Friday, April 30, 2021

Tapped Out

 Let's take a moment to talk about empathy, positive pressure, compassion fatigue, and burnout.

I am what is generally known as The Strong Friend.  I am a lot of people's first call in crisis, and last call before giving up.  I tend to maintain my own boundaries and capacities in a way that means I frequently have a small reserve of energy or space, and the ability to step back and hold calm in chaos.  I compartmentalize well, think fast, and work through problems to find the simplest solution easily.

For the most part, this is a structure I can maintain, exactly because I have boundaries like a motherfucker.  I don't give what I can't afford to lose, only pull from my own reserves and surplus.  That's a lesson I learned the hard way years ago when I found I'd given up what I *needed* to people who wouldn't sacrifice what they only *wanted* to replenish it.  I make it practice, in the darkest times, to set aside a portion of my reserves to be available to others in need, to hold flame so others' lights don't go out entirely.

So when the pandemic began, I found myself in a better place, emotionally, than a lot of the people around me.  I've dealt with isolation, I've dealt with sustained stress, I've been at war with my own mind since I was 11 years old.  I also have a good, stable job that allows me to work from home, a partner who helps and supports me, and generally steady resources on several fronts.  Consequently, I had the ability to be a space for support for others who had a harder time adjusting.  I reached out and offered support to people who were in a worse place than I was:  emotional, professional, financial, whatever was needed to help out.  I always assumed that support was a temporary offering until we all adjusted to the pressures of living under a pandemic.

But as a year went on, I found that "Let me hold space for you while you adjust to this state of trauma" became "Let me maintain a positive pressure for you, supporting you indefinitely while you continue to try and approximate your non-pandemic emotional state at all costs."  The adjustment I expected never came; people simply adapted to my support as a constant state of affairs, incorporated the belief that they'd always be able to rely on me into their plans.  They built their systems around the expectation that I would hold that positive pressure, that I'd always give just a little more than I asked.

Not familiar with the concept of positive pressure?  Systems that operate on flow and supply work because they maintain positive pressure: the ability of what's going into the system to stay slightly ahead of what's flowing out of the system.  As long as that pressure is maintained, even if the system has leaks, everyone's structural integrity stays the same and contaminants can't flow back *into* the system.  The positive pressure is essential to maintaining the health of the entire system, and it's surprisingly easy to maintain.  You just make sure the tiniest bit more goes in than out.

Here in Austin, we all had a bit of time two and a half months ago to understand the concept of systems under positive pressure when the big freeze killed our water treatment plant.  As pipes burst across the city and pumps shut down, the flow of water OUT of the system exceeded the water treatment plant's ability to put water INTO the system, and the whole thing depressurized and collapsed.  The reason it took so many days for some of us to get water back wasn't that the water plant couldn't produce the water.  It was that the whole system, having depressurized, had to fill its reservoirs to maintain that positive pressure so that it wouldn't collapse again and it would be able to provide stable, consistent water delivery.

And that, my loves, is exactly what happened to me.  For the last seven months, I've been solving an incredibly stressful, highly-pressured series of nested problems at work.  I have...not received the support I needed from my leadership.  I have, at the same time, been a source for emotional support, financial support, personal growth for others.  I stepped into justice movements to be a voice for support and allyship.  I gave, and I gave, and I gave, always from what I could technically spare.  

But the funny thing about giving what you can spare is that over the short term it just means you go without 'extra' for a little bit.  Over the long term, it means your 'extra' bypasses the chance to build your reserves, so you store up only what you think you might actually need in an emergency.  You think "I have enough in my reserves to weather the average crisis, I have enough to spare." So you keep sharing, and giving away, and you tell yourself that you're not HURTING yourself, you're just not hoarding, and hoarding is wrong, right?  My life is filled with people standing in perfect moral purity and condemning even the suggestion of hoarding anything someone else might need. The guilt and the shame over 'hoarding' my own energy have been so insidious that I've had to take drastic steps to counteract them; if you've been a voice yelling about how no one cares enough or talks enough about what you think they should, then congratulations, I have almost certainly 'snoozed' you for a month on social media at least once recently.

