One of the interesting (ahahahahahahahaha.. haha… ha…) parts of recovering from trauma is the way you can quickly slip between old modes of thought and new ones. It happened to me just the other day (the day before this went up) in the middle of a conversation with a friend who was checking up on me. I was increasingly dour as she tried to be supportive, sinking down ever faster as she tried to drag me back to the neutral mind frame I’ve been trying to cultivate lately.
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.
One of my goals for this year is to find balance in my life. While it might seem like this statement is so vague as to be entirely useless, I kind of planned it that way. I get so caught up in my goals and working on projects that I find it difficult to split my attention or to stay focused on big goals instead of little ones. So, instead of giving myself narrow, specific goals to work on or work towards, I’m keeping them general and focusing on the big picture. Instead of trying to lose weight this year or trying to prioritize my mental wellness, I want to be healthy. Instead of updating my blog every day, working on a book, or running three D&D campaigns, I want to create. Instead of trying to stay three weeks ahead in blog posts or reading a book a week, I want to find balance between work and relaxation.
Despite everything going on, I managed to be reasonably productive yesterday. Better than that, I decided to just go to bed at midnight, which is why you’re getting this post rather later in the day than I’d like to be putting it up. Unfortunately, despite those good things, yesterday still wasn’t great. I was busy all day trying to get my head out of the stressful holidays and back into anything resembling a productive mindset. It took most of the day and while I did have adequate time to zone out while writing without it compromising my ability to finish the day’s writing, it was still an uphill battle to get anything done. As today will be. Additionally, if that wasn’t bad enough, I may have been in bed by midnight, but I couldn’t fall asleep until after one. It was the worst, lying in bed and staring at the darkened ceiling while I waited for my mind to wind down for an hour.
To be entirely fair, I’m not exactly surprised. It’s been going on for a while and last night was just the latest in a long string of issues sleeping. As my stress level goes up, I start to struggle with sleeping. I’ve used some games in the past to keep me engaged enough that my mind doesn’t fret over pointless stuff but not so engaged that it can’t wind down (any Pokemon is my go-to since it has done that flawlessly my entire life), but that hasn’t been working lately. This is the first time in years that I can’t just shut down my mind when I need to. Or it’s the first time I’ve ever had something on my mind that I don’t want to just ignore. It’s difficult to tell the difference, sometimes, and I’m willing to be this is one of those scenarios where something isn’t happening because I don’t actually want it to happen.
I haven’t done a lot of thinking about my grandfather’s health, my aunt’s rudeness, and my relationship with my family in general. Or my relationship with my past. I honestly haven’t really been doing a lot of self-examination lately, which was a poor choice because I know just how cluttered my mind can get without it. Since my breakup, I’ve had a lot of stuff going on, some by choice to lessen the sting and some by circumstance that has added whole new elements to my anxieties and frustrations. The flood, a wisely abandoned but rather persistently reexamined decision to ask someone out, my grandfather’s health, a huge pile of things at work–participating in planning for the future of my team, a six-week period of crazy business as we tried to get a project done, and then leading the charge on a whole slew of new processes and best-practices for my entire team–and then I went straight from all that into National Novel Writing Month with only a week off to recover which pretty much all went to hell immediately because of my shitty neighbor’s music and the fact that I found out my grandfather was dying the weekend before I had to spend a week outside of my comfort zone in every possible way at work. It’s a lot and my few attempts at sorting myself out weren’t enough. I’ve been journaling every day, but that’s almost always surface stuff and my therapy visits have had quite a bit of time between them lately because of how busy the holidays are.
I really need to take some time to self-examine and process everything that’s been going on in the past six months (because I also went semi-viral on twitter and learned a lot about how I think social media should be used), but it’s difficult to get that time when there’s still so much going on. Numerous events in my friend group, we’re moving to a new building at work, the Christmas holidays coming up, new year’s, trying to figure out what comes next after National Novel Writing Month is over, and the ever-persistent issues of my health (mental and physical) and debt situation. It never lets up! Which is an unfortunate fact of life. The only time and respite I get from all of the chaos of life is the time I make and even that comes with a cost. There could be a lot of important things I miss in my life if I’m constantly pulling myself away from it to get the breathing space to calmly reflect on things. At the same time, taking a break from life to reflect once every six months clearly isn’t cutting it. I’ve been trying to work it into daily life, but enough Big-Deal stuff happens in my life from one year to the next that I need more than the casual reflection I can fit into my day-to-day life.
