How Do You Know When It’s Time to Say “When?”

Over the past two and a half years since I found a medicinal cocktail that seems to be working, I have slowly been rebuilding a life for myself. It’ s been difficult – not only because my entire life had been torn apart, but also because I’ve never “lived” as this person before. I’m experiencing things for the first time as whoever I am now, and I don’t know how it should feel.

But it’s been good. It started slowly with leaving the house once a day. to run an errand, usually accompanied by my mom. Then I started to go to the gym every day, also with my mom. I changed my diet and went back to being vegan. I finally moved out of my parents’ house and got my own place. I started running errands and going to the gym alone. I reconnected with friends and even made one or two new ones. I got a job for four hours a week and took classes at a community college. I applied for graduate school. Now that I’m in graduate school, I am taking a full course load. I am actively involved in our student association. I have a fellowship and recently a new job, 12 hours a week. I am doing research for an internship next year. Fuck, I went on my very first date in November, and while that is stagnant (by choice) now, I did it so now I know I can.

When you become a counselor, (that’s what I’m getting my MS in,) there is an ethical mandate for self-care. An ethical MANDATE. Faculty and friends are constantly saying “make sure you are not spreading yourself too thin,” “only do what you can to your capacity,” “make sure you are balancing your self-care and your school.” While I actually find it aggravating considering the faculty are the ones giving us copious amounts of work and my friends are all type-A and planning on getting A’s as they manage the rest of their lives, I also don’t know the answer.

I’ve tried to ask people – how do you know when you reach your capacity? They don’t usually have an answer. Maybe they don’t know what I am asking. I saw my psychiatrist last week, someone who has seen me at my very worst, and asked her how “normal” people know when to say when? How will I know if I am reaching burnout? Don’t you have to reach burnout to know you’ve reached it?

As someone with a behavioral health condition, emotions are never as simple as they seem. Anxiety could turn into a panic attack. Feeling sad could lead me to bed for days, or even self-harm. Knowing that possibility of severity is always lurking makes me hypervigilant with my emotions. Hence, my fear of not knowing my capacity. Because if you have to burnout to realize your capacity, that’s not something I can allow. What if burnout is a slip in recovery? What if I can’t come back? That’s why knowing the answer feels so important to me and not having one feels so frightening.

There is a part of me that wants to push myself and see what else I can do. I have surprised myself so much in the past few months by what I have achieved; I am excited and scared to see what else I could do. I still feel gaps are missing and traumas ungrieved. But I am curious as to who I am becoming. At the same time, there is a terrified inner child who just wants us to appreciate where we are and be grounded and centered and satisfied. It warns me to pull back, to remember the blows of rejection and failure. To ignore the intellectual understanding of the bullshit that is American values, and remember how it can feel.

And I find myself right back where I started: when will I know when to say when? And when will “when” be good enough? What about you? How do you know when you have reached burnout? When do you decide to say no? What does “self-care” look like to you? What’s the trick to this thing called living? What’s your “when?”

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The Somatic Coma: My Body’s Inability to Feel Emotion

The other day, my friend and I were speaking about meditation and other anti-anxiety techniques we have been using. I have been trying to meditate five minutes at night and five minutes in the morning every day for about 10 days. I’m not sure it’s really doing anything but I figure it takes a while to “see results.” We started talking about other techniques. I have a few from DBT: I will count all white cars or the letters on each word of a sign. She said that for her, sitting outside and feeling the breeze on her face or the sun on her back; her sensory feelings – directly impact her emotion-mind.

I started seeing my new therapist because she works with sexual trauma. We haven’t actually gotten to any of it yet since I’m evidently having an existential crisis, but one thing did come out a few weeks ago. A while back I wrote a post about how mood stabilizers kill your ability to be creative. That when I saw beauty, I couldn’t feel it, and how sad it made me. But what I have come to realize is that I do not allow myself to feel anything that would elicit a feeling of pleasure. And I’m not talking just sexual. I’m talking about when I am with friends and we are all laughing together and I start to get that excited, tingly sensation of happiness – and then my body shuts down. I still laugh, but it’s not deep from an authentic place of joy. I often find myself turning around or excusing myself to go somewhere – to escape. When someone is complimenting me and I start to feel that warm feeling of love and care, once again my body shuts down and my mind takes over with narratives denying everything that is being said. When I get to the top of the ridge and I look out into the distance, I start to feel what may be a sense of something beautiful, and then I feel void. Empty. Blank. What I didn’t realize until recently is that there is a step (quicker than a blink) between the incident/image that causes pleasure, and the blank, disassociated non-feeling I arrive at only able to look at what is occurring from a rational, intellectual mind.

Growing up as a sensitive, empathetic child (perhaps a little too much so,) I absorbed everything. When I felt happy, it was ethereal and joyous! I can actually remember the tingling in my body, the overwhelming warmth in my chest when we would scream at recess or my family would all be laughing at the table. When I watched my parents fight, I could literally feel each of their feelings from their perspective. And with age, their increased fighting, my sexual assaults and rape, and years of being bullied and rejected, I think my body did one of two things, or maybe both.

1) It started to have a hard time differentiating between excitement and fear. They both started to feel the same and so even when I was excited about something, it felt awful.

2) Pleasure and joy were feelings that left me vulnerable and open to attack. It was this naivete of happiness that allowed so many to beat me so hard when they rejected me without reason. I no longer felt safe feeling anything positive.

Clearly, I was an emotional machine when it came to pain. Thanks to my depression, I could feel the deep throb of hate, the visceral feelings of wanting to die that make it hard to breathe, that could only be released through self-harm. And I assumed I did not feel joy because I was depressed. And I think it’s fair to say that definitely contributed to it considering my brain was literally not receiving the chemicals it needed to allow for emotion regulation.

But I think my body also taught itself to distrust feelings of pleasure, excitement, sexual energy, curiosity, playfulness, freedom, and trust. As a child, I still allowed myself to be vulnerable but around seventh grade, the bipolar II kicked in and never felt “good,” given my hypomanic episodes didn’t last long.

It is only with the unmasking of the depression through medication in the past few years that I have noticed that when those feelings come round, especially since the rape when I was 22, I disassociate and disconnect from feeling. In fact, the other day, I started to feel the excitement – sadly I can’t even remember why. I started to feel that tingling in my chest, I recognized it, and then it was gone. I couldn’t feel it. I could remember why I began to feel it but my body was numb and I couldn’t get it back. And I think there was a part of me that was terrified of getting it back. It’s like my body has created a DO NOT ENTER sign with a guard who tells me to step back for my own safety.

So maybe my system got fried and stopped being able to tell the difference between good and bad feelings. Or maybe, because I needed to survive, it just shut it all down. Not fight, not flight – just freeze.

The odd thing (though not surprising,) is that I still feel shitty feelings: like anxiety, jealousy, insecurity. Old habits die hard. Luckily, the meds have mellowed the intensity and I have learned some tools to steer my emotional brain away from some thoughts.

I don’t know how therapy will be able to shed the layers of shame, hate, doubt, and disgust that are so deeply connected to feelings of love, desire, passion, and curiosity. I’m not sure if EMDR would help – if I could somehow reprogram my mind to understand the differences in feelings that are good and bad; between excitement and fear.

I am jealous that my friend can allow the feeling, sights, and sounds around her to seep into her body and calm her being. For now, I’ll just keep counting white cars.