In December, I noticed the first warning sign:  compassion fatigue.  I stopped having the energy to turn to every single moment of pain I witnessed with an open heart and a desire to do active work to ease that pain.  I struggled with anger at people who continued to need my support for situations they had had power to fix and hadn't.  I talked about it, and heard "oh, yeah, we all feel like that."

I can't adequately explain how damaging "Oh, yeah, we all feel like that, it's totally OK that you're not OK," has been to me.  When I say "I'm not OK," to someone, and their answer is "Yeah, that's normal, it's fine that you feel that way, you of all people should know bad it's been, let me tell you about the hard time I am having," I don't hear solidarity.  I hear "Yeah, no one gives a flip that you're drowning, no  one's got time for you.  Suck it up, your crisis is not special."  I hear "Just lean into being not OK, just settle into that feeling and embrace it," which feeds my Traitor Brain.  Couple that with getting tired of being asked to provide detailed instructions clearly explaining how to support me in simple, easy-to-manage steps, and I just stopped asking most people for help.  If I have to spend three hours of emotional labor navigating you through the process of being there for me in a way that asks as little as possible of you (but still makes you feel good for doing it), I'll just spend that three hours doing that labor for myself instead.

So, February came.  I finished my first 100 hours of overtime, including a full month of back-to-back-to-back 60-90 hour weeks.  I limped, bitter and demoralized and weeping, to what I thought was a two-week space before my next deadline.  Instead, thanks to a massive weather disaster and a utility system collapse I found myself without a source of water for 100 hours, while almost no one I knew, no one I'd been supporting and tending and building up for a year, thought to ask "Do you need help?"  Not only was my 'positive pressure' system in the real world failing as my faucets stayed dry, it became brutally apparent that the emotional system I'd been so assiduously pressurizing for a year was only under pressure as long as I was putting INTO it, not when I needed to take OUT OF it.  

It's best exemplified by the fact that everyone I work with was given the time off and told to rest and take care of themselves because my employer was closed due to the weather, but my ability to check the departmental email and voicemail for a day or two turned into me being asked if I 'minded' taking them on for over a week, because I was going to be online anyway managing all the tasks for that next deadline and it just 'made sense' not to ask another person to give up their time off.  And that 'ask' wasn't even unreasonable, as I was the only one with consistent power and internet; it just meant that others had a break while I still had a responsibility.

I cratered, hard, and all my reserves and reservoirs emptied so that I could survive.  I still had two full months of the work project to manage, with every single day requiring me to put my full self into it to serve a goal I dearly love and believe in.  For the last 8 weeks, I've been maintaining baseline system functionality, meeting minimums while every single thing I could designate as noncritical fell to the wayside:  laundry, housework, friendships, creative time, sleep.  Had my partner not been an amazing human being, I would not have eaten on approximately 20% of the days in March and April.  I am currently carrying over 200 hours of comp time earned since mid-January, and almost 200 hours of unused vacation time (related:  I will be working four-day weeks until September).  Rest assured that "I worked 60 hours in a week where my leadership 'took some mental health time' and worked 30 while still communicating unmet expectations to me," will figure into my employee evaluation conversations this year.  So will "This was a make-or-break year, I made it, and it broke me."  Last week in the home stretch, my Sunday through Saturday daily hours were 12, 11, 18, 15, 16, 18, and 8, in order.

I hit something approximating my goal and have reached a time of rest and recovery, but the end result of all of this is that I'm deeply burned out.  The energy reserves I might otherwise have to offer support, or do the work, or push energy into that whole system, are now being entirely diverted to repressurizing my own system, filling my own holding tanks to keep me from collapsing and failing. I am, first, filling my reserves entirely before allowing the overflow to support others.  This will continue for some time.

