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.

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.

My thoughts on A Way Out

*spoiler-free review*

A Way Out took me by surprise – I had expected it to be a long campaign full of meticulous planning and perilous execution. Instead it turned out to have quite simple and very forgiving mechanics as one character would distract a guard and the other would casually and easily get away with whatever mischief they were doing. It was still pretty fun though, and on this mechanic alone I would have given it a 3/5 review. However in the final few chapters of the game, they really started shaking things up, introducing multiple approaches to solving the same problems, and then including some bold cinematography as the camera did some very memorable wizardry during an escape section of the game.

What really stood out for me though was the mini-games scattered around the world. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly notable, nor did I feel particularly compelled to explore every corner of the game. I played this with my best friend, and so first time he found a mini-game where you could spam X to do dips, a sudden and fierce rivalry erupted between us. Throughout the rest of the game, we kept score of who could get more points in darts, baseball, pong, Connect-4 and a variety of other contests the game included. Greatest of all, we found ourselves in a virtual arm-wrestle, perfectly matched for 15 minutes straight as we both desperately spammed X until we were exhausted. Back and forth our contest went: he’d pull ahead, I’d close the gap. It looked like we were going to have to end the campaign on a tie.

 

AWO_Release_Minigame01-1220x686

And then, blessing of all blessings, the story threw us one last contest in a twist ending that brought the whole thing together. (I don’t want to brag, but I can’t resist taking this opportunity to tell you I came out on top, making me the Ultimate King of Gaming.)

A Way Out is a pretty simple game. The characters barely have any depth or motivation, the world is pretty bland and uninteresting, and the combat isn’t remarkable in any way. But for bringing two people together and generating a game-long rivalry? What a masterpiece. 4/5 from me.

The Present Future

Sometimes when I’m at a tea ceremony lesson, I seem so connected to the present moment that I can solve problems the instant they come into existence. It’s like having a moment of perfect clarity that if that snowball were to start rolling it would cause an avalanche, and so as the snowball is starting to form I disperse it. It feels like a kind of magic foresight where for a moment I can see the future, and know exactly what is required to prevent that future from becoming.

I’ll see that the water is a little low, and top it up quickly and quietly so that it’s ready for the next person to use without them having to worry.

I’ll notice there’s a tiny speck of tea powder on the floor and wipe it up with a tissue before it stains anyone’s clothes or utensils.

I’ll notice that no one has been designated as an assistant, so I’ll quietly move my osensu (fan) out of the way so that my bundle of kaishi (paper) is easy to access. Before anyone even has the chance to look around for who will retrieve the tea, I am already sliding into place with a new bowl and my kobukusa (small silk cloth).

It’s a dozen tiny moments like those that make me feel intimately connected to the tea room and everyone within it. Like before a thought has even finished forming in the mind of my teacher, I have understood it and already begun to act on it. It is a rare feeling, and only comes when I am at my sharpest on my very best days.

And I don’t always get it right, either! Sometimes I think I’m perfectly placed to solve a problem when all I’m doing is stumbling into the way of other people. Or I’ll think, “Sensei would find it helpful if someone would take care of that”, and I’ll jump in when she was deliberately waiting for someone else to notice so that they could learn the lesson themselves. Sometimes when I take the initiative, it is very presumptuous, and very mistaken!

But sometimes it is like magic. It makes me think of the “harmony” described in the phrase “Wa kei sei jaku“.

The more I practice, the more I get the sense that tea ceremony is not something that can be understood with words, or even action. Every time I see a ceremony, I get a glimpse of something indescribable, a sliver of some great and beautiful truth. It must be very difficult for my teacher to help her students discover what cannot be taught!

My journey back to employment

It’s been exactly one year now since I became unemployed. I was offered a redundancy at my previous workplace, and I accepted it with delight – I had been planning on leaving for ages, and this way I got paid for it. I had been building up my courage to resign partially because my bosses were asking me to do impossible amounts of work in too-short a day, and partially because the organisation as a whole seemed to be shifting its focus from mental health recovery to a business profiting from mental health maintenance. In a way, the redundancy was the kick out of the door I needed to take the leap into the unknown.

For a few months I rested. I healed, I gamed, I recovered from the physical and emotional toll I’d been putting myself through to keep up at work. And then (as the redundancy payment in my bank account slowly trickled away) I started looking at progressing my career. I wanted to specialise in counselling, and one of the first things I learned was that many roles required Mental Health Accreditation from the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). I glanced at how complex and expensive it was to obtain and felt so overwhelmed I couldn’t even finish reading the application process. Besides, there were plenty of jobs that didn’t require it so I decided to try my luck at finding somewhere that wanted me to do the work without needing the qualifications.

This proved harder than I thought. All the places I applied for rejected me as soon as they found out I didn’t have the accreditation, even though they didn’t mention it in their advertising. I even applied for a few recovery support roles (a step sideways rather than a step forwards in my career), and somehow I didn’t even get any of those roles either. After two particularly good interviews, I was offered a jobs on the condition that I get Accreditated, so I decided to go for it.

