Moving On

We’re managing really well these days, and it’s mostly because of my down time. It may not look like we’re thriving, but we are. Most of our recent financial challenges are behind us now, we’re showing up for our friends and family, we’re getting enough sleep, we’re eating well, we’re getting out and partying with our friends plenty. We haven’t moved the line much on our debt, but we stopped it from growing, a worthy accomplishment on its own. To the untrained eye, it may look like we’re leading a fairly normal life, but we’re accomplishing quite a lot with what we have. Sometimes we’re tempted to just cut back on enjoying ourselves, like not partying two or three nights a weekend, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t really help us long term. People also get really caught up on the fact that Carrie makes most of the money while I make so little working part-time. We’re non-traditional. We do what we want. I work full time, but I only get paid for about half of it. Being a house spouse is a job too, but like Ali Wong says, there are no coworkers and I don’t get investment matching for my retirement.

Lately, I’ve been trying to quantify how much nothing I need to do every day. Not all down time is made equal. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and sleep. Other times, I’ll let my thoughts roam and wander. Deep breathing is key too, which does something to my parasympathetic nervous system and lets the rest of my body know that everything is going to be okay. It’s almost like I’m wrestling myself every morning, and I win by slamming my body onto the couch or bed and staring out the windows at the sky. I wouldn’t quite call it meditation, which I understand to be quite focused. My down time is usually aimless and wandering. Sometimes it’s five minutes at a time peppered throughout the day. Other times it’s a single session for multiple hours. People tell me it takes quite a bit of discipline to do, which never really occurred to me. I get that it’s hard to get around to it, but the word “discipline” has come up three times now. I’ll have to unpack that eventually. In my mind, the benefits are so clear that it’s crucial. Non-negotiable. Both our lives right now are hinging on me taking down time. I’m so busy that I urgently need to do a lot of nothing. When my anxiety pushes me to do too much and I don’t know how to proceed, I lie down. I’ll only get up once it becomes clear how to proceed. An important milestone once I’m laying there is feeling like I’m returning to my true self. It’s like I snap back to reality. That’s partly why I’m not writing so much these days. I’m not so mixed up emotionally, so doing nothing is often a better use of my time than writing. I can’t write unless I create space by doing nothing. Half an hour a day seems pretty good. I stop when I get bored. This practice is all based on the underlying assumption that I’m always trying to do too much, so if that ever changes, then this system stops working. An hour a day is a fine goal. Half an hour a day seems attainable, though each day is so different that an average is practically meaningless.

Money is still kinda tight. I don't like to be stingy because it's usually a short-term improvement that costs us again in the medium-long term, but it's hard to argue when you need to squeeze every dollar. Considering our cash flow is pretty decent, we resort to penny pinching a surprising amount. These past few months, we’ve made a lot of behavioural changes like cooking more, using what we have, saying no to new purchases, cutting our grocery bills, checking insurance plans and details so we can maximize our benefits. There was a point where I had become so fixated on activities like skipping snacks at work to save money that I started to lose sight and feel discouraged. It didn’t really feel like we were moving the needle in any meaningful way, and then randomly one day, Carrie asked how much I weighed. I hadn’t stepped on the scale for months because I made a decision a while ago to stop focusing on getting healthier, so I thought it was pointless to check. Alas, after ignoring my weight for a couple months, I lost 10 pounds! I haven’t weighed this little since 2014. That was a nice feeling. I’m not even really that unhappy with the way I look or feel, but it showed that we had made some progress somewhere. Looking at our budget as well, we’ve cut a ton of costs and made much smarter purchases, and every little bit counts. Sometimes we treat ourselves to candy or a bag of chips, but I think that’s okay.

There are lots of ways where I’m not fully healthy. There was a time where I stopped everything just so I could focus on working on myself, which I refer to as The Struggle, but nowadays I have to move on and manage things along the way. Here are some of those things I have to manage.

I’m still more extrinsically motivated than I’d like to be; that is, I seek external validation more than I think is healthy. I’m taking better care of my body, but I’m doing it for other people’s approval. I exfoliate, moisturize, and groom mostly because I want to look better to others. It’s not because I care about taking better care of myself and to live longer and to nourish my skin because it’s my largest organ and needs so much care to continue functioning. I want to have a very muscular build, even though I’m not going to the gym right now. I think it’s normal and healthy to want to improve our appearance to be more appealing to others, but I know the way I’m motivating myself now is not sustainable or ideal. I’ve kept it a little too real in the past, which wasn’t great either because I would feel bad about my appearance. It’s currently not a balanced mix of doing it for myself and others. There are some areas now where I’m solely doing it for external validation, so even if I have some work to do here, it’s not so severe that I have to pause my life to work on it.