If you've been relying on me this last year, and found me less available these last two months, you should expect that to continue a while as I equalize.  If this means the system suffers because I give less, so be it.  Others can either choose to make up the shortfall themselves, or learn to live with a lower-pressure system.

Also, if you are a person I only hear from when there's an 'ask' attached, a need, you may find me limiting my availability to you at all.  One thing I've become aware of is that I get a lot of messages that lead with a problem, not a hello, and the senders fade back into silence once I've provided support, solutions, or advice.  We all go through rough patches, but I'm going to ask you, if you're reaching out to ask me for my energy, to scroll up in that chat window and decide whether our relationship is based in shared positive pressure, or you just keep turning on the tap.

I do love you all, but I am so very very very tired.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Just Another Crappy Year

For the last several years, I've seen an end-of-year refrain that goes "Oh, it will all be better next year, it will be so good when this utterly shitty year is over."

Somehow, amazingly, the turning calendar doesn't change everything, and here we are at another December slogging through 'ugh, just one more month until this shitty year is over'.  Come midnight on the 31st, we can all embrace the common practice, all take a shot of something, hug or kiss a person if we're with one, and craft a bunch of resolutions based around life changes we feel obligated but not necessarily inspired to make.

What if we did a different thing instead?  What if we took This Shitty Year as a clarifier and a crucible, and stepped forward into 2021 NOT with the ruins of 2020 lying in bitter flames behind us, but grounded in what we've learned from it?  What if instead of resolving to be better, thinner, healthier, wealthier, timelier, cleaner, cheerier, better-rested, better-read, more responsible, exercising and exceptionally productive teetotalers, we resolved to build something for ourselves in the spaces we've been tending fallow?  To that end, I have some suggestions for the next four weeks, and for some resolutions to end them with.

First, three "do nots":

1.  Do not resolve to do anything that makes you less or erases you.

2.  Do not accept any resolution rooted in the idea that you are more flawed or less worthy than anyone else.

3.  Do not make resolutions based solely in other people's expectations of you.

Now, three "do's""

1.  Do resolve to lean into something you're passionate about.

2.  Do resolve to face your own toxic habits and understand them.

3.  Do resolve to improve the practical, actual quality of your own life.

To help clarify the above, three points of contemplation:

1.  In this dark time, what has saved you?  What did you turn to in despair, in hope, in times when you felt disconnected and alone?  How can you direct energy back to that?

2.  If you could have prepared yourself and your life to better weather this pandemic and this year, what would you have done?  What structures, supports, and habits would you have put into place to have ready when the world shut down, and for the limbo following?  What can you build today to support you tomorrow?

3.  What has ceased to be a priority for you this year?  When you had to focus on what really mattered, what did you let fall by the wayside, what stopped being important to you?  Where can you reclaim your energy and your focus?

You have four weeks, one turning cycle of the lunar face to decide how you'll frame the coming year in your head, your heart, and your habits.  A time of waning, a time of darkness, a time of waxing, and a time of fullness.  Use them.

It has been about nine months since the world collapsed inward on itself, since the doors closed and the video chat windows opened.  For nine months, we have waited, and watched, tended and struggled, grieved and hoped and feared and wished.  For nine months we have fought, and we have debated, and we have educated and we have learned.  We've lived a life where risk and privilege came to stark contrast in multiple spaces of our lives.  We cast our eyes outward, forward, upward and onward, planning for what we'll do when the masks can come off, but in order to take those steps and be ready, we have to look inward, to see what's been growing, and let something beautiful be born from it.

I love you all.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Balanced

 Just before the vernal equinox this year, I left my office, and aside from a few trips to tidy up and retrieve lost items, I never went back.

I have, for all intents and purposes, been in a quarantine holding pattern for the entirety of what we in the Northern Hemisphere call the 'light half' of the year.  Because I live somewhere the sun is not a friend so much as an ever-present scorching eye in the sky, the light half of the year is when I rest, recover, and rebuild my energy.  So, the fact that I haven't really been out and about, that most of my activity has been furtive neighborhood walks in my pajamas after midnight, isn't as much of a departure as it might otherwise be.

