Stepping out of the Flow

It’s been a busy day. I woke up at 7 having had some troubling nightmares. Dreams of trying my hardest and still failing, because people changed things without telling me, or I was utterly in the wrong place at the wrong time. I woke up angry and cold, grumpy and tired, and it took me an hour to convince myself that the small pleasure of staying in bed scrolling through facebook was not as tempting as the prospect of getting up and doing something better with my time.

Feeling sorry for myself, I watched anime, waiting to feel less miserable. No such luck. After an hour, while I was enjoying the minor distraction, I was feeling frustrated and now stressed that time was running short. It’s such a hard choice for me to get up and embrace life rather than curl up and seek pleasure after a rough night.

The day was busy – apart from one game of Overwatch, it was very “productive”. I cleaned, ran errands with Beth, wrote emails and prepared for supervision. I met with people, I got things done, and I moved quickly and efficiently, crossing 14 things off my To-Do List (some of them taking several hours).

And yet, the more focussed I became on completing tasks, the more desperate I was to continue completing tasks. I began to spiral, trying to do more and more with less and less. I began micromanaging my time into fifteen minute blocks again, thinking “Well if I can finish dinner by 6, that’ll give me enough time to eat before training. It’ll take me two hours to cook, so I need to start by 4. I’ll get home at 4:30, so I’ll need to cook faster, or just take time out of my digestion time slot and go to training full…” Getting more and more desperate, stealing more and more time, falling further and further behind and always playing catchup. And always thinking of the next couple of items on the list, wondering how I’ll fit them in today, knowing deep down that it’s impossible but still feeling frustrated that I can’t find a way to make it happen.

Before karate, I wrote a note in my phone to bring up with my counsellor.
“I’m super stressed at the moment. I’ve vomited twice in three days and am feeling anxious every day. I feel so stressed all the time – like I’m drowning, the waves crashing over my head, and I’m exhausted. I have just enough strength to keep kicking to get my head above water for just long enough to take enough breath to just keep kicking. There are so many things that I wanted to do today that I didn’t get around to, and I’m drowning I’m drowning I’m drowning.
I keep feeling like I’m going to cry.”

It was hard for me to get into karate, but I did. The longer I did it, the more I enjoyed it, until the end my heart was light and my mind was sharp. I was tired, it’s true, but I was happy. And then as I got in the car to go home, I began to think of that To-Do List and I started to feel the weight again. But before I let it gain too much momentum, I wanted to write this down to remind myself later:
Xin, there are times when you become so stressed you lose perspective. You focus on the minutae, getting closer and closer to the details without having any sight of the big picture. You’ve stepped out of Flow and you haven’t even noticed it. In those moments you really get caught up in how important it is to write one more email, or cross one more thing off the list; when you start stealing time because you don’t have enough to do the things you feel you need to. It is precisely at those moments you need to Slow. The Fuck. Down.

Practice some mindfulness. Do some yoga. Have a shower. Go for a run or a hike. Breathe, watch something, play something. Hit the reset button however you can.
And don’t expect to hit it within five minutes. If your distress levels are super high, it’s going to take a little while to properly bring them back down into the green. And it’s so damn important that you get them back in the green, because when you’re in Flow, when you’re one with the Tao, when you’re centred and calm, you’re making good decisions. You’re using your time and energy well, in ways that count. You’re noticing how you are and what you need, and you’re making informed decisions about what to do with yourself. That is you at your best, and it is super important to spend as much of every day as possible in that zone. Make time for it. Because if you’re a slave to your To-Do List, none of it matters.

Drowning

The bucket inside of me that can hold stress and fear has been very full lately. I find myself teetering on the brink of “coping” and “overwhelmed” several times a day. Sometimes several times an hour.

I have moments where I humble myself before greater powers than myself. Where I open my heart to the stress and the pain because I know it will help me learn something important, or to grow strong and wise.

And other times I feel myself circling the drain. I don’t know how long I can go on. But I won’t let my story end, because I and those who love me have worked too hard to make it this far. I refuse to go quietly into that good night.

But it tempts me sometimes.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. Like I’m low-key drowning in my own distress, but so slowly it doesn’t seem to be a crisis. That the waters have always been this high and this rough, I’ve just gotten used to it.

In the heart of the maelstrom, I don’t know what will help. I can’t tell if softness or hardness will get me where I need to be. I don’t know whether to lean into it or lean away from it. I can’t tell my yin from my yang right now.

