Thursday, April 5, 2018

Embracing the Breakdown

Several weeks ago, I woke up one morning and I couldn't get out of bed.  It wasn't that I didn't want to, that I was tired or comfortable, it was that I could not physically summon the ability to move.  When I thought about how hard it was going to be to walk to the shower ten feet away, I wanted to cry.

This isn't the first time it's happened.  I'm a busy person.  Much of my life revolves around service to others; I pretty consistently take on responsibilities and projects that push me to that point of exhaustion where I've been running at a sleep and energy deficit for several weeks, until I take a long weekend and just hermit/crash when it's convenient.  Generally, when I wake up too exhausted to move, my response is, "I have to get up, because people are depending on me."  So I do.  I summon the will and I *force* myself through it.  I drop things physically and intellectually, I'm short-tempered, I'm barely effective at all the things I need to do, but dammit I got up and did the thing.  I've spent years moving from crisis to crisis like that, always reacting, rarely acting, never planning.  I'm Good In A Crisis; it's a fundamental part of my identity.

Over the last couple of years, though, I've been doing a lot of work on self-care and healthy life patterns, trying to build sustainable habits.  My ability to 'power through' is a good trait, but it's not a lifestyle.  I'm also Good When There Is No Crisis and I'm not using that skill set enough.  So this time, I said, "I can't get up.  People are depending on me.  They're depending on me to be whole and healthy.  They're depending on me to be here in 10 years to help with their kids.  They're depending on me to do things *later* that I can't do if I don't rest *now*."  So I called in sick and stayed home, even though it screwed up some plans.  I slept another 6 hours.  I ate some good food.  And then I took serious stock of where my energy was going; that was pretty hard to look at.

On a sort of autopilot, I'd set up my weekdays as: wake up at 7:30 already late and tired, struggle out of bed, get to work late, stay at work long after hours sometimes working but sometimes just fucking around online, maybe work out and maybe don't, eat dinner around 10pm, get to bed around 2 or maybe 3, repeat.  My weekends were either exhausted collapsing, frenetic social activity, or projects to help friends.  I'd been putting off "get some real relaxation and have some real fun," so far into the future that I couldn't actually see when it would happen.  I'd barely gotten to spend significant time with the friends who feed my soul, and only managed to do so by 'stealing' time and energy from other commitments.

I was still, in some ways, recovering from major surgery.  I'd gotten past the actual physical recovery, but in trying to catch back up on organising the house and doing my workouts and finishing my projects, I'd been running about double.  I also put, for a variety of reasons, a tremendous amount of emotional labor in over the winter, without really honoring the degree to which it had taxed me.  I had started to have severe muscle weakness and facial tics, and had gotten dizzy a couple of times, all from a combination of stress and depleted resources.

Understand, no part of this was unfamiliar territory.  I've been running through various iterations of "Power through until it's convenient to collapse, no matter what you have to burn," for probably the last 20 years, doubly so since the anemia added in a new variable.  I just finally hit a point where that practice became incompatible with my changing attitudes on self-care and sustainable habits.

This also shouldn't sound like unfamiliar territory to most of my friends, who also power through more than not, who overbook and overcommit and make it all come together through the power of coffee and sarcasm, and who run the razor's edge of holding it all together.  Birds of a feather and all that, you know?

At first, I started to look at how I needed to change in the nebulous 'soon' and not at immediate change.  Part of my assessment, though, was an understanding that I had to stop pushing through the now to get to when it would be convenient because I wasn't making lasting change.  So, I set myself solid goals:  minimum calorie and protein consumption, minimum nightly and average sleep requirements, hard limits on when I leave work, a defined bedtime, a specific limit on new projects and physical activities.  None of these is a particularly revolutionary goal: they're the things healthy people do.  And I set one other:  if this isn't better in a couple of weeks of rest and self-care, it's doctor time.

Overall, I did pretty well.  I still missed a couple of bedtimes and had a couple of unnecessary late nights at work, and I have a seriously hard time cramming as much protein as the fitness tracker says I need into my diet, but the limits I'd established set a much more reasonable pace where I didn't feel like I always had to catch up.  I'm feeling much steadier and more balanced.  My planning ahead has stopped entirely revolving around what I HAVE to do, and started including what I WANT to do.  I'm comfortable making a note of it to mention to the doc when I see him next time, instead of actively scheduling a visit.

More importantly, though, by allowing the breakdown even when it wasn't convenient, I hope to break the pattern of 'push past exhaustion, crash, run to catch everything I dropped when I crashed, start the push toward exhaustion again'.  I'm not changing who I am:  I'm going to take on responsibilities.  I'm going to take on projects.  I have a loving tribe of friends who rely on me, and I rely on them.  I will continue to be Good In A Crisis because I don't really know how else to be.  All of this is important to me, and none of it is anything I actually want to give up.

What I *am* changing is the habit of letting non-emergencies pull from my reserves.  There have been too many times in my life when the only thing keeping me from crashing was the sheer number of people I'd let down if I did, and far too many times when the refusal to let anyone down in the short term meant letting everyone down in the long term.  I've had just enough situations in the last few years where having just a little reserve made the difference, and it's finally sinking through my head that I either need to give up the part of my psyche that serves and supports others, or put in actual work to build the reserves that will let me do it without cannibalizing my own health.

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