Six months in, my office is a complicated arrangement of laptops and monitors in a room I set up primarily to support my own creative pursuits with the side benefit of 'maybe working from home one day a week most weeks'.  I'm in here eight hours a day most weekdays, plus the evenings and weekends for those creative pursuits.  My co-workers, with whom I shared a small office full of laughter and conversation, are five rectangular windows containing talking heads I see when the shared calendar allows us to schedule a meeting.

My family is a collection of text messages and phone calls, quick updates 'to check in' and pass on birthday greetings or noteworthy events.

My friends are another set of talking heads in rectangular windows -- and a long scrolling social media window into their gardens, home bakeries, home offices, ad hoc educational support centers, bird feeders, and pets' lives.

And their rage.  Oh, their rage and their fear and their politics and their hopelessness and their anxieties and their crushing, constant, overwhelming despair that this may not ever be allowed to get better.  That we will die without hugging someone we love that one last time.  That we'll survive this, only to emerge into a decimated social landscape, with some fraction of our population gone or forever changed by it.

I find myself increasingly frustrated with the holding pattern.  So many people, torn between "keep everything as close to normal as you can," and "Just collapse whenever it becomes too much," seesaw back and forth between self-care and self-sabotage without ever stopping to sit with the moment we are all in.  In one day, the same person might say to the world, "Everything we know is dead or dying and cannot be saved," and "Hold faith in a bright new future we can build together," and "Everyone who doesn't think like me is a stupid hateful asshole who should die in a fire," and in the moment of speaking each of these things every word is true.  They're not even mutually exclusive, if you can accept that it's possible to love the world and those around you and to hope for a brighter day coming even while you feel helpless, impotent rage at the people who don't.

We're self-soothing with hope, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless that hope has paralysed you because it cannot possibly yet be realised.

In the aftertimes, we'll have a feast together, laughter echoing across raised glasses.

In the aftertimes, we'll gather whenever and wherever we like, without that nagging worry that maybe WE are the asymptomatic carrier bringing plague with the potato salad.

In the aftertimes we'll never again take for granted the ability to populate our lives and our houses with loved ones.

In the aftertimes, we'll travel, oh how far we'll travel, even if we have never been more than forty miles from home, we'll get on a plane and see another continent just because we want to.

In the aftertimes we'll smile at one another and know it.

But here, standing in the space of the equinox, standing in the balance between the halcyon beforetimes and the shimmering aftertimes, in this timeless place that has stretched out as the world moved halfway through its orbit, what am I waiting for?

As night hangs equal to day, as we begin the time of year when we shine the brightest against the long winter, what will I do in the meantime?

Thursday, May 14, 2020

How Much Do We Need That Office, Anyway?

Yesterday Travis County announced that after the pandemic has passed, they hope to continue having a substantial portion of their employees (about 3000) working at home, because apparently productivity has gone UP.  The City of Austin and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are reportedly looking at similar plans. 

I'm seeing from friends that companies across the city are looking at the data, and that the combination of 'employees are not less productive working from home' and 'offices are kind of expensive' is starting to percolate through a lot of people's heads.  We're mostly still a month or two from going back to work in many cases, but by that time I think 'work' may look a lot different than it did in February.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

We're all stressed and distracted and scared and half of everybody is doing double duty as teachers, yet the Travis County employees are still getting more done working remotely.  I am also getting more done on the projects that require deep attention.  We told our bosses, all along, when asking for telework options, that it wouldn't negatively affect job performance.  It's nice to have this data, because all the times a previous employer explained to me that the company wouldn't support telework because 'some people, not me of course, think you wouldn't get your work done' can now be dismissed entirely as bunk.  Instead, we can say "the benefits of telework are so significant that *even under these conditions* it was an improvement for a lot of people."