All I can do is recall the advice I gave myself yesterday, in a moment of clarity: that all the things that I think are “important” don’t matter at all compared to staying alive and easing this suffering. As hard as it is to take time away from being “productive”, if it helps me return to my Self sooner then it’s time well spent. It’s difficult, I know, to want to do so much and be so limited. But that’s how things are right now, and you can spend time and energy fighting it, or you can ease into it. You can start to enjoy it. With mindfulness, every moment can be pleasurable, even if it isn’t comfortable.

I can’t promise to be mindful 24/7. But I do want to remember it more often. I think that will be the key to my survival.

That Custom of Entertainment

My earliest memories of alcohol were smelling it on the breath of one of my neighbours, Ken. My brother and I played with his kids a lot, and it was always a bit of a risk knocking on his door to invite them to play. His temperament changed like the wind: sometimes he was friendly and inviting, other times he told us to piss off, but almost always he was wearing a white singlet, his eyes were bloodshot and there was a can of beer in his hand.

My parents weren’t really big drinkers – maybe once or twice a year, my father would have some wine or beer with a friend. Sometimes my brother and I would sneak a sip. Invariably I found it disgusting, but my brother pretended to like it so I did too. We both wanted to be grown-up, I think, and it had been made clear to us that alcohol was only for grown-ups and we thought we were ready. Childhood’s weird like that.

All throughout my life though, the message had been drilled into me through my mother’s fear: only bad people drink alcohol. It’s dangerous. It’s something scary, to be avoided in the same way that you wouldn’t want to be around a glowing radioactive isotope. No amount is ever okay: one sip is terrible, one whole glass is just a disaster.

I remember my mother’s shocked face when when I ordered a glass of whisky along with my uncles at my cousin’s wedding. I was 22 at the time, and while she didn’t outright forbid me, after every sip she’d say that I didn’t have to drink any more. After I’d finished half of glass and was thinking about stopping, she pounced on my hesitation and moved it away from me, before I could decide for myself.

I thought about rebelling: about going somewhere private with my friends and drinking a whole bottle of vodka or whatever, just to rub it in her face, to wrest back some control of my life. And I guess I did a little. I drank one or two Vodka Cruisers after graduating high school. I’d have a small glass of Baileys every couple of months, trying to acquire the taste as I sought comfort or sophistication. I’d have a sip of Jack Daniel’s and coke at a party, but the smell reminded me too much of my neighbour Ken, and I never really enjoyed any of it.

The fact is, in those environments I never felt safe. The people around me, work colleagues, people from school, my brother and his friends, they were never people that I trusted. And so, surrounded by these almost-enemies, I’d become very scared as they became more and more exuberant, had fewer inhibitions, less control over their words and actions. I’d want to leave, because the vibe of the party seemed to be about getting drunk and doing regretful things and then laughing about it in the morning. None of that gelled with me, and I started practicing telling people that I didn’t really like parties, so thank you for the invitation but I wouldn’t be attending.

I broke this rule once, taking a chance by going to an after party with people I’d come to love. I’d been volunteering with them all week to help disadvantaged kids have an amazing time on camp, and each and every one of them seemed so incredibly kind and polite and generous. Then at the afterparty, the masks seemed to fall and it seemed to me that everyone was ready to become mean and crude and vulgar at a moment’s notice. I didn’t really attend any parties after that.

 

The first time I really enjoyed drinking was when I went down south with a group of pretty good friends. We weren’t super close, but they were all decent people. We drank Jaeger bombs and champagne, played ridiculous hide and seek, scratched each other’s hands in a bloody game of spoons, and passed the evening in wild delight. It was the first time I ever got so drunk that my reflexes were affected, and I was endlessly fascinated by the delayed response time: I’d wave my hand in front of my face and giggle that it took a split second for my hand to react to the command.

I still don’t really know what “drunk” means, but to me, I think of it as falling over when I try to walk, or having my response time dulled noticeably. But I guess it’s true that while that may be my upper limit, there are certainly people who drink until they vomit or pass out, who have no memory of the night’s events. It’s kind of hard for me to conceptualise because I encounter such people so infrequently, and at a great distance.

But recently, I caught up with some friends for dinner, and (between the three of us) we just managed to polish off one glass of wine. I probably only drank a quarter of it, but even so I had trouble finding my feet when I stood up to leave, and decided I’d better let my friend drive. I have to say though, it was such a delightful evening. Everything seemed unreasonably funny, and I felt calm and happy and confident. Rather than changing my personality, the wine seemed to enhance my sense of self: like I could be more of myself without worrying about anything. To loosen some of that meticulous self-control I always strive to maintain.

