Whenever I can, I do nothing at all. There’s only so much you can do to tidy, file away, reserve, pick up. I don’t really have an urge to do much on my days off, which is a new experience for me. I don’t really feel like playing Breath of the Wild. There’s nothing terribly interesting on social media. I have enough new music on my to-do list that I don’t need to get too adventurous. Nothing I even really feel like printing these days. This is how life calms down. Back when I was in the corporate rat race, I felt like I was never doing enough. Even on my weekends, I had to relax extra hard because I worked extra hard and I was extra miserable. Now, I try to not be so extra. Eventually I want to get back into reading more books.

My schedule now is pretty light. Work five days, get two days off. On my days off, be productive during the day. Otherwise, if I sleep all day, I won’t sleep at night. Part of that productivity means writing on the first day, editing on the second, then hitting publish. About once a month, I go out with my friends, and we go hard. Sundays, there is family dinner. Every night before bed, I stretch my feet and neck so that the simple act of existing isn’t so painful the next day. I’ll meet up with a friend once a week or so. Any more than that, then my structure falls apart. Any changes to that structure puts pressure on everything afterwards, and then I stop functioning. I’ve found my rhythm. Steady state. Homeostasis. This is what I’m capable of for now, and I need to protect my schedule dearly.

Sleep solves and creates many problems, so it’s a matter of using sleep effectively as a tool. Through my worst days, sleep was usually a way for me to escape my situation momentarily so that I could recharge and attack it again. Thomas Edison famously napped whenever he was stuck with a problem. Sleep serves a couple functions, one of which is to improve your memory. Your memories are rearranged during your REM cycle, tossing out information you don’t need and consolidating the data you use more regularly. Even now, when most of my bigger problems have been put to rest and my day to day problems are smaller in size, sometimes the only way to solve an issue is to sleep on it.

This week, I somehow got around to processing a painful experience from a previous job. I was tasked with recreating someone’s work but in a format that was easier to audit and understand. I was given ample time, but the problem was much more complex than it seemed at a high level. Hint: they always are. I delivered it late, but I never heard anything from my manager. He never mentioned anything about it being late, asked why, checked in to see if I needed more help. That’s fine, but I also expected him to be more of a leader than that. He went to great pains to make sure the rest of the team was in check and had the resources they needed, but I was left out in the cold. I never knew he was upset about it until I got my annual review. I knew that I didn’t communicate my struggles and needs, so he wasn’t wrong about my performance. Nevertheless, the pain stuck with me. I was blind-sided, and I felt betrayed. I knew he was taking jabs at me behind my back with other coworkers. For some reason, that popped up this week. I had been thinking about it unconsciously for the past little while, but ultimately it was an unresolved issue that kept hurting me until I dealt with it. If I hadn’t created the space, the peace and quiet at home, creating structured unstructured time, it would have gone on continually hurting me.

“Don’t take it personally.” You hear it all the time, and it isn’t always helpful. “Just get over it.” This advice comes from people who currently aren’t hurt by whatever it is you are complaining about. There’s no empathy there. There’s no understanding that you’re human and that your reaction is understandable. It’s how Barney deals with getting sick:

It’s like when you’re rock- or wall-climbing. You’re supposed to rest the majority of your weight on your legs, but when you’re more experienced, you can use your arm strength and claw-like grip to lift yourself up. People with weaker upper body strength can’t “just do it” compared to someone with more developed abilities. Emotionally, we all have some ability to muscle through whatever is bothering us, and each of us has different strengths for dealing with different emotions. However, the energy to do that eventually runs out, and then suddenly you’re the one that snaps when you least expect it. You can’t always tough it out in every single situation. Since I’ve dealt with a lot of my deeper wounds, I’m less sensitive now. I still have to be aware that everyone has a different level of sensitivity, so I can’t just assume that since I’m okay now, everyone else should be too. People like to say that "time heals all wounds," but that’s not true of trauma.