If you're working right now in a thrown-together emergency home office space carved out of a kitchen table or a family room, start thinking practically about what you need to make your home office work for you as a permanent part of your home.  It needs some way to be separated from your living space, so you can 'leave the office and come home' at some point during your day.  A laptop you can close, a curtain you can pull, just something to draw a barrier between you and your workplace.  If your office permanently transitions part time or full time to telework, be ready with a list of what you need to do your work:  faster internet, office supplies, filing boxes, upgraded laptop, second monitor, collaborative software, membership at a co-working space, second phone so you're not using your personal phone for company calls.  Requests made in transition will be more likely to be approved, especially if you can document how working around them for the pandemic has been difficult.

We can change how we treat collaborative work and team environments.  I don't want to work at home 100%, because I genuinely get a lot out of sharing space with my team, but teleworking one day a week so that I could use the team space for team things and my own space for more intricate or difficult projects would be a huge blessing.  After months of running our businesses entirely in email and Zoom, we have a chance to reset the 'this meeting should have been an email' trope.  As we start looking at what 'coming back to work' looks like, let's really take this chance to stop and consider "How can I prioritize differently to make the time when I'm in the same room as my co-workers valuable and useful?"

One of the things I've been doing since working from home is taking short (15-30 minutes) breaks to work on creative or house projects (like writing this post!).  When I was working in the office all day every day, I didn't always have access to my photos, or my writing, or my garden, to go reset my brain when my focus got fuzzy.  It was also generally frowned on to work on 'my stuff' on 'company time'.  It turns out that being able to step out, immerse in a different set of brain-skills, and then step back in works as well as the experts have been telling us all this time.

This is a good time to really look at work-life balance and see how you manage those boundaries.  One of the reasons, for example, that I've resisted getting my work email added to my phone at my job is that at the last job, work emails would come to me 24/7, and there were a lot of weekends where I saw something come in late Friday evening and spent the weekend thinking about it, or interrupted my weekend to address it.  Every day now, when I am done with work, I shut the work laptop and even though I'm frequently tempted to go in and check on something, I leave it until it's 'time to work' again.  The struggle to just go do a little more because the office is just 'right there' was really hard at the beginning, but I'm getting better at it.

Finally, a citywide shift to increased telework will almost certainly make life better for everyone, even the folks who have to go into the office.  Austin's traffic is legendary.  From before 7am to after 7pm, there's perhaps a 2 hour window between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon where the traffic isn't that bad.  But if, say, as little as 25% of the people on the road were suddenly not on the road, it would transform our traffic patterns.  Think about Columbus Day or President's Day, when the government offices and banks are closed but most of the offices are still open.  If the traffic looked like that every day, we'd all get back 6-10 hours of time a week (depending on how long we normally sit in traffic), and experience a substantial improvement in air quality.

It's not that I'm trying to 'silver lining' the pandemic.  This is a massive global crisis that will severely damage our economy, our health, and our lives.  But it's also a space for us to step outside of a lot of the patterns we've had ripped out from under us, and ask ourselves "Is this particular pattern so valuable to me that it's worth working to reestablish?"

Friday, April 3, 2020

Staying Alive

There is a scene from Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne in which the women of Arbonne (and one of Garsenc) await the invasion of an army bent on destroying them all, that resonates with me right now.

Some of the women sit and work on needlepoint, while Signe de Barbentain gives rein to her anxiety, pacing and venting and worrying.  Finally she turns on Rosala, one of the women who has been calmly smiling at her embroidery, and demands to know, "how can you be so calm?  How can you possibly SIT there like that, knowing what's coming, what's happening?"  Rosala stops and holds up the ruined, worthless needlepoint she has been stitching with shaking hands.  She wasn't doing the work because she was calm, she was calm because she was doing the work.