I really miss summer or winter vacations. I haven’t really had one in almost a decade since I worked every break during college, but I still miss them all the same. I miss the weeks of decreased responsibility and relaxation I had to recover from the mental rigors of studying. The US seriously need to address the shortage of vacation and personal time infecting most of its… everything. Infecting every part of its wage-earning culture since this is a systemic issue from the bottom rung of the job later to all but the top. The top gets to do whatever they want so they don’t count. Except, you know, they do because they’re the ones causing most of the problems. This is not where I saw today’s blog post going. I had notes to talk about how sore my back is from sleeping on an incredibly firm mattress for three nights before returning to my very soft and comfortable mattress but now that just doesn’t seem like something worth complaining about more than I already have in the face of corporate and governmental corruption’s impact on the economic health of all but the upper class.
Uh, eat the rich, I guess? Down with capitalism as a government policy? We should definitely get money out of politics, though, and probably ban anyone over retirement age from holding public office. That seems like a decent start, but we should also consolidating voting to one day every year and make that day a national holiday instead of “Columbus Day” since we’re trying to move away from people who ruin everything and then insist they didn’t do anything. While I’m talking about it, we should also institute a living wage, actually put money into gun violence research, limit the sale of fire arms/enforce conscientious ownership using reasonable gun control laws (Chesus fucking Jrist, can’t we just treat them like goddamn cars or something? With tests, licenses, and ownership certificates? This doesn’t seem like that difficult a fucking concept to work with), put limitations on banks and the whole “move money around to magically make more of it” economic sector to prevent the kind of abuse that led to the subprime mortgage crisis, and ban anyone who is a white supremacist/white supremacy sympathizer from participating in reasonable adult society like the job market and politics? And a million dollars for me, while we’re at it. Since we’re talking about impossible dreams that aren’t likely to occur in my lifetime.
On that depressing note, I’m going to go work on my writing for today. I hope your day is going better than mine is (and I kinda hope you don’t read this blog and my summation of a lot of the catch-all problems in the US). I hope you’re making good progress on your National Novel Writing Month goals and I wish you the best of luck when it comes to finishing strong! I believe in you!
A person’s musical taste can say a lot about them. I like music with big words and complex lyrics that is also usually indie rock or some kind of alternative or folk, which says I’m pretty much a hipster. I also like punk, hip-hop, older country, jazz, and electric rock, which says so many different things that it kind of clouds the picture a bit until you realize I actually like anything that incorporates instrumentation and vocals well, which means I just like melodious music. And that I’m still kind of pretentious and hipster-ish. What kind of music does your protagonist like and what does that say about them? Write a scene involving music that lets your protagonist reveal a bit of themselves that might otherwise keep hidden.
The book series that probably impacted me the most as a writer (aside from, you know, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings inspiring me to actually be a writer), is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Not only does a read through his incredibly fun, clever, and quick books make me want to write, but his style of writing has shown me there’s room for writers with a voice like my natural one. His series and his writing is directly responsible for me starting to write like myself rather than as a mixture of my favorite writers. As anyone who has made the transition can tell you, that’s a pretty big deal. Also, as one of the biggest Fantasy series that isn’t full of giant tomes, it made me appreciate the value of a story told in three hundred pages, give or take fifty. There’s an elegance in simplicity if it’s done right and Terry Pratchett was a master of it.
As we approach the end of the month, there are probably more than a few of us who are behind on our word counts. I’m so far behind I’m going to be behind until the very last day when I finally hit fifty thousand words. For those of us trying to catch up or find a way to squeeze more words out of the day, I have a suggestion. At this point in the month, it should be relatively easy to get your regular words out. The issue is usually the extra words you need to catch up. For that, I suggest using what I call the “Milestone Method.” The idea is that you tell yourself “just another hundred words until I’ve rounded my total up to the nearest thousand” or “if I do three hundred thirty-three more words, I’ll have two thousand words done for today.” until you reach whatever your actual goal is. Try to pick amounts that you can easily reach in a short amount of time because that’ll make it feel more like sprinting toward the finish like rather than adding another lap to the marathon. I’ve gotten so used to this method that I have to consciously stop myself if I hit my writing target before I’m falling asleep at my computer. I only needed three thousand words yesterday, but I got myself up to thirty-five hundred so I could stop at a nice round thirty-six hundred. If you can break it down into smaller bites and track your word count accurately, it’s worth trying to slowly work your way forward.
