Catching My Breath

Lately, I’m feeling grateful for living when and where I do. Global politics seem to have been tossed into a blender, but even then, I feel very fortunate to have my life, warts and all. I feel like I’ve dodged a lot of bullets in recent years, with great effort, and now I’m trying to just take care of myself and appreciate what I have. I’m thinking lots about what “value” means, in relative and absolute terms, with respect to my happiness, and I’m learning to breathe my way through my problems.

When I hit the lowest point of The Struggle, I had lost a lot of good things in my life, relatively. But in absolute terms, I was still doing great. I still had my education, my marriage, my home, some family in the city. I could still speak fluent English, conversational French, and broken Vietnamese, so I could still navigate the system around me. Even though I shunned my family of origin, I know they would still be there to help me if I really needed it; at the same time remembering that their help comes with strings attached that I wouldn’t like later on. I still had friends and a network of people in town on whom I could lean if I needed a place to stay or other assistance. My lowest point was a lot higher than most people ever reach in their lifetime, and I still had my whole life ahead of me. I’ve already won several jackpots, whereas some would be grateful for just one of mine.

I tried to remind myself of all these facts while the pain burned in my chest. Most of the time it wasn’t that comforting to hear. By all accounts, I experienced a deep emotional loss, which was difficult to reconcile with. Meanwhile, I observed many people in my circle who had lost much more at some point but still rebuilt their lives and moved on. I didn’t have to leave the country because of war. I didn’t lose a loved one. I didn’t have to move back home because of the downturned economy. I didn’t let down my kids because I was laid off at work. Transportation can easily cross distances in timespans that our ancestors never dreamed of. I have a bike I don’t use much, which I bought just because it would be nice to have. I can sample cuisines from all around the world within my own city. We have bathrooms with indoor plumbing. I can access the knowledge of the world without having to travel to some person in a distant land. I don’t have to print MapQuest travel directions on paper before going to a new place. I can have McDonald’s delivered to me using UberEATS. If I don’t feel like walking somewhere in my neighbourhood, I can fire up my car to get there, even though I have two good feet and a bike. To listen to music, I can choose the floorstanding three-way stereo speakers; the wireless one with the subwoofer; the portable Bluetooth waterproof one; the small wireless headphones or the large wireless ones; the wired headphones tuned for rock and roll or the top of the line headphones that sound better for most genres of music. I have clothes that not only fit my body and my sense of style, but I can easily replace items that don’t express my true identity as closely as I would like. To launder them, it takes a few dollars and crossing the hallway, which is sometimes even better than for those with a washer-dryer in their basement. I don’t have to carry everything in a big plastic bag and drag it across the neighbourhood or go to the local well and hand-wash them. My doctor’s office is literally on the same city block as mine, so if I don’t feel well, I can cross the field to be examined.

Louis CK puts this perspective in a more humourous way:

When I mentally keep score with my friends, I have to remind myself that we all started in very different places. I think I pushed out a lot of absolute value, but relative to others, it may not look as impressive on the outside. I have friends whom I love that had much more privileged upbringings, and they couldn’t help but to be raised in their environment any more than I could. I just have to remind myself that I started a lot further back than some people, so it takes a lot more for me to get ahead and keep up with them. At the same time, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my parents, my mom’s income and health insurance, Canadian healthcare in general, my dad driving us to and from school for years, taking us to piano lessons and allergy shots and to get our braces tightened, and on and on. We all face different challenges and receive different assistance, so the uphill climb is steeper at varying stages. With a large relative loss, my emotions needed to be soothed, but looking at my absolute geographic and historic place in this world put a limit on my pity party.

Breaking out of my structure. I had set up a bunch of rules to manage my old way of life. I was unemployed, Carrie was in school, and I was stressed out of my mind, so I went to the gym for several hours most mornings to pump it all out. Moving to this new world where Carrie and I are both working, I didn’t fully rearrange my routine to thrive better. There was a moment not too long ago where I had to simply call off all my rules. So many of the underlying assumptions which created those guidelines had completely vanished, so it made very little sense to hold my patterns in place so strictly. For example, I was writing every week because my heart used to be constantly ripped open, whether by counselling, struggling with not working, or feeling isolated from Carrie. In this new stage, we both started new jobs this spring and summer, I stopped counselling earlier this year, and we both started having a lot more fun than we used to. I had less material to write about, and I had less time to process everything anyways. As a result, it made little sense to force a post out every week. In general, enough of my life completely flipped such that it required that I rewrite a lot of my routine.

