enough of the overwhelm

a wall filled with the phrase

(I love you wall, Monmartre, Paris)

Good morning this Wednesday morning. I’ve got cloudy, bluish skies outside the window, a candle casting its flicker across my fingers, some decaf with soymilk. What delight do you have so far today? What are you bringing into the morning from your dreams?

This morning I am thinking about how to navigate the overwhelm. Do you get stuck in the overwhelm? How do you step through the minefield of the lens of overwhelmed? How do you remind yourself to listen to the parts of you that want to take care of you and believe that you’re all right?

Right now, I am caught in the pendulum swing of overwhelm, which ends up looking like a binge mindset. There are many projects on my back burner right now, waiting for me to devote all of my time and attention to them. This is a finals mentality. In high school and college, at the end of the semester and I had finals to study for, papers to write, it was easy to set everything else to the side — nothing else that had a claim on my attention was as important as this job: study for the exam, write the paper, get a good grade. This is a way of engaging with my work that I seem to have internalized, but that doesn’t serve me so well anymore. A novel isn’t a 20-page final paper; a business isn’t an exam that I can cram for, bang out, and be done with. We need different models for ongoing work like this, Jen.

And it’s not as though I don’t know or use other models — I’m able to create a long-term, project-based schedule and use that to make small, steady progress in service to my goals. However, in crisis, that’s not the structure that lives in my bones. That’s not the structure that I am most familiar with. What I know in my bones is binge — binge on work, binge on ‘relaxation.’ Play hard with your friends all day, then stay up all night writing the paper. Waste as much time as possible, then dash out the anthology submission the day before the deadline. Have to be awake through the night dealing with your stepfather’s psychoabusive rantings, then finish your homework on the bus on the way to school, or sitting in front of your locker just before the homeroom bell rings. Work all day, drink all night. Is any of this familiar to you?

When I’ve slipped into the binge mindset, I feel like I’ve lost the ability to modulate, to see the world as anything other than enormous projects that I need to take care of right now. My body gets tight and tense, the muscles of my neck and shoulders ache all the time, and I stop sleeping well. How can I stop and make a plan for the next week when there’s So Much To Do? I can’t see you for lunch — I have to write my book today. (My friends do not say to me, Jen, you know, that’s not really possible — they are spacious with me, even after so much time of dealing with Overwhelm Girl.)

Overwhelm can be an addiction, at least it can be for me: the adrenaline high, the plunge of guilt and shame when it’s not possible for me to get some extensive project completed in a single afternoon — after which I’ll start procrastinating, in service to something that I call self-care or relaxation but looks a lot more like avoidance. The avoidance, of course, adds to my guilt and shame. That particular spiral is a hard one to move away from, and builds the case for the need to binge on work: I’ve put this project off for two weeks! I have to get it done now! Everything else will have to wait.

Of course, that means more gets procrastinated/put off, and sets up the “need” for more binges — and more overwhelm. There’s no end in sight.

Who am I if my schedule feels sane and manageable, both full and in motion, if I’m not introducing myself as Jen-I’m-So-Busy? Who am I if I can take care of my physical and emotional-life needs and can still get writing and workshop tasks done? This is the question: do I deserve for my life to be both manageable and satisfying?

It can take awhile for me to remember that this particular way of interacting with the world/my work is a choice — and I can step out of the whirligig of overwhelm and into sanity/serenity again. Sometimes I have to force myself: set up working dates with friends, go to the ocean and walk slowly along the surf line, write affirmations on sticky notes and tack them up all over the house: what you are doing is enough — who you are is enough, no matter what you do or don’t do.

Isn’t that what it’s about: believing that we are enough? Believing that we deserve peace and sanity? Believing that our dreams deserve steady, consistent presence and attention?

Is that a message you believe? Me either — at least when I’m in the binge mindset. So I do some faking-it-til-I-make-it. I say it anyway. I say it again. I set aside work days and non-work days.

On work days, I sit down in front of the notebook and write a few pages, even when the voice in my head is telling me I should spend seven hours there in my butt, banging out rewrites. I send a few emails, working around the tentacles of the inside binger demanding that I write back to everyone waiting for a response Right Now. Then I get up, I move, I water the garden, I throw the ball for the puppy. Ideally, then, I come back into the play of work: thirty minutes on a book chapter, or one email, or thirty minutes of online research. Let the process come back into some kind of rhythm — I remember my breathing. I let the tide come in and go out. I remind myself that it’s ok to fall off the wagon — I’m not a terrible or worthless person just because I set myself up (again) with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. That’s just my old self, survival-centered self trying to defend my right to exist.

I deserve to exist. You deserve to exist. We deserve our oxygen no matter what we do. And our dreams deserve out gentle practice and kind, daily efforts — one thing every day.

Thank you for your words today, written or not.

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