Do you have a junk drawer? A designated space for things that maybe don’t fit anywhere else, need some work that you aren’t ready to give energy to, or just don’t need very often; out of sight, out of mind. How about a figurative junk drawer in your mind where you store emotions or events? Those parts of your life history that don’t quite fit into your narrative, that require hard work to process; out of sight, out of mind. At a very young age I taught myself how to use my mental junk drawer, what I call the art of emotional compartmentalization. I’m not sure if this is an actual term in the mental health field, but for me personally it is how I avoid processing complicated emotions or trauma. I learned that if I suppress uncomfortable or hurtful emotions, storing them somewhere deep inside my mind to deal with later, I could put on my happy face in the present. No one would know that I was hurting, and life would continue on as if nothing ever happened.
My earliest memory of this behavior is at about five years old. Without the skills needed to adequately voice my concerns, I would crawl under the dining room table and bite the face of my Mickey Mouse watch until I heard it crack. There was something about the act of damaging the watch that gave me the instant release I needed. I secluded myself, transferring those uncomfortable emotions to an inanimate object, then emerged from underneath the table ready to return to regularly-schedule programming. If I hid what I truly felt, I would be viewed as a happy, well-adjusted kid. Fast-forward two decades. The Mickey watch had been replaced by my emotional junk drawer, the reward being the same: I hid what I truly felt to be viewed as the happy, well-adjusted man.
It was a summer day in 2006, and I had finally made it to the exit ramp. Eyeing the interstate, I slammed my foot on the accelerator. I could feel my eye balls pulsate with every intense beat of my heart. Tears began streaming down my face as I screamed as loud and long as I could. I was now going over 100 mph, barely breathing from the smothering anxiety, desperately gripping the steering wheel. I reached over to the stereo knob, finding it hard to grasp it from the violent shaking. I managed to turn the volume up as far as it would go, unbuckle my seat belt and scream again. I shut my eyes knowing there was a sharp turn at the bottom of the decline, a spot I had scoped out for weeks. Beyond the arch in the road were several large trees. This was to be the chosen location of my death . I had already arranged the scene in my mind of a lonely wooden cross driven into the ground to memorialize the tragic accident that took my life.
And, just like I had done many times before, I opened my eyes, let off the pedal, and lost at my own game of chicken. By the time I would arrive at work my face would be dry, blood pressure stabilized, smile attached, and my sadness shoved back into the drawer. Maybe one day I’ll have the balls to go through with it.
Arriving at work, I noticed an email from the HR Department: the company I worked for collaborated with a local counseling agency to provide one free therapy assessment for all employees. I immediately picked up the phone. At 29, I was married with two small children, recently attained a professional position and was serving in various roles in the church. From the outside looking in, my life was a picture of the American Dream, but inside I lived a daily wretched nightmare of an existence. Living with depression and masking it to the world is nothing short of a living hell. This hollow emptiness and hopelessness began in the pit of my stomach and slowly spread throughout my body like a smothering black cancer. As the days grew closer to my 30th birthday, I was consumed with suicidal ideations. My daily life felt like I was standing on the edge of a steep cliff, looking over into the vast emptiness trying to gather up enough nerve to jump; do I want to live another day?
How do you fit thirty years of repressed hurt and shame into a one-hour session? As soon I sat down in front of the therapist, I ripped open that junk drawer that by now was so packed it was ready to explode. By the end of the hour, the therapist had made a call to a local mental health facility and I checked myself in that evening. The therapist called my wife at the time to tell her what was happening. She didn’t even know I was going to the counseling center, much less that I was depressed or dealing with hurt, shame, anger and pain of that magnitude. I managed to compartmentalize so well that no one in the world had the slightest clue that I wanted to end my life for the betterment of my family and friends.
After two days of staying in the facility, I refused to talk to anyone or participate in group sessions. One cannot learn how to unpack that much junk overnight. On the third morning, I was wrapped up in my blanket when the nurse came to my room. I will never forget this lady. A tall, large African American woman with the sweetest and softest of voices, she took her hand on my shoulder and forced me to turn toward her. Baby, they never gonna let you out of here if you don’t get up out of this bed and try to get better. You’re a grown man, now act grown. Needless to say, I rose out of bed and took the first step in a long journey toward learning how to unpack my junk drawer in a healthy way.
I am writing this today for anyone who relates to suffering in silence. You have reached the point where your emotional junk drawer won’t even budge. There is no where else to store trauma and you feel the gripping anxiety that stems from the fear of exploding. You don’t have to live this way; there is freedom and a higher version of yourself waiting to be found. I often still feel the urge to compartmentalize, but I remind myself that the life I live now having gained a sense of true identity and personal awareness pales in comparison to the living hell that almost took my life.