From a very early age I remember understanding what other people felt. Not just a comprehension of feelings, but a physical knowledge. Most kids know when mom is upset, or when the energy in a room is slightly off, but if I would walk in the room when my big sister was in the middle of a fight with her boyfriend, I would take one look at her sad face and immediately feel heartsick. At seven I had no idea what romantic love felt like firsthand, but I instantly knew that if things were in the crapper with my boyfriend, I too would not be able to eat or sleep or think of anything else until it was made right. I constantly worried as a child about everyone’s welfare. How was my dad doing without his girls in the house? How was my brother Drew dealing with the divorce? Did my mom feel capable of navigating the new terrain as single mother? I would watch television and cry right along with the characters feeling loss, rejection, uncertainty. My heart would race watching Dark Shadows’ Victoria Winters being held captive by Matthew Morgan, feeling as if I were the one being trapped. My God, what would I do if that was me? I would play-act it out, crying and pleading for someone to save me, red-faced and breathless.
One of my favorite albums when I was in second grade was my sister Lani’s Leslie Gore’s Greatest Hits. The lyrics were written on the inside sleeve and I would sing along to my favorites: Look of Love (Here I am, all by myself, watching him with someone else, bet he doesn’t even know I’m here, wish I could hold back my tears), She’s A Fool (She don’t know that she’s a lucky girl, got the best thing in the whole wide world, got a love that’s hard to find, got the boy I wish was mine), and Just Let Me Cry (Oh stars on high why can’t I make you see, that I don’t want your light to shine on me, he said good-bye, just let me cry). I was a seven-year-old angsty teenager. I sang these songs with or without the music playing and would start crying as I did. I just felt such pain for not being loved. I was that girl in the music, all the girls everywhere crying because they felt so bad.
Once my mom was lunch monitor at my school. I was so excited–and confused–because when she told me she would see me at school that day, I thought she was going to be my class’ lunch monitor. Our lunch monitor showed up and I was beside myself. I asked her what she was doing there. She said it was her day. I checked the lunch monitor schedule posted at the back of the classroom. Sure enough, mom’s name wasn’t on it. I got cramps I was so nervous. My mouth was dry. I felt sick. Mom was coming all the way down here for nothing. When I saw her face pop in the window of my classroom door, I ran to it. By that time I was crying. I felt so embarrassed for mom, not knowing her own schedule. She calmed me down, explaining she was a monitor for another class; the assigned mom couldn’t make it and asked mom to fill in. She’d just dropped by my classroom to say hi to me. Oh, the relief! But seriously, I needed a tranquilizer that day.
Growing up I always held out the hope that my mom and dad would get back together. That was an unfortunate situation my mom’s boyfriend Robert found himself navigating. I didn’t hate him; he was very good to me. But I saw his endgame: he wanted mom. I had no choice but to view him as an interloper. Sometimes when he and mom would fight, or if she’d go on a date with someone else, especially my dad, I would hope that was the end of Robert. But he’d be back, over for dinner or taking her to a movie or a club on the weekends. He even had the nerve to bring her home at one in the morning to pick me up to go to the Country Club Diner for breakfast, which I absolutely loved. Total monster, wasn’t he? But he wasn’t my dad, so I wanted him out. Given this, the day my mom broke up with him for good, he was so sad I actually started taking his side. I couldn’t handle it. I could see, even at that young age and through my daddy-colored glasses, that he truly loved my mother and I knew it would destroy him if she wouldn’t see him again. I begged my mom to let him in the house so he could plead his case. She did, they married when I was fifteen and today I consider him a real father to me. And I still feel his pain when mom gets mad at him (hi, Mom! Love you!).
Such depth of feeling has been both a curse and a blessing. An absolute curse because, well, it’s fucking painful. When tragedy strikes, I feel not only my own pain, but the suffering of those around me. Double pain. It helps as a writer, but is also very painful. Sometimes when writing a particularly emotional scene, I become that character (most of what happens to “my people” is shit that’s happened to me anyway, so there’s the bad memories to contend with) and I start to lose my breath, or hold it, neither of which is good. I cry a lot, I have to get up and walk or watch television or clean the house or do something that doesn’t involve feeling. But I think every good writer or actor or dancer has to be an empath, that is, to not only have empathy, but embody it. As a writer, my job is to have you identify with my character. Or recognize her. Or be interested in him. How can I do that unless I know exactly who they are and what they’re feeling?
As I was researching what it means to be an empath and others’ thoughts and facts on the subject, I came across something that stated nursing and counseling are good career choices for an empath. I completely disagree. Nurses need to have sympathy, not empathy. Nurses need to view the patient and understand the illness, not feel it. They need to help a patient’s family through their pain, not cry at the bedside with them. They need to have care and patience but remain at a safe distance emotionally. True empaths have a hard time doing this. It is virtually impossible. I know there is no way I could look at a dying person’s family and give them the news. Or not give the news. To see them every day, look at their hopeful faces, knowing their loved one is going to die and remain unreadable. As my job. Nope. Incapable of doing this. And as for a counselor: they’re supposed to help us rationalize our feelings. Assimilate them. Calm them. Take those emotions and push them aside for a moment so the rational mind can take over and make an informed decision.
Having compassion does not make one an empath. It makes you a fabulous human being, but not an empath. The compassionate can go to sleep at night, knowing they identified with someone and hopefully helped them. And there’s the poor empath, sitting on the bathroom floor with you, lifting the glass of water to your lips while you swallow the entire bottle of pills.