Years ago my friend Pam told me that life is like a refrigerator, and you are issued a certain number of Tupperware containers for all the emotional leftovers that come your way. Most of us keep putting stuff in there, until eventually you realize you're out of real Tupperware, you've used up all the ghetto Tupperware like leftover margarine tubs, and in fact you're having a hard time getting the door shut anymore. Anytime the door gets opened a crack, it's ugly and scary and everyone falls back ten feet, blanching and gagging. You can't begin to think what might make it better, so you keep the door shut and hope you might happen to have that special self-cleaning fridge, the kind that magically devours the leftovers with no effort at all on your part. Unlike any other known to man. And maybe you do, lucky you. But if you're like the rest of us, not so much. And one day, you might find yourself desperate enough to want it clean, no matter what it takes to get it that way.
And that desperate place is a very, very good place to be. If you're in that place, stop and be glad. Desperation will motivate you like nothing else. It will make you willing to throw away things you have held onto with both your two hands, convinced that your very life depends on that rotten, moldy piece of resentment from 1977. But when you're desperate enough, you might find yourself ready to let it go and let God redeem. Which means you will end up with a fresh, new start.
I know this for sure, because that's what God has done for me.
So a few years after Pam first told me about the fridge, I told her I felt like the fridge was clean now. And she asked me, how did you clean the fridge? And I didn't have a good answer at the time. I was a little bit like the man who said, "I was blind, and now I see." It was clean, I was grateful, and that's all I knew.
But I've thought about that a lot as time has gone on, and I think I can see some of the things that were helpful.
Getting the gunk out
When you clean an actual refrigerator, the first thing you have to do is get everything out onto the counter and get rid of whatever looks like a science experiment gone bad. To me, this is the worst part of the process, the very reason I don't clean my actual fridge much. It's hard and no fun and I hate it. The truth is, I will only truly clean it if something really awful gets spilled. (Or if I have advance notice that a particularly intimidating person is coming over, and might look in my fridge.) Otherwise, I just wipe the fronts of the shelves when I remember. It's always bad in the back.
I think cleaning the emotional fridge is like that, too. Wiping down the front of the shelves will only do it for so long. Eventually, you've got to get all the way to the back. Generally, in the process, it looks like you're making an even bigger mess than you had before. This is OK. It really is. Even if it feels absolutely terrifying. Hang in there.
I think there's a huge temptation to try to put everything back the way it was--jam it back in there and slam the door again. But if you're really desperate, you'll know this is not what you really want--no matter how tempting. I remember a few months into that process in my own life, someone asked me when I was going to be back to normal. I said, "Never, I hope." I wasn't going through all that grief just to find myself in that mess again, not if I could help it.
Everybody's "stuff" is their own, but I read books about depression and anxiety and codependency and boundaries, because that's what I was dealing with. For us, The patterns of our marriage were a huge part of the mess, so we worked hard on those and created something new and different that we love today.
One of the most basic changes I've made, is to deal with what's wrong, as soon as I know about it. No more of the hoping it's going away on its own. One of my first symptoms is waking up in the middle of the night. I might not have a conscious thought that's anxious, but I know that if I start waking up in the middle of the night, I am anxious about something, and I need to figure it out. Now. And I know I am a verbal processor, so I need to talk to somebody.
So, for me, getting help is part of being changed. In the pre-cleaning years, when I wasn't desperate enough yet, I wanted to go to therapy. But...it just wasn't bad enough. So I didn't go. And there were so many things I was afraid to say to anybody. I'm sure I would have been a very frustrating client to some poor therapist. I had a weird kind of magical thinking going on that went something like this: "If I don't say it, it's not true." I wouldn't even write the truth down in my own journal, that's how bad it was. Nobody knew the real me, not even me.
It's absolutely imperative for me to have two or three close friends of the "say anything" variety, and my husband has to be the first one on the list. I so value having people who really know me and will tell me what they think. I even listen to their advice sometimes. More than I used to.
So. Messes and change and emotional honesty are hard work, no doubt about it. But remain calm and keep cleaning.