When life gets bloody, dangerous and heart wrenching, my emotions shut down and I become a shell. I call this reaction to stress my cold heartless action phase.
This phase kicks into overdrive in times of desperate need. It allows me to survive rather than breakdown into a worthless puddle of panic. However, everyone does not understand it, which sometimes makes me appear uncaring, heartless or slightly crazy.
For example, the other day, a dog started chasing my horse. This is not a good scenario by any means, but its even worse when you are sitting on the horse being chased. As my horse moves into full panic mode from the dog’s sudden threatening appearance, she thrashes around. In this moment, I vividly remember, the months of pain I endured from my last fall a few years prior. In effort to avoid this, I manage to rush my impending fall some by leaping from her. Shortly after that, she runs and the dog chases her. And, all I can do is watch her run away in terror.
I hobble back to the barn in hopes she has run that direction. To my relief she is there, but my heart drops when I see her. She looks frantic and is panting and bleeding (from running into things in effort to get away from the dog). Fear hits me for a second. I am alone at the barn and have never seen my horse injured. I stand there staring at her for a moment, unable to move. I don’t know what to do. Then, cold action kicks in. I have no time for tears. She needs my help. (And if you know anything about horses, it is that you cannot be in a panic while trying to calm them down.) I have no choice but turn off my emotions as they will just hinder me in helping her.
I think this cold heartless action has always been in me, but I think deployments are where I really developed it into an art. Don’t get me wrong, I have managed to be extremely fortunate on my three deployments. I am not a super soldier who kicks in doors and descends from the sky. Nonetheless, I have experienced some moments of danger and learned how to cope with them—generally, by going cold and emotionless.
Mortars were a fairly regular occurrence in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least during my deployments. They would fall at different times of the days in various places. Sometimes they were closer. Louder. Shook you more. At one point you realize, that you can either run around in a constant “the sky is falling” terror or deal with it the best way you can. My reaction was to make jokes and pretend it was no big deal.
On one particular “mortar Monday,” I was driving in Iraq. As I neared my office, I heard the whistle. Since I was driving and alone, I really had nowhere to go, so I remained in the safest place—my up-armored suburban. I stopped on the side of the road, just as a few other military vehicles did. I could hear a few more rockets come in. The ground shook. I shook. Then, I looked over at some Iraqi soldiers. They were still in formation and marching. Did they not hear the rockets? Could they not feel the tremors? And in that moment, I realized, they were used to them, knew when it was time to take shelter, and were coping by going on with life. There was nothing I could do either. I could not move my vehicle around the growing traffic (which was the bomb squad coming to remove one of the unexploded rockets that landed). So, I opened a book and started to read. Right there, on the side of the road, as a few other explosions went off, I read…and the Iraqis marched.
In the Army, there is a problem called complacency. It’s when you are so used to certain events that you no longer follow the right procedures. I always thought that complacency and coping where a very thin line. In many of my memories, I don’t think I was complacent. I was doing what I was supposed to. I was taking precautions. I just could not stop the situation that was unfolding. So to avoid just sitting there in a ball, rocking back and forth with my arms wrapped around myself, I typically choose action. And the only way to get to the point where I can act, I have to stop the feelings that would immobilize me.
This shutdown of emotions is particularly convenient in relationships. Well, to an extent. I seem to have a natural talent for selecting men who rip my soul apart. I know that part of it is that when I am in, I am all in. I give it all I have. I am passionate. Therefore, when the torment comes, it rips my heart to shreds.
A few years ago, I dated a wonderful man. He showered me with love, affection, and time. It was a dream to have such attention and friendship after my divorce. We took trips together. We went to church. We were practically inseparable. As our time together passed though, I started to notice a jealously. He would get upset about the time I would spend with others. Since my time away from him was actually pretty small and typically with my family, friends, pets or myself, I was starting to feel a bit smothered. I pressed on though as I figured it was just an insecurity of his that needed to be worked through. I knew I was not doing anything wrong. I wasn’t going any places for him to worry about. (Unless going to work in coed environments, movies with your kids, and the barn to see your horse where now deemed in the ‘wild girl’ category.) He was starting to make up scenarios in his head though. He was imagining I didn’t care. I tried to reassure him, but it was apparently not enough.
At the time this was all building, my mother passed away. She had been ill with lymphoma. My family knew it was coming. My sisters and I had traveled to visit with her—to say our goodbyes. Regardless, it was still a hard time. Shortly after our farewell visit with mom, she passed. We made the arrangements to travel again, to hold her memorial ceremony. And in my true nature, I shut down. I just went into cold heartless action mode. I wasn’t very chatty. I didn’t cry. I simply did the things that needed to be done. There was no time for me to break down.
My sisters and I went to my parent’s home for the ceremony. I did not invite my boyfriend as it was just my sisters, my dad and I staying at the house. We needed that time alone together. I did constantly text the boyfriend on my whereabouts and thoughts though. Just landed. Taking dad to dinner. This is weird with mom not being here. I worried about… So, it was not like I left him in some communication blackout wondering if I was alive. I just didn’t feel like talking on the phone particularly and wanted to spend that time with my family. And, I knew that once I started to talk, I would breakdown and cry. I couldn’t do that yet. Things needed to be done. I needed to be the strong one.
However, on the third day of my trip, which was the day of the funeral, my boyfriend had an attitude. Sensing this over text, I called him to ask what was up. He was “tired of begging for my attention.” He “couldn’t do this anymore.” I tried to explain that I simply didn’t want to talk about what I was going through while I was going through it. I needed to be with my family. I explained that he was important to me and I would let him comfort me when I came home, but for now, I had to comfort others first. It wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more, and I had no more to offer at that point. So, he said he was done.
Yes, he really did break up with me on the day of my mother’s funeral. My cold front turned into an arctic blast. I had no energy left to deal with more. And, I was devastated to my core that he did not understand me still. It is not like we didn’t have arguments before. He knew about my shutdown when I was hurt, scared and stressed. We had discussed it. I just needed time to grieve, to help my family. I needed time to process what was happening. I needed him to be there and be the strong one when I came home. Instead, he abandoned me when I needed him the most.
By the time I flew home two days later, he was sorry. He wanted to get back together. Unfortunately, that was the last straw for me. If he couldn’t give me time to grieve, how could he endure it if I deployed again? How could he support me when I needed it, if I had to constantly reassure him? He couldn’t because everything would have been about him. I had that before. I did not need it again.
I look back at these events and can’t decide if they were pivotal moments that honed my cold heartless action art or if they were moments where my emotionless ability protected me from the insanity of life. Maybe there were a little of both? I like to think my emotional shutdown has been a useful scar from life. It keeps me functional. It makes me strong. Dependable. Reliable. I worry that people find me uncaring and heartless though. They don’t understand my retreat into quiet. They are confused at how I just move on.
However, that is not it. I do feel. I do get scared. I do want someone to help me and be at my side. I have just spent so long alone with only myself to trust that I have no choice. No one has ever taken the time for me to completely defrost. They think the chill is an attack on them, when it’s only a way to protect myself and cope with stress. I hope that one day, someone will realize all it takes is a gentle hand and patience to warm my heart. If they only wait for the cold heartless action phase to pass, I’d welcome their comfort and support. I’d let them into my life. If only they would show me I could trust them to be there and not abuse and abandon me, I could allow myself to feel. I could cry. I could scream. I could let someone else take the action and I would gladly allow them to make me feel safe. Until that happens though, I will survive what life throws at me alone, and if that requires a cold heartless reaction at times, so be it. I just hope someone finds be before my heart freezes entirely.