¡hola papi!

‘I Feel Like I’m Numb to the World’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I’m a little worried that I don’t know how to feel. 

Rest assured, I’m not a sociopath — I do feel pain, and shame, and I do my best not to hurt the people around me and all that good stuff. I feel happy sometimes, too. It’s just that I try to stop myself from feeling anything too strong, and if a feeling slips in, I numb it. 

I’m not self-medicating, which I feel the need to clarify. It’s much more banal: I used to love reading, but I don’t read anymore for fear of feeling uncomfortable or disturbed. I only watch TV shows and movies that I know will be light or that I’ve already seen. I have weird hang-ups about sex and intimacy; I’m not sure I’m capable of it. I seek out friends who talk a lot about themselves so that I can avoid doing the same, and when I do talk about myself, I always make it a joke. I want the people I can’t have, maybe on purpose — when someone wants me, I shut down.

The people I’m most jealous of in my life are the ones who feel very deeply — who fall in love and turn it into a whole grand affair, who open up easily and admit when they’re hurt. I don’t know where they learned it from. My two fears are: Either I’ve repressed all my feelings so thoroughly and for so long that I can’t access them anymore, or I just can’t feel strongly at all. And I don’t actually know which is worse.

Sorry this is not fun lesbian drama for your inbox. Next time, I promise.

Reticent Robot

Oh dear, RR, I’m afraid I can relate all too well to your letter.

I suppose I ought to start with a reminder that I am neither a psychiatrist nor a therapist. I barely have a bachelor’s degree. I just had to Google what kind of degree I hold. Keep in mind who it is you’re coming to for guidance here. I’m literally just some guy.

Also, the reality is that I probably won’t be able to break you out of this funk on the strength of my words alone. I think my words are nice, but words didn’t do a whole lot for me when I was feeling dissociated from the world around me and my only tether to this plane of existence was, and it brings me no pleasure to report this, watching professional gamer boys on YouTube have little playdates at each other’s houses. In Smash, they fight. But on the couch? They bond.

God, I’m tired of myself.

I hope you don’t mind if I pass most of the bill to the professionals here, and I do think you should reach out to some if you can. That’s what I did, and since I added Wellbutrin to the veritable army of substances doing World War Juan in my brain, I’ve regained most of my personality back. But they don’t pay me to respond to letters with “ask someone else.” So if words are all I’ve got, then words it’s what you’ll get, and the words I want to share first are those of affirmation: I get it.

I spent the last few months in screensaver mode. Everything was technically up and running, but absolutely nothing was happening. My book came out, and it was the kind of debut I’d always dreamed of having. It couldn’t have gone better. People liked it! I got a lot of requests to talk about it! An author I’d admired since I was a literal child shared it and praised it! I was getting all the validation and feedback I’d been chasing since I was a kid.

But to be honest with you, I didn’t feel a thing. Good things were all around me, but I could only watch them like especially beautiful fish in an aquarium, a thick wall of glass between us. No matter how dazzling they were, never once did I think I could reach out and touch them, much less hold them, much less bring them home.

I’d been depressed before, RR. Indeed, I’ve spent a decent chunk of my life in a state of depression. I know the hallmarks. I know that when my clothes turn to wrinkled mountains across my floor, when the dishes pile up and the sun, no matter how bright it’s shining, feels like it’s being filtered through a cloudy film, I’m back. I’m in that place.

But this was a new kind of numbness. It was that familiar nothing, but, somehow, more nothing. Every morning I woke up I thought, To what end? What am I doing? Why am I writing? Why am I going on dates? Why am I alive? Why do I bother? Daily, I retreated further and further into myself, answerless.

I would never, ever tell someone they can simply choose not to be depressed, RR, nor would I say the solution is simple as steeping the right tea at night and going on runs in the morning. As someone who’s been there, I understand this kind of advice can be frustrating. For me, I almost want to respond, Don’t you get that I don’t even want to get better? That I don’t need better habits, but another brain altogether?

Still, I think it’s worthwhile to point something out in your letter, something that also helped me traverse that familiar void. You’re being more active than you give yourself credit for. Your words: I try to stop it. I numb it. I turn it into a joke. I shut down.

There’s agency there. You are making a lot of these decisions yourself, and if you’re anything like me, it might be because you’re afraid. Intensity is scary. Feelings are scary. One thing I think a lot of people don’t understand about sadness, or about numbness, is that while it’s certainly not enjoyable, it is comfortable, and there is a certain pleasure to be found in familiar aches. Yes, I may be at rock bottom, but I have a home down here with Wi-Fi. I may not be feeling much, but at least I’m avoiding the extremes. The good has been dulled, but so has the bad. I’m safe. I’m inside. I can’t be disappointed.

I dreamt up a lot of responses to my book before it came out, RR. I dreamt of being trashed in the Times. I dreamt of disappointing my readers, of becoming a laughing stock, of having to give up everything I’d ever wanted for myself because I’d been revealed to be talentless. I dreamt of letting myself down. It was too much. I numbed myself. I became pre-disappointed. I distrusted the good things, which, I was certain, were Trojan horses for bad things.

And how can I blame myself, or you, or anyone for this kind of behavior? Ours is a frightening world. People are cruel. The headlines are foreboding. Every graph and chart I’ve seen in the past three years is telling me to brace myself for the worst. Who wouldn’t retreat in the face of such threats? Who wouldn’t return to the familiar and the comfortable: movies we’ve already seen, books we’ve already read?

But fear not, RR, because this is something I’ve learned about myself as well — I have these habits precisely because I am fragile, because I am sensitive, because I do hold the capacity to feel intensely. I wouldn’t be building walls if I had nothing to protect. I wouldn’t be self-medicating if I wasn’t hurting. I suspect the same is true for you.

I think this life will break your heart. And sometimes, when that happens to you enough times, you get sick of it. You get fed up. You start doing things like avoiding joy because you know the higher you go the harder you fall. That’s understandable. Vulnerability is a risk. But it’s one worth taking, I think. At least now and again.

I hope you get out of this rut, RR, that it’s as temporary as I suspect, as most things are, and that you get back to feeling things soon. I was flip earlier about making adjustments in your routine, but it definitely couldn’t hurt to try new things, like a new sleeping routine or going on walks outside. I also suggest reaching out to a professional as well, as opposed to an internet abstraction, which is what I am.

Making chamomile tea before bed makes me feel like a cartoon bear in a sleep cap who lives in a tree. If your brain is really insisting on not getting out of bed, you can always lean in and make it cozycore until it starts cooperating again. I’m rooting for you. You’ll be all right.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on October 16, 2021.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I Feel Like I’m Numb to the World’