Some days, what you really need is to hang out with a new friend online and repeatedly punch each other in the face during a custom PVP match only to eventually betray each other with ridiculously over-powered guns so that you both wind up fighting over who gets the ammo for the over-powered guns by returning to punching each other once again.
That was my evening. Well, the end of my evening. Played a lot of other games before than and actually did some more progress-oriented stuff in Destiny 2 before inviting a new clan member to a private PVP match so we could punch each other more effectively. I mean, you can totally still punch people when they’re on your team and you’re wandering around a planet shooting bad guys, but there’s never a winner. It doesn’t do damage. No friendly fire in Destiny 2, thank goodness. My clan’s favorite pastime, while we’re waiting for an event to start or for someone to complete a platforming puzzle, is to shoot each other or try to knock each other off of stuff using melee attacks. It’s a good time.
Really, though, what helped the most last night was being able to just relax with my friends and do something that engaged my attention. Additionally, since I don’t have any plans for this weekend, I was able to just read until I finally felt tired enough to sleep. If I’d had plans today, I’d have stressed out about the fact that I couldn’t sleep until about half past one in the morning because I would have needed to wake up and get out of bed at a certain time. Sleeping in and having a leisurely, quiet morning that ended in me playing a few hours of World of Warcraft was so relaxing. I didn’t need to think about anything, there was nothing going on for me to plan or anticipate, just the calm meandering from one task to another that is a big breakfast, kitchen cleaning, and using up all the bonus XP my character in WoW got because I didn’t play for almost a week (which is a great feature, by the way, I really enjoy the fact that I basically got a free level’s worth of XP for not playing).
It’s been almost twenty-four hours since I gave up trying to process how I’m feeling and started focusing on just escaping for a bit. Coping instead of dealing with it, really. I can still feel it there, sitting inside me and demanding attention, but it’s sorta like the feeling your eyes get when you’re tired. It’s easy to ignore as long as I’m staying focused on something. At this point, though, part of me wants to move on to processing it. I’ve taken a bunch of time away from it, gotten a lot of sleep, and recharged as much as I can in a day. I might go for a walk first, as well, just to solidify my peace of mind by spending some energy on a relaxing activity. The weather never got as bad as they predicted it would, so today’s warmth and sun would be quite enjoyable.
That being said, I’m living in a city that’s been devastated by the flooding. I don’t really think I could go on much of a walk without running into signs of the damage. Dealing with it on foot, though, when I’ve got the ability to just pause and consider what I’m seeing rather than just the glimpses I catch in my car as I drive back to my unaffected home, might make it easier to handle. Or perhaps even help me process it. Walking has always helped me work through things and maybe that’d be the ideal venue for processing this feeling rather than meditation. Meditation can be isolating and a lot of my feelings are tied up in a sense of disconnect from the problems plaguing my community, so maybe entering more fully into it would be good. Plus, I haven’t gone into town since Tuesday afternoon, when everything was settling from “dangerous” to “safe, but still destroyed.”
I kind of miss the places I used to walk when I was in college. The town was small, like my current town, but more developed. There were sidewalks everywhere and streetlights often enough that I never worried about being unable to see my environment. Plus, that neighborhood was entirely suburban. It sprawled out, taking up a huge amount of space, because it was a suburb of Green Bay and most people commuted to work in the city rather than anywhere in their town. Plus, it had all the benefits of being a college town without being constantly full of students. I went to a small college, some twenty-five to twenty-eight hundred students, so I was pretty much the only person wandering around late at night when I couldn’t sleep and the few quiet stargazing spots on campus weren’t doing the trick. It really was such a peaceful town. I miss it.
I miss a lot of things about my life before I moved to the Madison area. I miss the sense of peace and possibility I had back then, when it seemed like I’d be able to do anything if I just worked at it long enough. I miss the confidence I had when I considered my future and the ultimately naive way I thought everything would be alright in the end if I just pushed through. Now, I know things will always work out in the end, but frequently not in the way we wanted them too and all too often in a less-than-positive way. I don’t know anything about my future or what I really want out of life, so I just focus on what I think is best for me and what goals I want to accomplish now. I know I can’t do everything, but I’m also much more certain of my ability when it comes to things I know I can do, like writing.
