In the past year, amongst all the other hard truths and difficult steps of my growth, I came face-to-face with the fact that I never learned how to recover since I spent almost my entire life coping. Specifically, due to the situation I grew up in and the life I was choosing for myself in my college years, I never learned to recover from things because I never had the time or opportunity to do more than cope.
I’m quite good at coping. Throw me into any difficult situation, any amount of stress, any environment, and I’ll make it work. I’ll get things done, achieve my goals, and manage to keep my sanity. Like a lot of people who grew up with stress and trauma as an everyday part of my life, I got so used to it that I feel uncomfortable without a constant high-level of stress so I tend to thrive when things get difficult. In the years since I graduated college, leaving behind the orderly environments and clear, outlined goals, I’ve discovered that there is an upper limit to how much I can handle. I don’t thrive under highly stressful situations so much as I never learned how to live comfortably in any other kind of situation.
What made it click this past year was talking with my roommate about how to organize his studying and classwork time. He’s a student now and he regularly struggles with staying focus on his work because he’s an extrovert and can be easily distracted by anyone even walking into the room he’s working in. He remarked that he gets frustrated because he wants to go do stuff with me and our other roommate, and I agreed that it is harder for him as a late-20s adult going to college when most of his friends have already graduated. He can’t connect and enjoy studying with his classmates because some of them are a decade younger than him, and he doesn’t have a group of friends to study with since we’re all playing video games or going out (I’ve offered to sit and write with him if he wants company while he works, but he has yet to take me up on it).
While we were talking about strategies to help him focus, I told him some anecdotes from my years in college and the lessons I learned. During my junior and senior years, when I figured out what I wanted to do and buckled down to work, I did homework or worked six nights of the week. Between classes, studying, and working full time, I got one night off a week, so I took Thursday nights off to play video games with my friends. Other than that, I ignored everyone or told them they could join me as I studied in the library or in the English Department lounge. I picked studying and work over everything else and counted on my friends to understand. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, but what mattered most to me was making the right choice for myself.
All that stuff tumbled around my head for a while before it finally connected with the final piece to the puzzle. One of the most important things I ever learned from a professor in college was a saying he liked (and still likes) to repeat to all of his classes. “I know some of you will say that you write your best papers at the last minute, as the deadline approaches. That isn’t true. What is true is that you only write your papers at the last minute.” It was a lesson I took to heart then and something that connected what I learned by choosing myself in college with what I’ve been learning from the books I’m reading about trauma (they’ll show up in a review sometime).
All of this made it clear that nothing had changed from college. I hadn’t become deficient in someway. I hadn’t lost anything. I just got worn out because I assumed that I thrived when under a great deal of stress instead of questioning if I had ever tried to live without that much stress. I’d gradually worn myself down because I could just keep coping until I was physically incapable of continuing. Even after I knew I wasn’t really fine, when I’d seen the cracks in the world I was building for myself and did my best to patch them, I still thought I could keep doing what I was doing and the changes I’d made to my world would eventually fix things. Turns out what I needed to change was me.
I still think I made the right choice back then to change jobs. I think that, overall, my world is much better than it was three years ago even as I’m currently breaking it all apart and building most of it back up again. I also think that what I really needed was to learn how to rest. How to recover. They sound so easy, right? The idea of resting is super easy until you try to explain it to someone, isn’t it? You grab for metaphor and simile, confident that the person you’re talking to understands it and you just have to find the right bridge to connect your understand and theirs. I didn’t really understand it. I thought I did. If you’d asked me even three months ago, I’d have explained that resting is like gasping for air after a sprint, taking the minute you have to get as much air into your lungs before you’re up and sprinting again. Recovery is the break you take during a marathon to stretch a cramped muscle, drink a sports drink/energy slurry, and use the bathroom before you carry on running.
I’m sure you can see the flaw in my understanding. Those are breaks. Reprieves. Moments of peace in a storm. Real rest and recovery are something else entirely. To be entirely fair to myself, it’s difficult to understand that you misunderstood something most people can’t explain and that most people take for granted. For instance, did you know that most old memories are typically viewed in third person, almost like a story you’ve told yourself (or that someone else has told you)? You don’t really see most old memories through your own eyes, you see yourself participating in them.
Until very recently, I thought that it was normal for all memories to be first person. Memories weren’t stories so much as resubmerging myself in a moment long past. In most people, the only first-person memories are the recent ones and the traumatic ones. For me, my trauma changed the way my brain stored information so thoroughly only a handful, if that, of my memories were in third-person. I don’t think those count as real memories though since I know the photographs of those moments and I’m pretty sure I just built a story around those moments that I’ve labeled a memory. They’re all from before I was 2 and I don’t think my memory is that good.
You can see how I might have a bit of a warped understanding of some things, yeah? It’s hard to really grasp how different my understanding of the world is from yours when all we can do is use metaphors to approximate our own experiences and ideas in the hopes of evoking someone else’s.
After a month and a half of rest, three weeks of which got eaten up as coping time since I talked to my parents one week before I had two solid weeks of all-day meetings, I think I’ve kind of gotten it figured out. Enough so, anyway, that I can do it every day. I’ve literally got it built into my daily schedule every day but Monday (I kinda go all day Monday, without stop, from 6am until 10pm). While that might seem a bit absurd, to schedule rest and recovery, it’s kind of who I am? I like order and having a time marked out and a box to check for every day makes it a bit easier to take the time to actually rest and recover.
I’m still pretty burnt out. Nothing is going to fix that in any short amount of time, but the rest I’ve taken has provided me with enough energy and strength to go back to writing every day, to working on my projects, and to figure out how to choose me right now. I’ve never been good at advocating for myself, but nobody else expects as much from me as I do. Any and all of my D&D players are happy to play D&D modules instead of custom campaigns. My friends understand if I don’t go for a hike with them because I need to do laundry and make D&D battle maps for the one remaining custom campaign I’m running. And if they don’t… Well, their loss.
I’m choosing myself again and I’m comfortable with the knowledge that this won’t be easy. I may stop talking to some people I’m close to if they won’t respect my needs and boundaries. I may need to get a new job if nothing changes and the same problems repeat without end. I may have to cut back on all of the D&D I’m doing so I have energy for other projects and the players who lose out might not like it. I may have to skip everything I’d planned for an evening because I really need to rest more and I’ll have to learn how to be more adaptable. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, other than I need to be aware of how I’m doing at any given moment so I can make the calls I need.
This may not seem difficult, but I almost chickened out of telling my at-work D&D group that I needed us to switch to running modules because creating the entire campaign might take the same number of hours as preparing a module, but running a module takes a lot less energy. And that’s the easiest of all the things I might need to do. They only get harder from here.
Wish me luck.