Eric says he’s feeling despondent. Drew insists that what he’s talking about is sadness, and that it’s immensely important for him to allow himself to feel that sadness and also allow other people to see it and share in it.

Understandably, Eric doesn’t seem particularly keen on doing this. He begins to describe the way he disconnected from his emotions during the abuse he experienced as a child.
Drew responds.

The Anguish of Emptiness

Drew: “That’s called dissociation. And that leaves behind what are called trauma-associated dead spots. Emptiness. It leaves behind a sense of emptiness. Feelings of emptiness and shame.”
Eric: “Right.”
Drew: “And I’m having a physical experience, like a tightness, in here.” (pointing to his lower chest.) “Do you feel that?”
Spontaneously, instantly, Eric breaks into gasping almost-tears.
Eric: “I feel it here.” (Pointing to his own chest.)
He gasps for breath again, shifts in his seat. He can’t sit still with the anguish of the sensation. I know because I’ve felt exactly like that, many times.
Eric: “It’s very fucked up.”
Drew: “No, it’s not very fucked up. It’s normal. I’ve felt this with people a thousand times.
Eric: (Through tears) “I — I — I feel shame about it.”
Drew: “So many people have been through this. I don’t care when people have the chance to come to terms with this. I am grateful for that chance.”

I loved that moment of the show. It felt so human to me, so relatable. It focused my attention on my own emptiness, which I’ve tried so many times to obliterate, thinking, incorrectly, that I couldn’t endure the sensation a moment longer.

Nothing ever filled my emptiness. The only way to move through it was to embrace it. The only way.

Bliss within Unbearable Emotions

In The Awakened Heart, Gerald May writes about the importance of embracing your emptiness:
Emptiness, yearning, incompleteness: these unpleasant words hold a hope for incomprehensible beauty. It is precisely in these seemingly abhorrent qualities of ourselves — qualities that we spend most of our time trying to fix or deny — that the very thing we most long for can be found: hope for the human spirit, freedom for love.
This is a secret known by those who have had the courage to face their own emptiness. The secret of being in love, of falling in love with life as it is meant to be, is to befriend our yearning instead of avoiding it, to live into our longing rather than trying to resolve it, to enter the spaciousness of our emptiness instead of trying to fill it up.
What May is talking about here has also been my experience: that the most exquisitely blissful emotions are only separated from unbearable emptiness by a hair. Sometimes, they’re completely indistinguishable from one another. When we try to dampen our negative emotions with addictions, chemical or otherwise, we also steal from ourselves the opportunity to feel relief and pure joy on the other side. We don’t eradicate our emptiness; we just bury it deeper within us.

Embracing your emptiness does not feel comfortable. It can feel downright awful. It isn’t peaceful-feeling, linear, tidy, or pretty. At least not in my experience. It is, however, necessary, rewarding, critical work for living a full life and finding freedom from your addictions, no matter what they are.

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