I have struggled with depression and my own mental health for thirty-five years, since I was in middle school.  My particular manifestation of it is to engage in increasingly self-destructive behaviours until I trigger a life crisis and everything crashes.  I've talked about my struggles openly for about the last fifteen years, and it's helped, but the thing I've learned about that is that what helps me is the part where I talk about the things I am doing to keep from dying.

Almost everyone I know is dealing with some combination of depression, anxiety, fear, and isolation right now, and we're all coping or not coping in different ways.  I am seeing an interesting trend, though.  As a coping mechanism, "Today I rolled myself in a blanket, ate an entire pie, and lay on the floor for three hours," gets replies of "That's great!  Do what you need to do!  Your choices are valid!" but people who say "Today I made a list and I did the things and then I checked them off and looked at the check-marks to reassure myself that I will be OK," get bare shrugs and "Well, I'm glad this is going so well for you.  SOME of us are actually struggling." 

Every day of my shelter-in-place I make a list, and this is why:

Today I will get up at a reasonable hour, because if I do not do that consistently, I will begin to sleep longer and longer until my morning meets the night and I just stop getting up.

Today I will shower or at least wash my face, and I will brush my teeth and my hair and use deodorant and moisturizer, because I deserve to be clean and cared for, and because if I don't do it today I may not do it again until I become so disgusted with myself I just stand in the shower and cry.

Today I will drink water and eat food, because Traitor Brain says I don't deserve to have them and I will spite that bitch.

Today I will get at least a little exercise, because if I stop moving I may not start again.

Today I will go outside to feel the sun (or the moon) and the wind, because if I don't keep touching the world I'll let myself shut it out entirely and convince myself it doesn't need me in it.

Today I will set myself a bedtime and obey it, because left to my own devices I'll just stay up indefinitely and destroy my ability to rest and recover.

Today I will accomplish some small task to improve my space, my life, my health, or my relationships with others, because every improvement is another spiderweb-tie I use to bind myself into this world.

Today I will tend or at least visit my garden, because I do not "ruin the life of every living thing I touch."

Today I will talk to my partner or my friends about how I am feeling and where I am emotionally, and ask for support if I need it.

If today is a workday, today I will accomplish one concrete thing that finishes a task, plans for the future, or improves my workflow.

If today is not a workday, I will not do work just because I'm bored, and I will deliberately do things I know relax and recharge me.

This week I will spend one hour of time doing something creative, because if I increase the sum total of beauty, it muffles the voices that tell me I add nothing to the world.

This week I will dedicate one block of at least two hours to a long-term improvement project, because I would like Future Badger to have the same feeling Present Badger gets when she looks at the things Past Badger has done, and doing nice things for Future Badger helps me stick around to become her.

When I start to feel the water closing over my head, I will look at the lists of ticky-marks and I say "See, Self, you're doing the things.  You're all right.  You're in the world and you matter to it."

When my chest gets tight and painful and the voices rise, I will go and stand in my pantry, and look at the physical manifestations of my skills, my resources, and my upbringing, and repeat to myself, "You have what you need, and you are enough to get through this."

This is my list.  It doesn't have to be anyone else's list, and the things on it are the specific areas where my own history tells me I'm vulnerable to my own brain.  I've got no shade for people who are coping by being pie-eating blanket-rolls, because the important thing is just to figure out what you need to survive and DO THAT.

So while it may LOOK like I've 'got my shit together', the reality is that I'm just stitching away as hard as I can on this messy tapestry and holding on to the fact that the work I'm doing, the project I'm completing, isn't a fresh loaf of bread or a tidy office or a new creative accomplishment.  It's something that matters more than any of those:  myself, whole and living, walking out of my house at the end of this crisis.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Now is Not the Time

Driving along to work one day last week, I caught a broadcast of our city officials talking about the COVID-19 response and what they'd like people to do: stay home, practice good sanitation and distancing, and stop panic-buying.  One caller wanted to know: we've been hearing for years about the long-term dangers of the overuse of antibacterial products and hand sanitizers.  Should we really be using them this much?

