You always hurt the ones you love

November 23, 1997|By Susan Reimer

I WOKE FEELING as though my head was stuffed with cotton and my mouth was lined with it.

It had been a tough night, full of restlessness and illustrated by those dreams that come to you when you are more awake than asleep. Vivid, anxious dreams that are more like unrestrained worry than dreams. Dreams that stay with you, like the taste of garlic.

For the rest of the day, I rocked between agitation and exhaustion. In my head, I sorted through every word I had said the night before, replayed every scene. Wishing it had not happened, wishing I could erase the loop of videotape in my brain.

At work, my thinking was thick and slow, clotted with remorse. My shame left me weary and wanting the forgetfulness of sleep.

The symptoms were familiar. I had another hangover. But not the kind you get from too much wine. It was the kind of hangover you get from too much anger.

It was an emotional hangover.

I don't know if men have emotional hangovers, but women do.

It is regret with physical symptoms. It is where the expression "sick at heart" comes from. An emotional hangover is what you feel when you can't let go of your bad behavior. Not because you embarrassed yourself, although you certainly did that, but because you behaved badly toward the people you love, the people whose care you have been given.

My son had forgotten to lock the house when he left for soccer practice and my husband had forgotten to lock the house when he came to bed and I exploded in rage all out of proportion to the crimes they had committed.

Even in the midst of my fury, I knew it was not about deadbolts, but about something else entirely. But the steam in this pipe had escaped at its weakest point -- the family. Family members irritate and disappoint each other so regularly that they easily take the hit for whatever else goes wrong in our lives.

When I was done shrieking at my husband and son, I stormed up to bed and slammed the door, dooming myself to a night of wrestling with the covers and with my conscience. The next morning my family tiptoed around as if I'd buried land mines under the floorboards.

I went to work and, having punished all the wrong people, I spent the day apologizing to all the wrong people. Co-workers would ask, without really wanting to know, how I was, and they would find themselves listening to my confession.

"OK, I guess. God, did I scream at my family last night."

I must have told my story to a dozen people, looking for absolution. I hoped that if I repeated it enough times to enough people, I could diminish it or give it away.

"Buy gifts," my friend Catherine said, suggesting an act of penance. "That's what I always do."

My son called me when he arrived home from school, "Are you OK today?" he asked, and heat rushed up my neck and into my face.

Having modeled the wrong behavior the night before, I attempted to model the right behavior now.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I was mad at somebody else and since I didn't have the courage to yell at him, I yelled at you and Dad. It was wrong of me to lash out at you because someone else hurt my feelings.

"Although you could lock the door, you know. Where do you think we live? In Amish country?"

I could hear him smiling over the phone. "It's OK, Mom. Dad and I sat down and figured it out. Try to have a better day."

The heavens opened and the light of forgiveness shone down upon me, but it did not cure my emotional hangover. Even the blessings of the ones you love cannot clear a head stuffy with regret.

There is no home remedy for emotional hangovers. No hair of the dog that bit you. Only time cures an emotional hangover.

Each night you sleep a little deeper. Each morning you wake and remember a little less.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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