It's About Time

I don't know what to do with myself these days. This level of stability makes for a very pleasing and long-awaited calm, but it can also be incredibly boring. I'm not used to it. It's like the feeling of walking out from your last final exam for the semester. You're free, and it feels wrong to be this happy or to have this much freedom. It's really hard doing nothing at all (nothing at all...nothing at all...). Sometimes I'll dedicate some time to work on my emotional problems, but I don't have a roadmap for what to prioritize or how to engage. Previously, problems were dumped on my lap and I had no choice but to deal with them. Now that I'm on solid ground again, I don't what strategy to use to begin dealing with the fiery pile of garbage. For now, I'm following some ideas to their natural conclusions.

Keep pulling the sweater.”
”Excuse me?”
”Eventually the whole thing will unravel.”
”You mean ‘keep pulling the thread and the whole thing will unravel?’”
”Now you’re talking, sister.

One thread I'm pursuing is breaking free from all my different traumas. Unresolved trauma can keep us excessively cautious and inhibited. It keeps us from living full and satisfied lives. Trauma also begets trauma. It festers for years into our older age and all the while spreads to our loved ones until we take steps to stop its propagation. Healthy animals and humans move in and out of the fight-flight-or-freeze responses. Trauma is when we get stuck in the freeze response but our natural instincts to dispel that energy are blocked. Similar to rolling your ankle, after it happens the first time, it's easy for it to reoccur. If it's similar to back muscles, it's like having multiple knots that need a few massage sessions over a few weeks or months to straighten out. Even though I've written about trauma a lot already, I thought of a new analogy this week. Trauma reminds me of how some spinning hard disk drives (HDD) in computers have a clever mechanism for protecting your data when you drop your laptop.

The components that make up the hard disk drive

There are accelerometers in the HDD which can detect when your laptop is in freefall. Once it falls past a certain distance or time, the hard drive locks the read/write head away from the disc platters to protect them from damage when the laptop makes impact from the fall. Data processed during that time is then stored in a buffer to ensure it's preserved and secure. A healthy HDD can move in and out of that protective mode, but a "traumatized" HDD would get stuck in it. Similarly, humans are traumatized when we get stuck in that protective mode during an overwhelming event. Our bodies lock up. The information from the traumatic event, ie. our feelings, the images, the smells, doesn't leave our bodies, so we re-live it over and over until we're able to break out of the traumatized state. Counsellors and psychologists are the Genius Bar technicians for our brains.

Trauma can happen very easily, to the point where we don't even realize it happening at all for seemingly insignificant events. One area where I'm still struggling is in being on time. It bears deeper examination since I'm taking all this time to get healthy, so it's important that I use my time wisely. I have a lot of anxiety around being prompt for deadlines, appointments, meetings, anything associated with traveling somewhere for a certain time. If it takes me seven minutes to pick up Carrie with the car, I'll prepare 30 minutes in advance. If I have an appointment at 2 PM, then I'll start worrying about it at noon. If I'm meeting friends at the bar, I'm often the first to show up, sitting by myself for a good while until the next person arrives because I like to show up on the exact minute or a few minutes early. I've missed more flights than I care to admit. It's annoying being this way. It has to do partly with being from a big family. Going anywhere was usually an ordeal because at least one of us would inevitably delay the rest. Every week, the morning before church started with this stressful time of familial crisis. Someone didn't think they looked good enough and would decide last second to change their outfit. Someone else was hungry and would want to stop at Tim Hortons or McDonald's for breakfast. Another had a bad sleep and wouldn't want to get up at all. Names would be called, threats would be uttered, and a strong tone of love would be set to begin the Lord's Day. Once we got old enough, we found relief when we discovered that with multiple vehicles and drivers, we could have multiple departure times and domestic bliss.

My brother used to yell at me for being late. One time, he told me on the phone that he'd pick me up in five minutes, and when I showed up six or seven minutes later, he freaked out at me. He said that he was a man of his word, so he expected me to treat his estimates as reliable and trustworthy. When people say "five minutes," it could mean from three minutes to five hours. If he had specified 300 seconds, I would have understood the precision of his arrival time. That's just one example because of the unique significance of five minutes, but he picked me up a lot and I got yelled at every time I made him wait even a little. I've been on the receiving end of this transaction plenty of times as well, waiting for someone who wanted a ride. I understand that it's impolite to make someone wait when they're doing you the favour of saving time and money by driving, but I think it's unreasonable to take it as a personal attack when someone is late by a little bit. Nowadays, I use the app Glympse to send people my GPS location in real time so they can predict when I'll arrive. It's like having your own personal Uber. My body still seizes up at the thought of being late because I might get yelled at. You tell me if it's normal to have this much anxiety around punctuality.

This is a very capitalist way of thinking. Time is money, so you rush everything you can to maximize your value per dollar and therefore, your happiness. The Eastern concept of time is that it's an infinite resource. Every culture's philosophy and customs treat time just a little bit differently. I don't think one mentality is necessarily superior to the other, but I do believe that part of happiness means being as busy as you want to be. Having control around how overwhelmed or underwhelmed you are, the goal is to strike the perfect balance of whelming you want. I know that I spend way too much energy fixating on people's feelings about how prompt I am.

People value their time, and they should. I value mine, so I also get upset when people waste it. However, it's worth examining the things that upset us and why. I turn the clock away from me during counselling so it doesn't trigger my anxiety. "Oh crap, only 55 minutes left in the one-hour session. I BETTER GET TO THE POINT SOON AND WRAP THIS UP." When there was a wall clock in my preferred counselling room, I would take it down from the wall and remove the battery so the tick-tock sounds wouldn't bother me. I've also missed sessions before because I showed up too late. I had to reschedule them because it's hard to talk about all the overwhelming problems in 20 or 30 minutes and leave in a stable state. Time has different meanings based on the context.

What am I doing to address my time anxiety? First, I have to identify my trigger points, then I'll have to emotionally renegotiate each situation by addressing my current feelings and boundaries. Cognitive-behavioural approach. Change my thoughts about the situations and how I respond. I'm at a point of maturity now where I can handle some of my challenges without the help of a counsellor. Anxiety around time isn't a huge problem, but it's something I worked through this week.

There is a healthy balance that I can achieve in the area of punctuality. I understand that many treat it as a valuable resource, but I don't believe that time is money. I value my time and I respect that of others, but I don't think that it's so important that I need to get this tripped up over it. I think I have some trauma around punctuality from the chaotic and overwhelming emotions I've experienced around departures and arrivals with my family. It's about time I worked on it.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le