Another day, another existential episode in the library.
I’m so lucky to be able to go to the library several times a week! I know many people with traditional jobs would love to have this opportunity. Now that my daughter is taking a couple of classes, I have a two-hour window of time perfect for some quiet writing or reading–and on Wednesday through Friday, my local library is open. The other two days I haunt a coffee shop.
But the library is challenging. It’s a microcosm of my life. It distills one of my common issues into concrete objects: choices.
Here are thousands of books on hundreds of subjects, most of which I know little about. Here, in the poetry section alone, are hundreds of unread poets, waiting to speak to me and reminding me how little I have heard.
How do I pick one? And how do I sit down and pay attention to it, and forget all of the others calling me? How do I silence my skittering mind; how do I zoom in and get the shot in a reasonable frame?
This gets intensified when I’m not eating. For a couple of weeks now (thankfully) I’ve been on my strictest regimen, necessary to begin repairing the recent damage. Lack of food triggers both hypomania and general sensitivity for me–whether you call it psychic sense or something else, I just relate to the aether differently. My dreams are more vivid and crowded, and in a silent environment like the library my mind ranges into more distant and strange places.
There’s a reason mystics fast.
There’s a reason (in addition to the basic fact of being an addict) that I use excess food to ground me; to keep me from feeling like a balloon whose string has been released.
I’m trying to sit with this feeling, as well as name it by writing about it. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone; that so many before me have felt these frightening things. They must have, to write and think the things they did.
Training and practice of mindfulness techniques can be helpful, and it’s something I am interested in pursuing when time and strength permit. I already use some basic ones, such as “narrating” every detail of a mundane task I’m performing or taking time to note textures and sounds around me.
But the ability to focus on a task without forcing myself is rare for me. And I think I know one reason for it: being completely present in an activity requires giving myself permission NOT to be doing all of the other possible ones. It requires quelling the anxiety associated with all of them.
I even notice it when we’re doing the homeschooling: if I get us doing history, we’re not doing math, etc. It’s crazy! How exactly would I combine the four subjects into one lesson? And if I did manage it, I’d probably feel guilty that we aren’t doing her physical therapy.
All of this is relevant both to recovery and to living with mental illness, because grounding ourselves is so important. Boredom, or simply unstructured time, is one of our deadliest enemies. There’s a reason some people do really well in treatment or hospital and then flounder and sink on the outside–we don’t handle choices well. We drift, we can’t focus, and we become frightened. We don’t know how to be content and present with whatever we are doing.
In a program of one kind or another, we know what to do because someone is telling us. Get up. Be in this room at this time. Draw this. Write about this. Do this chore. Even if we resent it, even if we complain, part of us is eating it up.
Veterans sometimes have similar issues; they struggle with self-regulation after years of living with an imposed structure. Anyone at all can struggle with this while unemployed–and those with mental health issues, who can’t hold a traditional job but need the structure one might provide, have a hard time of it.
The two most common outcomes of this kind of disorientation are acting out and paralysis. For me, the paralysis can be the result of desperately trying to keep from acting out–I remain pinned in one spot, doing something mindless to distract myself, to keep from doing something worse. All of the positive or useful things, whose possibility has created such anxiety, are temporarily smothered under the distress of feeling paralyzed. If I act out instead, of course, the possibilities are smothered beneath remorse and the need to repair damage.
Small victories, like writing here and now, are something I need to savor. I could have dived into a book I’ve read many times, or played games on my phone while surrounded by this atmosphere of thought and learning. But I chose to be with this feeling instead. That will probably change as the day continues, but it’s worth something.