Back at the start of the month I spend a few afternoons and mornings helping my mom clean out her elementary classroom to get it ready for summer. We recycled a lot of paper, but when we uncovered a stack of unneeded white paper strips, I kept them from the recycling bin and put them in my “home” pile, sure that I could use them for a future craft or creation*.
Then came the summer celebration of life for my dear friend who passed away in February. It brought back up all sorts of grief, which along with post-trail pangs, living with my parents, and a bunch of other elements, brewed into the perfect storm of internal struggle. Anxiety was off the charts and uncontrollable, oozing overboard and spilling onto any free moment—spoiling any free moment. (In fact, I became physically ill from this emotional downpour at the onset.)
Everything took 40x more energy than usual, and my tools (walking, meditation, etc.) were 40x less effective than usual. I felt ungrounded like never before, which didn’t make sense to me, as I’d felt more grounded than ever before while hiking the AZT. The combination resulted in a totally new internal feeling and backdrop to life; the advice I usually dole out and take myself wasn’t helpful in these conditions.
One specific example of how this played out is that I felt incredibly overwhelmed when choosing what to do. Under “normal” circumstances I adore free time and happily fill my days with projects. But in this new terrain? It became the source of distress. Shall I work on AZT blog posts or read? Do a chapter of tarot learning? Do some yoga? Go for a walk? Cook something? Art journal? Play ukulele? Work on my Snail Mail project? Write poetry? Paint a portrait? What will get me through these feelings? What will be best for me to do now?
I couldn’t do all the things at once, but I also couldn’t choose from the 15 or so things I wanted to be doing. The opportunity cost of choosing one over another felt 40x higher than usual. These weren’t the everyday decisions I’d always known them to be. So I couldn’t make a decision, and I’d instead get stuck under weighty thoughts of worry and indecision, and then ultimately feel bad for not doing the things I wanted to be doing.
And throughout all of this I knew that choosing anything and doing it would be better than drowning in hysteric indecision. I knew that; I was able to acknowledge this fact in my mind, even while being splashed about. And yet my body was not functioning in a logical way when it was so drenched in grief, making the situation all the more frustrating.
One day while in the waves, I thought of those strips of paper sitting in my top desk drawer. I pulled them out and cut them in half. On each slip I wrote something I wanted to be doing, one of the actions that had been overwhelming my mind. Looking at these strips, I knew if I spent time doing any of these things, it would be time well spent.
I picked one up—based on how I felt at that very moment—held it in my hands, and then I did what the slip of paper told me to do. Apparently this is what was needed to get my attention to focus on a single thing that day, to build some walls from the oozing anxiety.
When I finished, I set the slip of paper on the other side of my desk and grabbed another. Now I could see how I was spending my time on that particular day, without getting overwhelmed at a huge list. Because the slips to choose from were not part of a gigantic list I wanted to finish that day; they were simply options. I was able to build a day fluidly again, and it was an accomplishment to even be building in the first place.
There’s no clean take-away from this little story. Sometimes what usually works won’t work. Sometimes you won’t feel like yourself at all, and it’ll be unsettling. Sometimes you won’t be able to describe in words how you feel, and you’ll be blown away at the spectrum of human emotions. And sometimes slips of paper will be the chance tool that gently nudges you back an inch, back towards your familiar self.
*Paper Chains: My original idea for the slips had been to make paper chains around my room. I’d have one chain for guitar/ukulele, another for yoga, and one for each of my projects. Then whenever I spent 10-40 minutes (whatever was appropriate for the category) on that project, I’d add a link with the day’s date. That way I could physically see what was growing. I made the initial chains but that’s as far as it went for me. Sharing it here in case anyone else wants to give it a go. Paper chains are fun!