Anxiety. Right now I picture how much energy it would take an emotionally healthy person to perform a task, and then I imagine that I have some 10-15% tax on it that makes it harder for me. Sometimes I have to check information a dozen times. Whenever I start or end anything, I like to take my sweet precious time to transition smoothly between activities. Take laundry as an example. I’m very particular about the order in which I perform certain chores. I like to have all the dirty clothes with me, already separated into different loads. Then I start the water, grab the detergent, open the laundry machine lid, put in the detergent, close the lid, put the detergent away, open the lid again, put the clothes in, close it again. I like for the detergent to disperse in the water so that it’s more gentle on the clothes, and it takes some time for the water to fill up enough to spread it around. That doesn’t seem too different from other people’s laundry routines, but the trouble comes in when I curse myself for doing things out of order. Sometimes I toss the clothes in, start the machine, then grab the detergent. No, that doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I want to start the machine before gathering up the clothes. No. I yell at myself, and then I have to step backwards to start over again. That’s my anxiety requiring extra control of my behaviour because I have too much fear around doing it wrong. This goes for other things like making coffee, cooking, cleaning, my morning routine, traveling. The anxiety tells me that there will be life-altering consequences if I do things in the wrong sequence, but even if I know in my head that those fears are patently false, I can’t always fight the voice. You know you’re not supposed to scratch those mosquito bites, but sometimes you have to, even if it causes more bleeding or damage to the skin. It just feels good to give in sometimes, and that’s how I live with anxiety. I can’t fight it all the time, so I have to take it along for the ride.

I also have this pervading feeling of defeat, of brokenness. There were multiple large battles that I fought during The Struggle where I feel that I mostly came out on top, but you can’t help but take some painful blows during a war. Nowadays I can barely raise my hands in protest when I know I should. I can’t even haggle or barter for simple things like buying and selling secondhand items. Right now I just hope and pray that conflict doesn’t come my way because I know I won’t win the fight. I have so little energy that I categorize most conflicts as “not worth the trouble.” That isn’t to say that I can’t or don’t fight back at all. I do, but only on essentials. I still have to hold a really hard line with my family of origin because sometimes they try to contact me even though they haven’t changed. I’ve blocked or filtered them from most possible means of ingress, but they still come knocking despite not doing the work I need them to do. Every once in a while I’ll miss them too and think to reach out. Then I have to give my head a shake and cuss myself out. That doesn’t leave much nerve or audacity to haggle over $20 with someone from Kijiji. It also takes a lot of risk to keep an open posture. Not just a physical one, but an emotional, mental one, an attitude of openness to the possibilities left in life. It’s easier for me to be bitter, to feel betrayed and think that the world owes me. It’s also a dark and lonely place that isolates me from the goodness and joy in my everyday experience. I used to live in a perpetual pity party, and it only feels good for a short while. I think the only way I can respond to injustice and pain is through art. I have to talk, write, and dance it out. Retaliation isn’t the answer, tempting and satisfying as it is. All these things leave me feeling too drained to sweat the small stuff, so I have to keep on.

I’m still very much traumatized. I still have these vivid moments of dissociation where I visualize myself in grave danger when there is clearly nothing threatening me in that moment. I’ll walk around the corner, and I’ll imagine that someone is lurking there, ready to stab me to death, and I have to figure out a way to defend myself and disarm them. Sometimes I’ll host these ridiculous arguments in my head, where my opponent randomly comes up to me and shouts obscenities, somehow knowing all my weaknesses and saying everything I would hate to hear about myself. I know those are echoes of my family, taking logically absurd stances in shouting matches just to get their way. That’s not really going away, and as far as I can tell, I would need to go back to see a therapist in order to settle some of that stuff. Is that PTSD? I’m functioning, but functioning, or even succeeding, isn’t ideal given the news of people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It’s possible to be successful and have mental health issues. To be confused about that is like wondering how successful people can still break their bones. That’s what I focused on mostly during The Struggle, disarming the trauma so that I could carry on with a “normal” life, like having a job and maintaining my marriage. It’s not all gone, but it’s at a level where I can keep an eye on it week by week.