There was a dead bee laying in our building’s basement. We go down there maybe once or twice a month, depending on what we need to put into or take out of storage. This huge fuzzy bumblebee died and laid itself to rest in the hallway on the way to our storage closet. Now, it’s already a creepy basement with poor lighting and fading architecture, and I was traumatized as a child by a bumblebee. We had this apple tree in our garden, and I went outside to pick an apple to sate my appetite on a hot summer day. I grabbed a juicy apple and bit into it, and as I was walking back to the house, a bee decided to pollinate my ear, which I guess must look like a flower to them. I was stunned for about 5 seconds, then I started freaking out and batting at my ear, shaking my head, screaming, and running inside. Pretty quick series of events, but ever since, I haven’t been able to get rid of the heightened fear whenever I hear a buzzing sound close to my ear. I wasn’t stung or anything, but I simply can’t handle little flies, mosquitoes, and especially yellow bugs like wasps or hornets. Anyhow, seeing that huge fuzzy bee in our storage area triggered that fear. I could have dealt with the trauma directly, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s the biggest worry I have, especially living in the frozen wasteland of Canada. After seeing it about three times over a couple months and reacting the same way every time, freezing up in fear for a second, I decided to remove it. I didn’t have a broom or anything, so I just kicked it with my sandals until it was outside, where the cleaner would remove it that night. Ugh. Gross. Blech. I shudder thinking about it now.

I think trauma leads to addiction, and I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to orange soda. It pulls me into the moment. The bubbles burning, coupled with the sweetness, makes my mouth taste the cold, tingly, citrus nectar. It draws my mind out of the troubles that might be plaguing me from the past or the future. It’s also super warm in our place most of the time, so it’s partly just another way to cool down. There are many things we do to draw our minds into the present, like playing on our phones, watching TV, going to the gym, taking a walk, video games, drinking and smoking. As long as the pain or pleasure is strong enough, it transports our headspace from wherever it currently is towards the present. I’m not drawn by the thrill of gambling in a casino per se, but that feeling still exists inside me, just in different areas. Taking questionable risks, betting on shaky ground, feeling a hot streak. Sometimes it happens when I’m 3D printing a detailed model. Addiction is incredibly complex, and I don’t claim to have much insight into how it works. However, I’m trying to play with ideas in order to get a better grasp on the parameters and impacts of my behaviour. Some nights I can’t sleep until I’ve snacked a bunch and drunk an orange soda. When I get stressed, all I want is a fizzy sugar drink. That can’t be great for my health long term.

Freedom. Why did I go through two years of counselling and let my world fall apart? Why did I go to school? Why do I write? Why do I fight so persistently with Carrie and not give up until we find a resolution? I wanted to be free of the trauma that trapped me, and now I have more control over how I regulate my emotions. I’m free from my family now, whereas I used to feel so poisoned with toxic stress and anxiety when I talked with them. I worked through my PTSD so I could live a normal life. I think addiction and trauma are so interrelated because they both point to a feeling of being stuck, trapped in a cycle. There’s a way to break out of the prison, but it’s really difficult when everything is falling apart at the same time and you can’t catch enough of a break to get ahead. My two most recent examples of creating some room was from a painful experience at work and a traumatic childhood experience with bees. Not only did I need to create space in order see the problems, but I also needed to deal with those emotions in order to create more room. The purpose is to live freely. Now I’m not afraid of going downstairs. I know there won’t be a monster hiding down there to terrorize me. It’s a straightforward mentality dealing with physical wounds, but we tend to ignore our emotional wounds.

It’s a new experience being able to peel away my mind and heart from an emotional situation and to decide whether or not I want to proceed. Being so sensitive before, most overwhelming scenarios would max out my anxiety and stress, and it would take days or weeks just to calm down about it. Now I can negotiate my emotions in the moment. Instead of thinking of a witty comeback three weeks later in the shower, I can come up with a response almost right away (or the day after). It’s a remarkable change. I used to just tell myself positive messages like “don’t let it bother you” or “you’re better than that,” but it never really started working until now. I used to need several hours a day to put my emotions on ice, and as a result, I was completely unavailable to Carrie after a work day. Now I can bounce back much quicker using several coping methods, and I’ll even clean up the home and get ready for bed early instead of simply passing out on the couch. I’m crashing and burning a lot less. Way less boozing. Eating my emotions less. I’m even being proactive and intentional with my free time, figuring out ways to get ahead for tomorrow’s needs. I spend less time feeling confused about what I’m feeling, why, and what to do about it.

I’m functioning better. I’m staying within my window of tolerance more often. Before, my stress would rise quickly and fall slowly, but now it rises slower and falls quicker. I can even avoid stressful situations altogether! Imagine that. Instead of letting my addictive tendencies derail my life, I’m creating balance through sleep. By taking the time to deal with my emotional wounds, I’m free to operate in the ways that I like, such as using my free time to do my chores and run errands. With that free time, I can do whatever I want, like doing nothing at all. That allows me to see new problems, and dealing with those problems creates room so I can sleep or do nothing at all. It’s a healthy cycle. It’s liberating.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le