It was an odd argument, except that it wasn’t one—it probably just sounded that way—animated, two bodies leaning in towards each other, engaged, buzzing, hands waving, freighted silences as the right words were scrabbled for. We were like dogs digging in sand, ideas flying, making a lot of mess.

The subject: feeling nothing as against feeling everything.

To those sitting beside us it may well have sounded tub-thumpingly earnest. But how can you not be hand-wavingly consumed when examining whether it is more humanly painful to feel nothing or everything?

We were talking about young men stuck in claustrophobic refugee camps. They may have escaped from violence, but many of them see a return to it as the only option for their future. Some see the only way out of their numb isolation as joining a band of brothers, brothers-in-arms, with guns, by continuing the killing.

That’s the extreme version, but let’s bring this out of the over-topical refugee camp situation, and into the rest of life, all life.

Numb or raw

When something shatters us, a sudden death, illness, divorce, loss, or it can be a more existential splintering—a sense that everything that once meant something no longer has meaning, there is a wide range of immediate reactions. How we first react to devastation often dictates how we will absorb the psychological battering that we are going through, and how we will find our way back from it. Out of this wide range of initial reactions, this post is about two: numbness and hyper-sensitivity, as in feeling nothing or feeling everything.

The numbness can be loosely explained in part as being the loss of empathy. Something so huge has happened, or is being experienced, that it’s as though there is no spare human space to be able to sense or imagine how anyone else can be feeling. Your pain, your experience, has overtaken everything else. In the extreme version, the disempowered young refugee, it can manifest in an apparent ‘f*** you world, you’ve f***ed with me, so now I’m going to f*** with you’. So, picking up the gun, becoming part of a radicalised and armed group might seem the only thing left that can cut through the numbness. Or there is suicide—that other kind of killing.

How ugly is this paradox: that only taking away other lives or suicide are perceived as having any sense of meaning?

This is a nuclear form of numbness.

From both sides

For you, for me, for the young man in the camp, what does that numbness actually feel like?

To those around the numbness it can come across as extreme selfishness, a kind of inexplicable level of self-indulgence that causes offence, frustration, hurt and anger, the ‘I don’t know who you are any more’ variety.

To the one who is numb there is only an experience of utter aloneness that is unimaginable if it has not been experienced. It is perhaps too rinsed down, but it does so often come down to that one-liner, ‘no-one understands me’. This is simply how it feels, that no other human being can begin to understand this pain.

On the opposite side, feeling everything is a raw, over-exposed, wincing, cowering, wounded animal experience. The sound of a firework becomes a bomb blast, a soft warm wind holds the threat of becoming a tornado, a puppy’s whelping cry sounds like the end of all life, a mobile on vibrate in someone else’s bag becomes a personal attack. The nervous system seems to have lost a layer of protection, no, more than one—it’s as though several layers of emotional skin have been ripped away. The closest I can get is that it is like living in a glass room where all the walls are constantly shattering.

If it is you

How should we react to this numbness or rawness if it is happening to us?

Some of us want to be saved from it.

And some don’t.

The second line is misleading. It can seem that those in pain don’t want to be saved, or to save themselves, but asking for help can feel harder than living with the agony.

That is the cruellest part of this because there is nothing—almost nothing that anyone can do from the outside to influence this decision. A hormonal surge, or a chemical one, a tiny human shift in a split second, can be all that it takes to make the decision. For one is might be to join a killing machine group, or it might be suicide. And then there is there is another decision, a radically different one, the enormous human choice to do something to change your relationship with yourself.

It will almost always come down to a single act of courage, one that is made with the partial realisation of how hard it will be to walk back into the world of real feelings, ones that we will have to take responsibility for.

And if it is not you

If you are the one on the outside, wanting to help but unsure how to, what can you do then?

I put ‘almost nothing’ earlier, as in there is almost nothing that can be done from the outside, but what does that ‘almost nothing’ mean?

If you are the one standing in the pain shadow of someone you love or care about, it means being able to hear and understand when they are asking for help. Sometimes it comes out arse-about. It can sound aggressive, or loaded with criticism and hurt. For you this means side-stepping the insults while trying to see the anger for what it is, and the pain that fuelled it. If you know the person well it can mean learning to read between the lines, becoming an interpreter of anger or monosyllabic answers. It can mean something as basic as going for a walk with them, without talking about the problem—just allowing them to feel normal for a bit.

You do not have to save anyone, but another sort of courage is needed—the kind that means you just have to be in the room with the person who is numb or raw. By just being there it can allow them to feel safe enough for a human miracle to happen—the decision to save their own life.