Sadness

Sadness feels like the emotion that is most strongly connected to humanity–the one that binds us to each other in some important and primitive way.

I can be happy by myself. I’m as likely to be angry with myself as with someone else. But sadness–I usually need another person to tip me over into feeling sad.

Like my anger constellation, my sadness constellation required a thesaurus. Once I got past grief, depression and resignation, I needed help identifying other types of sad feelings. But unlike my exploration of anger, the thesaurus wasn’t much help this time. I added a few more words to the constellation, but I’m not sure how strongly I experience any of them.

My sadness constellation, sketched out on a Starbucks napkin
My sadness constellation, sketched out on a Starbucks napkin

Sadness feels like a diffuse emotion, more of a background state of being than a tangible feeling. I’m rarely “actively” sad. I don’t burst into tears when I hear sad news. The last time I cried at a movie, I was twelve. The only book that ever made me tear up was  A Prayer for Owen Meany. More than once I’ve sat stoically immobile beside someone I love while they broke down.

My sadness is all undercurrent, twisted up inside me, unable to escape to the surface. This, of course, makes me look cold and unfeeling. The stereotypical cold-hearted aspie.

The first time I confronted my muted sadness was in high school. Junior year. A girl in my class, Karen, was killed in a car accident. The entire junior class attended her funeral, and everyone sobbed from beginning to end. Except me.

I remember standing there, my best friend crying against my shoulder, and feeling . . . confused. I barely knew Karen. She was one of the “fast” girls, part of a small clique that didn’t mix in with the rest of the class much. Many of the girls crying that day in church wouldn’t have hesitated to whisper something mean about Karen or her friends when she was alive. Yet here they were, brokenhearted. This made no sense to me.

Of course I felt sad that she’d died. It was a horrible tragedy. But obviously I didn’t feel as sad as everyone else. If I had, wouldn’t I be crying, too? Soon this thought consumed me. In desperation, I tried to make myself cry by thinking of sad things, by focusing on how sad this day was. I squeezed my eyes tightly closed until they started to water. A few teardrops fell but mostly what I felt was a sick, sinking panic.

While everyone was mourning the loss of our classmate, I alone was wondering: What’s wrong with me? And afterwards, while everyone was getting drunk to soothe their pain, I was hoping that if I got drunk enough, I’d somehow gain access to this mysterious thing called grief.

While I’ve experienced loss since then, my experience of grief is uneven and unpredictable. Sometimes my reaction to death is a sadness so strong and overpowering that it becomes physically painful. Other times I feel like my grief is strangled inside me with only the smallest of escape valves to trickle through. In this sense, grief frightens me. I feel like I haven’t practiced enough and when the big day comes, I’ll be unprepared, like a boxer entering a title match with only a few amateur bouts under her belt.

The rest of my experience with sadness is no less confusing. Most often sadness equals resignation, that sinking feeling that no matter what I do, the underlying characteristics of a relationship or a situation will never change. I used to be more of a fighter, wanting to fix everything and everyone, but increasingly I’m resigned to what is.

This is good and bad. Good because I’m relinquishing my intense need for control; bad because resigning myself to a situation can feel like giving up, and giving up can lead to hopelessness.  I put a question mark next to hopelessness because it’s rare and transient. I’m an optimist at heart and if studying economics taught me anything it’s that in the long run, everything can change.

Sometimes I get the blahs. Life looks dull and unappealing. My natural enthusiasm evaporates and I’m left with a gray cast over everything. I’m not sure if the blahs have a specific trigger or if they’re hormonal/cyclical. I’ve seen other aspies talk about being unexpectedly overcome by a general feeling of sadness and not being able to identify the source, which is exactly what I associate with the blahs.

Fortunately, I have an emotional reset button. If I go to sleep feeling down, I’ll usually wake up the next day feeling fine. If I don’t reset overnight, the blahs can stretch into ennui. I’ll get bored and restless, lose my focus, bounce around between tasks accomplishing little or nothing. My routines break down, which only increases my restlessness and lack of focus.

At this point, I need to make a conscious effort to get myself back on track or I risk slipping into depression. A lot of aspies struggle with depression, either as a periodic state or as a clinically comorbid disorder.

My experience with depression has been the less severe, episodic type: a period of feeling down and discouraged, usually in response to something someone has done or said. But I’m mellowing with age, each passing year lessening my need to beat up on myself in response to other people’s slights and judgments. These days I’m more likely to chuck unpleasant interactions into the resignation bin and move on.

