The Gift of Not Feeling

I want to tell you a story about my friend Brandon.  It’s been eighteen years since this happened, and in the intervening time I’ve told this story to fewer people than I can count on one hand.  I have kept it to myself largely because I know Brandon isn’t the kind of person who wants the good things he does blasted to the world, and I never wanted to embarrass him.  And if that’s what I’m doing now, I’m sorry for it. 

Last week, someone wrote an essay I won’t link here (as you’ve probably read it and I don’t like giving it clicks) that treated my friend at once like a circus freak who lacks feelings and also somehow as someone who is uninteresting and undeserving of attention. The article also treated two separate communities I love with contempt. I seethed about it for a couple of days, but I didn’t really entertain the idea of saying anything online, because it’s not my place and responding to the media is not professional. 

Then yesterday I read this, and I finally had something I wanted to say.

I met Brandon Sanderson when I was twenty-two years old.  I was just finishing my undergraduate degree and he was just finishing graduate school, and we had some classes that overlapped.  From there, we were in a critique group together and were part of a social group where we all hung out quite a bit.  None of us had families yet, and Brandon’s first book would come out during those couple of years, so none of us had intense career demands yet either. 

At that time in my life, I was a mess.  I had arrived at adulthood with several chemical and behavioral disorders that I did not yet understand.  My brain would sometimes and without warning explode in a horror show of fear and shame and pain so strong it felt physical.  I didn’t know what was wrong with me—indeed, I had been suffering from the depression and anxiety for so long that, in my mind, they were me.  I had no way to separate what was happening inside my head from a reality outside of it.  To me, everything I felt was real.  Because my mind filtered everything that happened outside of me through a lens of terror and agony, the world was terrifying and torturous.  In short, I was living in hell.

Most people, when I tried to describe what was happening in my mind, reacted in unhelpful ways.  I don’t blame them—very few people are equipped to know what to say to someone suffering as intensely as I was.   They would try to minimize it in an effort to minimize their own discomfort.  They would try to fix it, when it wasn’t something anyone could fix.  Or, worst of all, they would react in horror, having deep and terrifying feelings of their own about what was happening to me.  It was empathy, but it only reinforced to me that I was scary, Iwas broken, I was wrong.

And then there was Brandon.  Brandon has the fine distinction of being the first person in my life to suggest to me that what I was reacting to, the reality I was living in, was not in fact real to anyone but me.  His first and honest reaction to what was happening inside my head was genuine and unfeigned interest.  It didn’t matter how big or terrifying the emotion was.  I could tell him I hated him (and did) and his reaction, every time, would be to say, “That’s so interesting that you feel that way.  Why do you feel that?”

Why indeed?  I didn’t know why I felt that.  Brandon taught me the words “cognitive distortion.”  He taught me that reality could warp as it entered my brain, that the reality I was reacting to might not be real at all.  It might be all in my head.

Of course, it’s not helpful to tell a depressed person that their problem is all in their head—when it’s done in a dismissive way.  But Brandon wasn’t dismissing me.  He believed I had a genuine and difficult problem—but that problem wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the world around me, either.  It was as if I had spent my entire life living in a box, and I didn’t even know it.  I thought the box was the real world.  I thought the box was me.  I thought the box was all there would ever be to life, and, I think reasonably, I didn’t really want to live it anymore.

But along came Brandon Sanderson. He opened the lid to the box, looked around with interest, and said, “it’s so interesting that you live in here.  Do you know that there’s a whole world outside of this box?  Do you know that other people don’t see you the way you think they do?  Do you know that you exist, separate and independent of this box? Do you know that the box isn’t you at all?”

My whole life I had assumed that my illness and I were synonymous.  Everything that happened inside my head was me, so if it was bad and wrong and a mess, then I was bad and wrong and a mess.  There was no escaping from it, because everywhere I went, my entire life, I would always be me, and it was me.  And then my friend looks at me and says, as if surprised, “Why would you think that’s you?  It’s not you at all.  It’s happening in your head and it isn’t normal and you exist completely separately from it and it doesn’t have to be this way.”  It was as if he assisted my will save to disbelieve the illusions, and suddenly I could see it:  The horror I was living in was just chemicals in my brain.  It was just thoughts in my head.  And yes, depression is real in the sense that chemicals are real, and thoughts are real. And I would never want to minimize the very real effect it can have on the people who suffer with it. But it wasn’t reality.  It was a powerful illusion, but it was only an illusion, and if I could learn to think outside of that box I was trapped in, I could be free.

