The Joy of Feeling
Cold. It’s a familiar four letter word that sits so often by my name. Just like a drumbeat, on paper, I am these six syllables: Is-Ah-Bell-Ree-Ber-Cold. My last syllable is the most sociable; it comes with me to appointments with psychiatrists; to group therapy. It came frequently to the police station and sat in its own plastic chair. “Although Isabelle Reaber may not be responsible for the death of her family, it should be noted that she was pathologically cold when she discovered the news.”
I was. My family were just the people I had to share my house with. Until that house was decorated with ticker tape and police tape and the scarlet shade of a burglary gone wrong. The news crews were greeted with my frosty reception. Cold.
“Trying to squeeze an ounce of emotion or empathy from Isabelle is like trying to force an orgasm from a loveless marriage.”
Psychiatrists love loveless marriages but not nearly as much as they love a good label.
You could say that my bereavement therapy wasn’t going particularly well. In the beginning, they clamoured over themselves to make sure that I was aware of my options. Counselling, alternative sleep remedies... It was like watching children jostling one another on Sports Day; their irrepressible enthusiasm to be away from the starting line. But then the race dragged on and my emotional deprivation dragged on and the stragglers fell away somewhere to collapse onto freshly-mown grass, sweating and petulant.
My first psychiatrist reminded me of school days. He had that air of faulty boilers: mustiness, incapability, and bitter Christmas holidays. He asked me if I felt that I was internalising my grieving procedure.
“This is my grieving face.” I explained while my face remained impassive.
“And what does your joyful face look like?”
I showed him the same expression
“We have six basic emotions which are the clearest to read on any human face,” he said. Just like my six syllables. He tapped them out on his stiff ninety-degree knee. “Joy-Sadness-Anger-Fear-Surprise-Disgust.”
How many of these emotions did I think I experienced after my family were killed?
One of the basic principles of the word ‘cold’ is zero. Nothing. C-zero-L-D. It’s a nullifier: one times zero equals zero. One thing meets an absence of things and the absence of things wins. For example: consistently scoring zeros on my CORE sheets renders the practice of thrusting them at me null and void.
On a scale of zero to ten, ten being ‘all the time’, how often have you felt warmth towards another human being?
My latest psychiatrist got tired of my repertoire of circular scores and sent me to group therapy.
Every fortnight it’s the same. I take my usual place in the ragged half circle: the chair where my view across the room isn’t the scrunched up face of another person; it’s the door. I like to be reminded that I have a life outside of these hours, outside of this church hall where everyone’s polite angst goes bouncing along the scuffed parquet flooring. ‘Opening Up Together’. It should be called ‘Sharing Misdirected Anger Together’; I see it squirming around behind their eyes. Oh, I have no problem reading other people’s emotions, I just don’t produce my own.
It’s the same routine as every considerate outburst goes rippling around the crescent. It reaches me, stops, just like science class: I am not a conductor, jumps, carries on, interrupted by my lack of empathy.
I think of that door.
When the tears start flowing or when a heavy-handed segue brings the conversation in my direction, I even treat myself to a peek at it.
“Isabelle? Would you say that what happened to your family has made you feel isolated, too?” Trust Issues? Problems Sleeping Alone?”
I feel every desperate pair of male eyes turn to me in that instant as if next emerging from my mouth will be an open invitation for any one of them to join me in my spacious king-size.
Sometimes I lie. Lying is easy.
If I was to tell everyone how I’m really feeling, it would be tired. Being constantly numb will do that to you. Truthfully, the lack of expectation wears me down. They get my zeros, they hope for ones, maybe twos next week but no one ´expects´ them. It’s all in the police report: ´pa-tho-lo-gic-ly-cold´.
There, drumming away with a black and white heartbeat is my president. Set on my psychiatrist’s coffee table with the complimentary cup of water and the useless box of tissues. Stuck on the back of my group chair with sellotape for everyone to see before I take my seat. And the thing I’ve realised about those kinds of labels is that they share a lot of properties with parasites.
It’s Wednesday night and I stand looking across the room at the invisible tag on my seat, wondering if the ink keeps seeping through onto my back. Maybe that’s why no one in this babble of greetings attempts to ask me how my week has been any more. No one asks me if I’ll be bonding over caged animals with them this weekend on the group field trip. I won’t be going.
But maybe I’d like the option of telling someone
I won’t be going, of explaining that staring at unusual mammals isn’t a hobby of mine; no doubt because I am usually the unusual mammal that gets stared at. I only started my affair with therapy in the first place so that it would look like I wasn’t uncaring enough to have killed my family and framed it as somebody else’s accident. I didn’t. I probably am uncaring enough but I’m sick of other people assuming the authority to tell me that that’s the case.
I sit in the dip of the waning moon of faces, ready to stare down the slab of wood that brought me in, ready to leave this all behind, ready to count down my fifty-five minutes to departure. And then someone grates a chair across the floor. And sits himself down in my perfect line of sight.