The response was:  now is not the time to worry about overusing hand sanitizer.

At first I was annoyed, because if you let people do a thing in an emergency, then pretty soon every Tuesday is an emergency.  But what lies behind that is this:  you must do the things you do for the long-term health of the planet and the species when you can, all the time, because there may come times when you have to set them aside.  This is one of those times.

There's a lot of reason to avoid overusing that little bottle of sanitizer you keep in your purse.  On a regular basis, especially if you buy the fancy kind with the special antibacterial label, you can contribute to a dangerous buildup of resistant organisms.

There's a lot of reason to go to the store yourself instead of having the groceries delivered, and to make fewer trips for larger purchases.  It's more expensive to get things delivered, and a twice-weekly grocery store habit contributes to the use of fossil fuels.

There's a lot of reason to choose social interactions over isolation.  In the long term, it makes you feel connected and builds relationships to rely on.

Myself, I spent a little time last week worrying about the amount of water that goes down the drain while I wash my hands for 20 full seconds several extra times a day.  As someone who's turned off the tap to brush her teeth since she was in elementary school, that amount 'wasted' really started to weigh on me.

For every responsible, reasonable choice, there is a very good explanation for why we should do it all the time, but the best possible explanation is this:  sometimes we have to stop doing it for a while.  Sometimes we have to let that water run.  Sometimes we have to spend what's in the savings account.  Sometimes we have to pull an all-nighter to get an important task done.

If you've been practicing those conservation-minded habits all along, then you have reserves for times like these.  If you usually carry your own straw and cutlery, you don't worry about three weeks of single-use disposables.  If you've been diligently setting your HVAC to minimize usage when you leave the house, you don't need to worry about a couple of weeks of not changing it because no one is leaving the house.  If you get enough sleep and exercise, and eat healthy foods, you will be more physically able to withstand the lack of them.

This is not a matter of "Well, don't you feel like shit for not 'doing better' all along?"  No guilt, no shame, no judgment here.  This will end and we can 'do better' then.  It does, however, bring two points to mind.

The first is that if you're stressing or feeling guilty because once shit hit the fan all the things you believe in and your personal ethics seem to have become malleable and all your healthy habits start shifting: don't.  This is an extraordinary situation, and for extraordinary situations we have much shorter-term priorities.  Anything you're doing right now that decreases the likelihood of you catching and especially spreading COVID-19 is the correct priority, as is anything you're doing to make sure that others have the resources and support they need (without endangering them).  When things begin to return to normal, we will have the luxury of more choices.

The second is this:  the stress, panic, fear, and scarcity that many people are experiencing in ways they had not before, that is some people's daily reality outside a pandemic.  Some people never have the option of doing the conservation-minded thing because their priorities are always shortened to immediate survival for themselves and their families.  Some people can never save for a rainy day because it rains every day for them.  Remember, moving forward, how it felt to not know what your world would look like next week, and retain some of this empathy.  Remember how much you learned to appreciate what your children's teachers do, and how important the truck driver and the shelf stocker are, and that medical professionals (not just doctors, but every single person down including cafeteria workers and janitors) literally risk their lives and the lives of their families to fight for other people.

We can come through this having given way to fear and selfishness and blame, or we can come through it having gained an understanding of the importance of community support, a respect for the work and needs of others, and a willingness to look at our own lives to see where we can build our own resilience.

Monday, July 29, 2019

It's Time to Get Serious About Proactive Self-Care

The concept of self-care is pretty appealing, to be honest: the idea that to be the best and happiest and healthiest person possible, you should stop and take care of your own basic needs.

Frequently derided as "Today I did 'self-care' and lit a bunch of candles while I drank wine in the bubble bath!" it's more properly understood to include things like "I made a doctor's appointment for my ongoing health concern," or "I cleaned my bathroom!"

It's important to ask yourself, though:  Is my approach towards self-care about building a long-term healthy and sustainable lifestyle or is it a coping mechanism I use to put off making real change?