That leaves only distress. Is distress really a form of sadness? Some of the synonyms I found for it certainly are: agony, misery, suffering, anguish, torment. I’ve always associated distress more with anxiety or fear, but thinking about it now, I do sometimes feel distress as a form of sadness. I have a fear of abandonment and that fear can trigger a deep-seated, overwhelming distress.

Asperger’s is such a paradoxical condition. I love being alone but I fear abandonment. I don’t often experience unmitigated grief but when I do, it’s overwhelming. I need a thesaurus to help me identify the shape of my feelings, but once I put names to them, they come alive for me in very specific ways.

If you look at my constellation, you’ll see that I added regret and melancholy but after some reflection I put an X next to them. I don’t spend a lot of time looking backward, especially not in a sad way. I’m more of a “learn from it and move on” kind of person. The present moment is more alive for me than any ghost of a memory.

Since learning more about Asperger’s I’ve come to wonder if my muted sadness is a self-protection mechanism. When I wrote about happiness and anger, I talked about the unfiltered versions of these emotions that I experience–the emotions that feel particularly autistic in nature.

I’m far less equipped to handle unfiltered sadness. When it comes, it’s crushing. I think my subconscious instinct is to mute the intensity. There is, after all, only so much sadness a person can handle. So I experience sadness in my own way, inwardly, quietly.

The Purpose of Sadness

I read recently that the “evolutionary purpose” of sadness might be to trigger reflection after a major life event. When we experience loss or a setback, it makes sense for us to withdraw and reevaluate our lives. The result is often a life-changing insight or decision.

If this is the case, my sadness serves me well. I turn inward, often and intensely, searching for answers, insight, a truer path. Even at that funeral in high school, in the absence of grief, I was looking inward. Sad, perhaps, in a very similar way to the rest of the girls, though I didn’t understand it then.

As an adult, I know that the teenaged girls in that church were mourning more than the loss of a classmate. They were mourning the loss of their own innocence. They were confronting the cruelty of life. They were facing the dangers that adulthood holds, the possibility that it could have been any one of us rocketing down the highway one moment, dead at the bottom of a cliff the next.

They were sad for Karen, sad for themselves, frightened, overwhelmed. When I look at it in that context, I see that my feelings weren’t that different from theirs. I struggled with the expression of my sadness–I still do–but it’s been there all along.

5 thoughts on “Sadness”

  1. You write so well, so organized, you take the reader by the hand and walk them through your topic. I like that! And yes, I agree with you about sadness, it is a time to go inward and reflect and rebalance. Makes me think of a favorite Jimmy Buffett song line (see, I think in song lines!) “It’s time to close the shutters, it’s time to go inside…” Thank you for your insights, they are very helpful. 🙂

    1. Thank you. I have a tendency to fiddle endlessly with my writing so it’s always nice when someone comments on it. 🙂 Discovering that sadness has a purpose (according to that NYT article anyhow) was quite a revelation for me. I’d never thought about it in that context before. I’m sure it’s not entirely a functional thing, but it’s nice to think that there’s a purpose to such a difficult experience.

  2. I’ve become more susceptible to sadness since I’ve had children. I don’t know if it’s that I’m too emotionally exhausted from parenting to provide myself with the same protection or distance I used to have – but now things definitely get to me more. But I’m not public about it; I’ve never been much of a cry-er, or willing to share those kinds of feelings with anyone, so I’ve been called cold also. I’m not prone to depression, though I do have extreme anxiety, which clearly doesn’t always leave me in a happy place. But it’s not the same thing. I will have bouts of depression related to an issue, but once it resolves itself or I process it better, the depression lifts. I, too, am (mostly) optimistic!

    Your Karen story though, reminds me of how difficult it is to navigate what people expect of us emotionally. My MIL is constantly informing me of the weddings and pregnancies of people I either don’t know at all or barely know. And then she waits for me to react – I realize that she expects me to squeal… or something? I understand that these are happy occasions, but asking for the kind of depth of emotion that implies a close relationship, from someone who isn’t acquainted with these people, is just asking for a fraudulent reaction! And that’s how I feel, I feel that to be termed “normal,” we have to some degree be false. I used to make more of an effort to, but now I can’t be bothered!

    1. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I think I’m more emotionally open/susceptible in general since becoming a mom. If I had to attribute it to something, it would probably be the vulnerability that motherhood opened up in me. For the first time, I had more that just myself to worry about or be wounded for, etc.

      I wonder if aspies are generally optimistic? I think I saw that somewhere (maybe in Attwood’s aspie strengths list). I also agree with you that a certain amount of faking it is required/expected/whatever. Sometimes I find myself looking to see how others react to an event and formulating a response accordingly. Like you, my natural responses tend to be underwhelming if the event isn’t something closely related to me or my immediate family.

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