“But how did that make you feel?"
As a recovering drug addict who’s spent four months in a treatment centre, I was asked that question a lot. Because, of course, getting better happens only when you connect with the hurt and trauma that caused you to turn to drugs to mask your pain in the first place.
As someone who’s had three long-term relationships with therapists in the 30 years since, I’m quite used to revealing a long-held secret from my childhood, only to have the therapist say: “But Bob, how did that make you feel?”
I must say, I was always bewildered when I was asked this. Hadn’t I just opened this deep, dark part of my past, one that I had been barely aware of myself? Wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t they figure out when I told the story of having to read the lesson from the Bible in front of my entire school on a Sunday morning, and being plagued with a debilitating stammer at the time, that what I felt was total terror?
Did I need to recite the obvious for my feelings to register as valid with my therapist?
Maybe this particular therapist was a little too “tell me what you feel”-ish. Back in 2011, I’d had open heart surgery and the day after, when I was in the ICU, my heart suddenly stopped beating, and stayed stopped for close to three minutes. I’d died.
A few weeks later as I was walking to my therapist’s office for my first session since my surgery and death, I had the delicious thought that when he asked how my surgery went, I would tell him that I’d died.
I did that and he was suitably surprised.
He then said: “So, how did that make you feel?”
I nearly burst out laughing.
“How did dying make me feel?”
“Not great,” I replied.
To which he said: “Well, we may want to unpack that in our next session.”
Of course he said that. And we did.
But by far the most threatening instance of fear of feelings came in the writing of my memoir, Love or Die Trying.
I knew I was a newbie at writing memoirs. I didn’t know I was one at writing about my feelings.
While the book was published in June, the early parts were written over two years ago before the pandemic gave me the opportunity to write the rest of it.
Back then I would give a finished chapter to my one and only colleague in my office, Julia McDowell. She’d gone to the Columbia Publishing Course and was eventually headed to a career as an editor in book publishing. But back then, she seemed to have only one critique of everything I wrote. “Bob, tell the reader how you feel.”
At first, I was truly bewildered. In fact, I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Hadn’t I written about how Nurse Ratched in my treatment centre had reduced me to a quivering mass every time I mentioned my name for the next week, as in “My name’s Bob and I’m an addict,” and then I would burst into tears?
“Yes, Bob, you did write about that, and it certainly is a lively and engaging story. But wasn’t it a bit odd to mention your name and then burst helplessly into tears?”
“Did that scare you? Did it make you sad? Was crying not a clue that something was very wrong?”
I confess now that I was so disbelieving of the power of writing what you feel, not so much on me, but on the reader, that I would go through every tiny story in my next chapters and before leaving them, I would write: “And this made me feel... ”
It struck me then, and I confess, still a little now, that the reader can figure this out for themselves. What I made it hard for them to do, however, was to identify their lives with mine.
Which is actually the goal of memoir-writing, right?
Bob Ramsay is a communications consultant, writer, and founder of the speaker series RamsayTalks. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal in 2015 and the Bernier Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in 2017. He lives with his wife, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, in Toronto. Learn more here.