I used to take a LOT of 'mental health days'.  I'd wake up just too demoralized and stressed to go to work, and call in sick.  I wasn't lying; I was legitimately dealing with exhaustion and depression that meant I was not fit to do my job that day.

The mental health days themselves were a way of staving off burnout.  After crashing and burning at a couple of truly terrible jobs, I'd given myself permission to just...not go sometimes.  It was a huge step for me.  After a couple of years of this, I learned that taking regular scheduled breaks, in the form of vacations or even just the occasional day off, decreased the number of unscheduled mental health days I was taking, and I thought for a long time that meant I had a handle on the problem of having a frustrating and unfulfilling job.

Eventually, though, a friend asked, "What if you didn't spend roughly a third of your life on something that it exhausts you emotionally to do, to the point that you have to build in escapes from it to keep it from destroying you?"

That question jump-started something in my head, and not just related to employment.  What if, I asked myself, I started trying to build a life where self-care wasn't about staving off crises, it was about getting better all the time?

Fundamentally, when most people talk about it, they frame their self-care as *reactive*:  "I finally tackled the dishes that have been building up because I was too exhausted to wash them for two weeks." "I canceled all my plans and stayed in tonight because I've been overscheduled for a year now."  "I wrote a budget because I keep running out of money for bills."  Something has happened, something is wrong, and even if you're acting before the complete crisis happens, maybe you're acting because you know that if you don't take action on a rising problem the crisis will trigger.  We do self-care because we are treating some element of ourselves as inherently broken and in need of deliberate remedy.

We run a script in our heads where our natural inclinations are at odds with the lives we are living, and harmful to the lives we want to have, and build in self-care to cover the differences between who we are and the space we're trying to hold in the world.  It becomes an act of self-preservation, what we do to realign our lives with where they 'should be' when the gears start to slip.

What if, instead, we looked for places for *proactive* self-care?  What if we looked for ways to try and bring our lives into alignment with our natural inclinations?  What if we looked for ways to make our self-care acts of self-evolution or self-healing instead?

Now, when I find myself triggered to create reactive space for self-care, some part of that process includes questions:

  1. Why was this necessary?
  2. Is there a pattern I can change to make this unnecessary in the future?
  3. Is there something about my LIFE I can change to make this unnecessary in the future?
  4. How can I honor who I really am and what I really want here?
I will always give myself permission to do what I need to do for my own mental and physical health, but I also hold myself accountable for what creates that need.   I'm a complex person with a lot of flaws and assets, and I need to be real with myself about it.  I'm never going to get rid of Traitor Brain, because that bitch is part of how my psyche is wired, but I can own up to that by building a life where she has less power. 

Immediate change isn't accessible to everyone, and I would never suggest that it is.  Even accessible change can take months or years and require support from friends and family.  I myself often struggle with some changes I should make.  But if you keep finding yourself needing to react to forestall crisis by actively shifting your focus to yourself, don't you owe it to yourself to find out why you don't build enough proactive focus on your own needs *into your existing life* in the first place?

The easiest way to find out if your self-care is reactive or proactive is to look for the 'because'.  Is your 'because' about catching up to some part of your life that's not well-structured for you, or is your 'because' about habits and patterns that will make your life as a whole better?

Here's the hard truth a lot of people don't want to face:  reactive self-care will always eventually fail you: it never solves the problem.  You will just keep putting band-aid after band-aid on to mitigate the bleeding, but not heal the wound.  Someday you won't get the fix in time, and you'll spin out into crisis and then probably beat yourself up for a failure you set up in the first place.

Reactive self- care feels great and healthy in the short term, and it can REALLY help you feel like you've got your shit together if your traditional MO has been more 'go until you crash and burn', but if you want to keep your shit together for the long term you've eventually got to face up to essential truths about who you are, what you want, what you need, and your responsibility to yourself.

You can even light some candles, pour some wine, and think about it in the bubble bath if you want.