I could tell you about the other help I needed at that time.  I could tell you about how I needed to move, and Brandon found me an apartment.  I could tell you how I needed medical treatment (obviously), and Brandon helped me navigate resources to make that happen.  I could tell you about the time he sat with me in the ER and told me that the doctors weren’t taking me seriously, and they should be, and I needed to keep talking to people until somebody did.  But none of those things are the point of the story.

The point of the story is this: Brandon gave me the most important gift anyone has ever given me in my entire life—a gift that I am absolutely certain is the only reason I am still alive today.  It’s a gift that has made every good thing in my life possible every day since.  He gave me the gift of not feeling.  Instead of getting carried away in his own emotions when he saw what was happening to me, he gave me the gift of reflecting back to me a logic and patience that a person can only have when they keep their emotions in check.  I owe everything to that gift, so you can imagine the fury I feel toward anyone who would denigrate it.  Brandon is not a freak.  He’s also not the perfect paragon of virtue people sometimes present him as.  He is a person—flaws and all—with a very powerful gift that saved my life, and I doubt very much I am the only one.

Here’s the rest of the story: it took me a couple of years to climb out of that box.  I had professional help.  I did CBT.  I learned to retrain my brain to see the world outside of the lens of depression and anxiety.  For a long time, when a depressed thought would come into my mind, I would ask myself, “What would Brandon say about that thought?  Would he accept that as reality?”  And if I knew he wouldn’t, I would make myself reframe the thought, hammering it into shape until I found a thought about myself that I believed Brandon would accept.  I wanted so badly to live in his reality, the one he saw outside of that box.  I wanted to be able to see myself the way he saw me, as a person with a problem and not a person who was a problem. 

After a few years, I got my mental health to a place where I no longer lived in a constant emotional crisis.  At almost all times in my life since then I’ve been somewhere on the healthy part of the mental health spectrum.  Notable exceptions were during the postpartum period with both of my kids, and one year during the pandemic when I got hit with several personal crises at once.  Even then, I knew I was not the illness.  I knew I existed separately from it.  I knew I could crawl out of the box again, because it was only a box, and not the true reality I knew existed beyond it.

Here’s the thing about my friend Brandon—I owe everything to him, and I’ll never be able to pay it back.  He wouldn’t want me to.  He would be horrified if he thought I felt like I had to.  I joke about Brandon asking me for a favor when he asked me to finish Bastille for him—because that “favor” did a lot more good for me than it probably did for him.  But the truth is, if I am able, I will always do a favor for Brandon Sanderson.  Not because I feel like I have to pay him back, but because it feels so good to give literally anything back to a person who gave me so much.  (And that’s not even counting all the professional opportunities, or the fact that he talked me into dating my husband.) 

But really, I will never be able to pay this back.  Never ever.  So I do my very best to pay it forward.  When I encounter people who deal with similar issues, I do my very best to give them the gift of not feeling.  To sit with them and let them say all the scary things in their heads, and to react with genuine interest, but without emotional reaction.  I have sat with people who want to die, and done my very best to reflect back to them that I’m not afraid of their feelings, that I will of course want to make sure they are physically safe, but that I don’t think it’s scary that they have those thoughts, and that I think they are a real, whole person outside of those thoughts and those thoughts will never define them.  That skill has served me well.  I may never be a person who experiences little emotion (ha!) but I have learned to be a person who can set aside emotion when it’s necessary, and I learned that from Brandon, too.

So I am grateful for that gift.  The gift of not feeling. Because not feeling most definitely does not mean not caring.

Over the years, I have listened to a lot of opinions about my friend Brandon.  I have heard people say things with authority in both the positive and negative, things that I knew to be both true and false.  I’ve never felt the need to correct these things—he’s a public figure and people are going to see the persona and think what they want about him and it’s not my place to try to turn that ship.

But if I could tell you just one thing about my friend, it’s that he’s wonderful. Not because he writes books, and certainly not because he’s perfect, but because he’s a person, and like all people, he has unique gifts that enable him to make a difference in other people’s lives.