My first step was to join the AASW, and this introduced me to their Professional Development events. After so long working with people from multi-disciplinary backgrounds, it was incredible to immerse myself among like colleagues. Hearing the language of social work, phrases like “leaning into discomfort” and “holding the hope” dropped casually in conversation made me feel like I’d come home. My heart sang “My people! At last, I’ve found them!”

At this point I had connected with an Employment Service Provider that fortunately agreed to pay both for my membership to the AASW (~$600), and my application for Accreditation (~$700). Unfortunately, there were some complications with the person who was supposed to help me, and after six weeks of calling and emailing without hearing from anybody, I finally got hold of the manager who arranged the payment for membership within a day.

Next I turned my sights to the referee statement I needed to obtain from a previous supervisor. I contacted my most recent team leader, a fellow social worker, who said she was happy to help. After several weeks however, she contacted me saying she declined being my referee on the grounds that she didn’t think that work I had done was “clinical mental health”. I followed this up with one of the assessors, and he assured me that my experience was exactly what they were looking for, but that supervisor still declined to support my application. Hurt and confused, I asked the person who had been my team leader before her. While she initially agreed, I didn’t hear from her for several weeks. In the end I asked a third person, an increasingly indirect mentor, and I gratefully paid her for the time and effort she took in writing the statement for me.

I attended a lot of training over the following six months or so, working my way up to those 50 hours I needed to qualify for accreditation. It felt wonderful being back in the game, at the cutting edge of current research, meeting inspirational people doing incredible work. But I also needed 10 hours of supervision, and none of my time at Richmond counted because it was from the previous financial year. I paid for some externally, and made up the rest through my future colleagues who kindly agreed to do it for free. After a frantic few months, I had finally met all the requirements to apply. 

Except for one. The application itself, which was so long and dense (35 pages) that I still hadn’t brought myself to read it. When I finally did, I discovered it required about 8000 words of short and long answer questions, as well as requiring me to contact HR from my previous job and to calculate how many hours I’d worked across my four years there in various roles with different time tables. Completing the application took dozens of hours, far longer than I had planned for, and I spent days in a writing frenzy so that I could finish it in time for a meeting with my Employment Service Provider so that we could submit it online.

But when the day of our appointment came, my worker hadn’t actually organised for the payment to be made, despite rescheduling so he had an extra week to do it. He said he’d get it done and I could sign off on it by the next day at the latest. I didn’t hear from him for another two weeks, so in peak frustration I submitted the accreditation online and paid for it myself. When I saw him a month later, he had opened (but apparently not read) the emails I sent him, and had taken no further actions towards organising payment for it. When I told him that I’d paid for it myself he promised to organise a reimbursement for me, but that was two weeks ago and he hasn’t responded to any of my emails so I’m not holding my breath.

There were a few more roadblocks to conquer, even though I’d submitted it successfully. The AASW emailed me saying they needed me to upload my Professional Development onto their website before they would proceed with my application, in spite of the fact I’d read that this was optional. A week later they emailed again asking me to post them certified copies of my degree and name change certificate, despite the application saying that these could be scanned and submitted online. I sent the documents in priority mail anyway so that they’d arrive the next day, but they didn’t check them for another week.

All of this took a month from the day I submitted and paid for it online.

Blessedly, once the assessor had actually received my application, it only took them two weeks to complete it. After many long months I was finally awarded with my Accreditation and the largest hurdle was over. Armed with this, I could now apply for a Medicare Provider Number so I could start delivering my counselling services under them. To my amusement and impatience, it’s been six days now and I’m still waiting to hear back about whether my form has successfully been submitted, but assuming it has I’ll be starting two weeks from now.

This past year has taught me so much about surrender. I’ve learned time and time again that there are many things in life beyond my control, and to do what I can and make my peace with what I can’t. My once stalwart faith in bureacracy has been deeply shaken, and I’m cautious to put my trust in institutions that promise help but don’t deliver.

In this past year I’ve sunk deeply into despair. I’ve wrestled with shame, and befriended fear. I’ve felt the burning hot flames of rage at the broken promises and the spontaneous barriers. I’ve contained a tornado of restlessness, and directed it at a thousand trivial things to stop it from destroying me. But I never gave up, and I walk forwards still. Step by step I will continue on this path I am forging towards the future I envisage.

That’s not to say it was all doom and gloom – I’ve enjoyed many blessings this year. I’ve learned a lot about gratitude, and appreciating the joy that surrounds me. But I have to say, if I’d known it would take a year for me to get this accreditation, I probably would have done things differently. Still, my next big adventure is about to unfold, and I open myself to it with courage and kindness.

Thanks to everyone who’s stayed in my life this year. Y’all are the best, and I wouldn’t have made it without you.