Focus, fire a gun. I started going to the gym almost a year ago to help my mental health, but sometimes along the way, I changed the focus towards improving my appearance or my physical health. Truly, I still need to exercise to serve my mental health, but I can easily waver and shift my attention slightly towards what’s good for my body. There are lots of exercises I can do that’s generally good for me, but then my brain gets neglected. I tried doing more yoga when I noticed that I had so many problems with flexibility. For that reason, I stopped going to the gym and just followed a yoga video at home. Then the stress slowly piled up, and then I had to go to the gym again to pump it all out. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s really important for me to see the difference. Since counselling ended, I decided that I would stop processing my childhood trauma emotionally in favour of focusing on the physical aspects. That still means that I have to focus on the emotions and the trauma, even though I’m working out the physical issues of my shoulders always being tight and knotted.

Traumatic re-creation. Part of the cycle and trap of trauma is in the victim re-attempting to overcome the initial traumatizing situation. Entering the boss battle, losing, powering up, and trying again. We all do this, but trauma victims lose over and over. Part of what that looks like for me is shrugging my shoulders. When I was sexually violated as a kid, my shoulders seized up in a freezing response to protect me. However, that energy never really got released until very recently, so because of the traumatic tendency to revisit situations, my shoulders will usually seize up in response to overwhelming situations. Until I can fight back against the attacker in my mind, my body will keep looping that initial stress response until I can overcome the enemy. Without fail, every time I visit my massage therapist or my physiotherapist, they always say “your neck is reeeally tight.” I like to cross my arms over my head when I sleep, which might seem normal to most people, but to me, it forces my already tight shoulders to tighten even further. Sleeping on my side does the same. These postures might not be so bad for most, but when I have a history of tight trapezius muscles stemming from a traumatic event, I have to be more careful to avoid injuring myself. I’ve played whack-a-mole with my flexibility, focusing on my flat feet, locked hips, or tight neck and shoulders depending on whichever hurt the most that week, but now I think I need to focus on my shoulders for a while. I still have to maintain a level of maintenance on the other areas, but I can only focus on improving this one area. I’m doing it this way because of my emotions and trauma, not simply because it’s good for my body.

Catching my breath.

I stop breathing whenever I get nervous. It’s not great. Right now, I’m taking time to manually pump air back into my lungs when I sense some anxiety. My dad was a bus driver when he was younger, and he said there were certain bus stops that were timing points throughout your route. If you were early, you sat and chilled out at your timing point so that you didn’t arrive earlier than expected at the next few stops. If you were running behind, then you had to skip past your timing point to catch up on your schedule. I’m doing this throughout my day now by taking a few deep breaths, and it’s helping me a lot. I’ll take a minute to myself to just shake off any scratchy emotions and take breaths between 10 and 15 seconds long. It’s very soothing. On my days off, if I don’t do anything productive, I’ll get antsy and feel the need to work on problems into the night. That doesn’t really set up my next day for success, so I’m trying to be more productive earlier in the day while still making time to rest and get ahead. To enhance my sleep, I have the HEPA filter running alongside the humidifier, which makes it easier to breathe in the dry Calgary climate and which makes my slumber more restful. Morning and night are starting to feel as important as planes taking off and landing. Those are the riskiest moments of every flight, so I’m learning to give my morning and bedtime routines my full attention to ensure a safe voyage. Breathing plays a big part in both, and it’s been the antidote to my anxiety as of late. An ex-girlfriend taught me that toddlers know how to breathe properly, but somehow as we get older, we only take quick shallow breaths that only fill up our chest and not our bellies. It can take years to train yourself to breathe properly again. I can quickly get worked up from all the varying layers of challenges thrown on me, and it physically pushes the air out of my body. It’s tough work making sure I breathe with my diaphragm. It’s a simple concept, but it’s hard to remembering to do it when I need to.

I’m not well yet. I’m not doing worse, and I’m not suffering as much anymore. I stopped tumbling down the hill, and now I can start climbing again. I’m adjusting better, I’m hurting myself less, and I’m taking better care of myself. I still wouldn’t say I’m well. I still feel damaged and broken from my experience growing up in my family. I drink lots of fizzy sugar water. I feel better, and I’m starting to dress better as a result. Feel better, look better.

I miss my family. I missed Chris’ wedding and birthday, and it was Josh’s birthday recently too. Judging from the little communication I still somehow manage to receive from them, they don’t get what they did wrong. They think I’m just trying to live a better life, so I’m just optimizing certain parameters to their best values. No, I’m still trying to survive because they were negligently trying to kill me. Their inability to take responsibility for their shit spilled over into my life because I tried to keep the family running. Instead, I’ve had enough and need to protect myself before I die. It still makes me sad that I can’t be there with and for them, but it has to be this way if I want to keep going.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le