I couldn’t sleep last night, but for the first time in three weeks it wasn’t out of anxiety or worry, but out of joy and thankfulness, and the overwhelming beauty of life.
Three weeks ago, today, my husband had a nearly-fatal heatstroke injury during a deployment. All signs now are that he will have a complete recovery, which is nothing short of miraculous. As I reflect back on everything that has happened, I recognize that the past three weeks have felt like one really, really long day. And yet it doesn’t all blur together – I guess that’s what adrenaline does. I remember every conversation with every doctor, every hug from family, every emotion, every song that ran through my head as new words and changing circumstances gave me a new earworm for each day. Even the lyrics that kept playing in my head gave me something new to hold on to that expressed that someone, somewhere could relate to what I was feeling.
It took me 30 years to recognize that I feel things very intensely – probably more than most people do, or at least more than they let themselves admit. I cry a lot. Not necessarily out of sadness or fear, just an outpouring of any emotion that I can no longer contain – anger, joy, thankfulness, frustration, love. I’ve described it to my husband before as my body becoming so full of emotion that it my body physically can’t contain it anymore, and it spills out my eyes. As I was growing up I became more and more frustrated with myself for crying at inopportune times – like in voice lessons, or while talking to a teacher, or doctor, or even just trying to express to a friend how much her actions had impacted me (for better or for worse).
In my adult life I learned to manage it by adopting a professionalism, a structured, get-it-done mentality. I have to think about a concrete action that I can take in response to the feelings. If I don’t have something I can do, the emotions are so strong that I find it hard to function in a grown-up world where work has to be done and doctors have to be seen and someone, gosh darn it, has to reason with the cellphone company when they mess up the bill. I’ve struggled with depression at times because I had to keep the emotions so bottled up that I became altogether numb. I’m still learning how to temper the emotion, how to balance it so that it isn’t all feast or famine. Emotion is beautiful. Emotion is necessary. Emotion is what makes life worth living – but my actions can’t be driven by it or life won’t happen at all.
A few years ago I was in the chorus of a production of Faust. Singing in an opera chorus is an interesting gig, because we choristers are as musically invested in the work as the principals are, but our roles – our characters – aren’t defined like theirs. So you have some liberty to make your own character, based on the director’s guidance for you, your personality and dramatic/comedic strengths, and how you play off your fellow choristers. That is one of my favorite parts of singing in an opera chorus.
In Faust, the director told me that during one crowd scene where the soldiers were coming home, she wanted my character to learn that her fiance/boyfriend had died in battle and was not coming back. (Mind you, this was before my husband joined the military.) I found that the very first time we rehearsed the scene, the “bottle of emotion” that I always carry in my belly was uncorked. I was overjoyed at the thought of seeing the love of my life, and it felt like I was stabbed in the heart to learn that he wasn’t coming home. I am not making this up or exaggerating. The emotion was so intense that I could hardly stand.
Needless to say, my castmates and the production staff seemed a combination of freaked out and awed by this. When it was over, I put the bottle cap back on and was just fine, though I did have a newfound respect for the fount of emotion that I carry around inside of me every single day. I should mention that we’d had a house fire a few months prior, so the emotion-bottle was probably a little fuller than normal. But, I learned during that show how to let it out and how to suck it up and contain it – and every time we did that scene, save once, it was real emotion that I was letting pour out of me.
Faust already has some heavy themes, but because of that personal experience and investment I had in it, it stuck with me in this unexpected way, three years later. If I’d known then that I’d actually be going through a situation that would parallel what my character experienced in the show, I don’t know that I would have been able to do that scene – or at least not as fully as I immersed myself in it at the time. It sounds silly to say that I’d already had some experience with hearing that my husband may have been mortally injured, but in a way, on some level, having already looked that emotion in the face on stage prepared me for what was happening when it came to real life. And that’s something that I didn’t realize art and theater could do.