I can’t concentrate on any of the cries for help, the back-to-square-oners; he’s in my eye line. I want my reminder of the outside world, not this watered-down blue shirt, this scruffy blond hair. He purses a sulky mouth; his blank eyes in some shade of teal or periwinkle go trawling around the room, bounding between lazy indifference and insatiable fits of energy and I’m not tuning in to the unpleasant frequency of someone’s regret.
“It’s a breakthrough.”
“It’s a miracle.”
I miss her falling shoulders, relieved by the lifting pressure of confession; I’m watching him open his mouth in a perfect O and he yawns.
“Everyone thank Sarah for conquering her fears and opening up to us.”
The yawn goes on and I go on watching its progress, the shape of his two front teeth, the way that, after twenty of my seconds, his eyes begin to roll, lamenting the duration of his own oxygen inhalation.
Twelve pairs of hands come together and the whole hall is clapping, the whole hall except him and me and finally the yawn ends. He straightens in his chair and slaps his palms together a few last times. I do the same.
I assumed that he was oblivious to me watching him; his wandering pupils never once returned my stare but, in the middle of everyone’s goodbyes and my heading for the door, he’s walking towards me and I don’t even know it yet.
, I’m thinking, my last walk out of here. If this is the social torment that having emotions entails then you can all keep them-
And suddenly there’s a flash of blue in my face.
“I’m Michael,” he says. “As in: the angel.”
“I thought it was all about Gabriel. I didn’t know there was an angel called Michael,” I reply.
“He slays a dragon. Or something.” He shrugs offhandedly.
“So you’re here because you’re delusional.”
“I’m just here to talk about myself. I’m a narcissist.” He nods and smiles and I wonder if he’s simple or just making a mockery of the whole process. Up close, he smells of winter. I imagine his breath coming out and hanging in the fusty church hall air. “So what did they get you for?”
“And that’s why you’re standing on your own?” His sentence stresses are like his eyes: excitable, lazy, all over the place.
“I’m not standing.” I point out. “I’m walking. As in: to leave.”
“Maybe we’re too formidably attractive to be approached. It puts people off.”
“You look like the kind of child that pulled insects apart,” I state.
“I did,” he says proudly.
“So I take it you won’t be attending the zoological expedition.”
“No-no-no; I love animals. Love them.” I watch his arms come together tight across his chest and I picture him squeezing something to death.
The evening I found the people labelled ‘my family’ there was total silence in the air and the rooms I called ‘my house’, stripped of expensive electrical goods and peppered with red polka-dots, felt like they were resin-coated. It was like walking into a museum. It wasn’t mine. I think to truly own something you have to love it and I’ve never loved anything.
One psychiatrist told me that my internal self was screaming for the lost nurturing of my parents. I said that, if she was screaming, my external self must have been deaf. No one understands what it’s like, standing in a crime scene and being stiffer, deader than the bodies on the floor.
I explain this to Michael as we’re led round the Giant Pandas, the Okapi, the Lowland Gorillas. Maybe I only changed my mind about the zoo to see if he would pull something apart.
“My psychiatrist thought I needed to see the value in other people,” he says.
“How’s that working?” I ask, flatly.
“I see value in you... but, then, I am sexually attracted to you.”
“Most people are.”
He pulls a packet out of his coat pocket. “Chicken wing?”
“Why have you got chicken wings?”
“Well, we’re going to go see the birdies next and I thought it would be nice if they saw us eating chicken wings at the time.”
“Is it irony? Or just sick?” He shrugs happily. “I don’t know.”
So we stand at the aviary railing, picking the meat off of the same delicate flying equipment that goes flapping from one contrived branch to another in front of us. I glance at the stranger next to me who’s stopped talking just long enough to be carnivorous and that’s when it happens.
It’s slow at first. It creeps up in me. It spans my hipbones like a bridge being welded; fiery, just below my navel, just in my stomach, heating up the hydrochloric acid. Then it’s in my jaw, stretching the skin taut across my face and I realise that I must be smiling. It’s an alien concept around my mouth caused by... this.
This must be feeling.
Which one? It’s warming, uplifting, not unpleasant. I cycle through the basics and everything I’ve ever read on other people’s faces but, like an opaque mirror, never reflected.
Isabelle Reaber, welcome to Joy.
They prescribed me documentaries about maternity wards, owning a pet, taking long walks in the sunshine. Tediously predictable. I glance at Michael, leaning over the railing and offering a bone to something small and arrogantly coloured and realise that this must be the best therapy I could ever have. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling joy and it’s something I’m en-joy-ing.
On a scale of zero to ten, how often have I felt warmth towards another human being? One.
How many of the six basic emotions do I think I’ve experienced? One.
And the thing about one is that it’s the beginning of a whole lot of numbers.