It’s been a long four years and eight months, but this place is home now. Even if I do miss where I went to college, I’ve got a lot more invested in this city. Maybe I’ll eventually find places to walk that I’ll love as much as De Pere, Wisconsin, but I know I already enjoy being able to walk around downtown or through the numerous parks in Madison. Or just through the “downtown” parts of my little suburb. There are plenty of sidewalks there and a bunch of benches that should no longer be submersed. Maybe I’ll bring a book and sit on one of those for a while. That’d be pleasant.
Sometimes, the day after a tidal wave is horrible. My depression is still worse than normal, but all of the turmoil and the fight against nothingness has ended, leaving me empty and without something I can push back against. In a classic case of “the grass is always greener,” today I feel like I’d rather have the giant wave of exhaustion and apathy that was yesterday than the emptiness and casual disinclination toward everything that is today. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong. At least today, I don’t worry about getting crushed by the wave as it passes or ripped away from my anchor. Today, I don’t even worry.
Today, I don’t anything. I have a hard time telling if I’m hungry or tired, if I care about anything going on at any point, if I want to reach out to my support network, and so on. I don’t really care about anything but the things I know I’m supposed and even then, I only care because the reasoning part of my mind says I should. Nothing seems interesting and, while I know I’m capable of getting things done, I feel like there’s little reason to try to do so.
While that might sound a lot like apathy, I feel like the distinction is important. Apathy, to me, implies a certain amount of lethargy. It requires me to know I don’t want to do anything and to not care that I don’t want to do anything. It also almost always includes not feeling the need to be doing something. Today’s “casual disinclination” includes the lack of a desire to do anything, but mostly because nothing sounds interesting. I still feel the need to be doing something and that doing something would be beneficial to my well-being.
The best counters I’ve found to this include having routine tasks to do that easily flow into other things. Laundry is a good one, while making dinner or cleaning the kitchen also works very well. Turning on a favorite movie or TV show helps, as does reading in general. Video games don’t usually work because they often include performing a series of tasks or completing various objectives. Reading is the most solid of them, so long as I’ve actually got a book I’m currently reading and enjoying. If I’m not in the middle of anything, starting a new book is hard and old favorites all feel boring. The only way through this, so far as I’ve found, is to go out and buy a bunch of books because I’ll definitely start reading at least one of them.
Cleaning works the most frequently because it feels useful and doesn’t take any emotional or mental investment on my part, so I can get physically active while letting my mind drift. Then I can switch to something that requires mental effort as well, gradually moving myself up from being entirely disengaged to being completely engaged. Eventually, I’ll be doing things and it’ll be easy to continue doing things.
Ultimately, when I’m in a mood like this, that’s the goal. Once I get moving on something, if I can get myself one hundred percent involved with it, I’ll break through the casual disinclination and be able to move past the lingering feelings of depression from the recent wave. Waiting always works, but it can take a lot of time and leaves me a little more prone to rough seas until I’ve finally gotten free.
One method I don’t use much is getting other people to help me through it. If they’re the right kind of person, know what they’re doing, and are willing to help pull me out of the lingering traces of my latest episode of heavy depression, I’ll be fine. If they’re not all three of those things, chances are very good that I’ll just sink into a foul mood or another big wave still appear on the horizon.
A lot of the time, whatever I try to do winds up just being a way to help me get through the time between when the crest of the wave passes and when I start to feel like I’m back to my “normal.” Which is also fine. That’s all I really need: a way to get through the hours between now and “normal” without wallowing in negative emotions or feeling helpless. Either one of those things will turn right into an internal storm and those ones are always horrible.
Right now, that means updating my blog with what turns out to be literally the only thing I can think about, focusing on what I’m going to make for dinner, and trying to make some kind of plans for the weekend so I’ve got something to look forward to. Something to put up on the horizon to encourage me to want to work through this current phase of disinclination and emptiness. Maybe I’ll even write more tonight, since I’ve already done the work of getting myself to a place where I can write at all.
Whatever I do, I’m pretty sure I should feel mostly back to normal by tomorrow or Friday. That’ll be nice.
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