And writing those words scares me a little. I can imagine how easy it would be for me to start using alcohol as a crutch in social situations. To chase that comfortable, relaxed high on a regular basis. I know from experience that I am prone to addiction, and I think it would be incredibly hard for me to stop drinking. That fear I have is important, because I know what’s at stake, and how easy it is to fall into that pit.

 

What does the fear say to me?

“Don’t drink! Alcohol is bad for you, and anyone who drinks is bad!”
“I don’t like being around people who are drunk. It’s scary, and I hate having to look after them.”
“One drink could lead to two, and two could lead to more, and then you’ll become a drunk, and that will be very hard for you and your family. You’ll be a disgrace, and no one will love you.”
“There are so many stories, from work and from the news, of people getting drunk and doing terrible things. Killing people, crashing cars. You don’t want to be like those people do you?”

(And, just while I’m thinking of it, the reasons I haven’t done illicit drugs are all of the above, plus the thought “You’ve heard of stories of people having bad reactions after using even once. You don’t want to take that chance do you? Especially if it results in a lifelong experience of psychosis?”)

 

Some of those fears are mine. Others belong to loved ones who have passed them to me. I don’t really know how to let go of them, but… I think I do. I want to be careful when drinking, but I also want to drink again. To enjoy delightful, maybe slightly wild adventures in safe and good company. To lean into what Cassio called the “custom of entertainment”, without ending up calling it “the enemy [that people put] in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!” (Yes, I re-read Othello Act 2, Scene 3 just for those lines.)

I have many questions and no clear answers. If you enjoy drinking, or have overcome such worries yourself, I’d love to hear about it.

In a Word

Someone once described me as “measured”, and it was one of the kindest gifts they ever gave me. If I had to sum myself up in one word, I think that might be it.

In karate when I see an opening, it’s like I carefully measure out exactly what percentage of my strength to use when I hit them: just enough to land it, not enough to harm them.
In counselling, I respond with exactly the right amount of empathy, and say precisely what I think might be useful to their healing.
When writing, I mentally lay out all the words that might suit my purpose and carefully choose the right ones to convey my message and tone.

This is what “measured” means to me.

The word “composed” also suits me wonderfully. I’ve learned that the way one holds onesself can get one pretty far through dangerous waters.

My Quirk

There are people in some circles who know me as The Mountain Goat.

Those who know me best are not surprised when I take short detours during hikes. I run across logs suspended over ravines, climb boulders leaning over cliff faces, and bound from my to rock to cross a raging rapid. It’s because my superpower is this: I can traverse difficult terrain faster than anyone else I’ve ever met.

To put it in video game terms, I think my Class Specialisation was to unlock the perk that highlights the objects I need so I know how to make a path. The dry, flat, stable rocks with enough surface area to be a foothold appear in red to me, and the wet, steep and unstable rocks all appear in yellow so I can easily avoid them. In this way, I can literally run through unstable terrain, choosing where to place my foot as it’s falling. And I’ve almost never lost my footing doing this. Furthermore, I instinctively know how much energy a certain incline will require when I take in the angles at a glance, and within a split second I can change course to choose the path that will use the least energy (even if it has a few tricky leaps to start with).

My quirk is best deployed when I’m moving upwards: it’s easy to scale a waterfall or bound up a creek, hopping from rock to rock (knowing how much pressure to use when I land so I don’t slip on the wet surfaces). It’s much harder trying to go the other way.

But you know? If I think of climbing down as “ascending while falling”, it’s actually way easier. I throw myself from rock to rock, trusting in my superpower to run the equations for me and keep me safe until I find myself on solid ground again.

I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere about life. Oh well.

The Future That Might Be

I have this vision of me in a small room. During the day, sunlight floods through the windows, and somehow it makes the room feel lighter, too. It’s sunset now though, and the room is bathed in a warm glow as I sit at my desk writing notes from the day’s clients.

All of them have come to me in distress, and while they are with me they put down their burdens and know peace for a time. And they carry some of that peace away with them. But more than that, they leave with knowledge, too. And amidst the knowledge, the seeds of self-love are nourished as they do their best to make brave choices.

I wear the black pants and business shirts of those managers who have gone before me. Those who failed me as role models. I see in my mind’s eye the men they were, and how I am already more than them. How I refuse to stop growing, and how I will continue to surpass them in every way that matters to me.

I take a sip of water and lean back in my chair, appreciating the flowers that fill the space with a gentle fragrance. My eyes wander over the bookshelves, laden with useful resources which I lend to people. My eyes catch on the couches, a horrible bright orange that are enormously comfortable despite their bold colouration. My heart sighs happily, and in that sigh it says “Thank goodness we made it. We made it, we made it, we made it.”

And so we will.