Obsessive cleaning. I never really knew it was a problem, but when I was in counselling, I would have to fill out surveys (also called scales) every four sessions so they could track my progress. One of the questions asked if I washed my hands too much, which I thought was a bit odd, but I figured they probably had a good reason to ask. Fast forward to reading the book on “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families” these past months. They mention that obsessive cleaning is a byproduct of dysfunctional families, needing to control your environment when you’re feeling uncomfortable. I tend to hate getting things on my hands. I hate washing dishes, I don’t like wearing my wedding or engineering rings, I hate putting wax in my hair, and I tend to wash my hands a lot throughout the day. I’m not quite OCD, as I understand it to be quite debilitating, but it’s probably another symptom of my anxiety. From a moral stance, there could be an aspect of feeling guilty and wanting to wash the sins from my hands. From a biological perspective, the hands are one of the most interconnected body parts with the brain, so they’re a pretty good indicator of what’s going on in the old noodle. When I wash my hands with the expensive, smooth, and fragrant lemongrass self-foaming hand soap, it allows me to wring my hands together, which is one of those behaviours you associate with people who are terribly worried. This area probably deserves its own treatment, so I’m not really gonna work on it for now.

To keep balance, I party a lot. Even though I talk a lot about feeling the squeeze with money, we have a big line item in our budget reserved for going out with friends, boozing, and traveling to and from parties. It doesn’t look like it should fit into the overall priority of saving money, but this is how I live my best life. I work hard, I play hard. I work full time like everyone else, but I only get paid about 20 hours a week. House spousing ain’t easy. Partying is necessary, and apparently I’m not slowing down even though I’m an old man.

When in doubt, it’s better for me to be safe than sorry. I take the lower risk option. We’re currently committed to getting Carrie through this next year to become fully registered. Trouble’s gonna find me regardless, so I need to do what I can to not find any more. The trade-off when I take the safer route is that I sacrifice potential gains. It’s hard for me to choose to be less efficient in the moment, but with everything on my plate at the moment, things are more efficient in the grand scheme.

Now that I’m embracing being a house spouse, housework is more liberating and fun than it used to be. Feels weird to even say that. I take pride in my work, which enables me and Carrie to work a lot and party so hard. It allows us to show up for the important people in our lives. I know my purpose in doing such menial tasks, which makes it more fulfilling. I’m sure it’ll get old again with time, but it’s interesting feeling so rejuvenated by chores by dedicating myself to this supporting role. I’m having a lot of fun with our new dishwasher, which will require an entire blog post of its own. I’m surprised at myself for enjoying housework so much now that I’m embracing being a house spouse. It restores me.

If I’m not working on my problems so much, what am I doing with all that extra space I’m creating?

After months of doing nothing each morning, it feels safe to start processing The Fiasco. I had to pause the emotional processing about a year ago, but now that I’ve quieted my life down again, I realized that it was safe to engage in it again. It’s very densely layered, mixing in shame, sadness, self-hatred, self-esteem, betrayal, trauma, all the hits. Thus, there’s a lot of repetition while I process it. I have to just keep revisiting the thoughts and feelings, and slowly they’ll fade out of existence as I bleed them dry by letting myself feel overwhelmed for a short time every day. An important aspect for me to experience is letting my body feel the pain. It’s not simply a mental exercise. It’s a full body experience, feeling tingly all around my arms and neck, down my back. Tuning in to the alarm bells that have been ringing in my head ever since. It’s a delayed reaction, but you can’t delay it forever. I used to think it was so terrible when I would lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and all sorts of embarrassing memories would pop up in my mind, out of the blue. Now I understand that to be my brain releasing some of the unnecessary emotions bottled up inside, which creates room and capacity for future potential. Pain is weakness leaving the body, and now it’s time for The Fiasco to stop taking up so much space in my body. It’s different from wallowing in my pain. It’s not the same as marinating my brain with toxic emotions. It’s about slowly releasing these powerful feelings in a sustainable way so that I can gradually open myself up to the randomness of life in the present and future. I’m letting go of the past in a way that doesn’t make me crumble. Suppose for a second that I had been able to go to therapy years ago before I actually did. Then maybe the pain wouldn’t have overlapped so much with Carrie’s schooling, which was a challenge enough on its own. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to quit my job unexpectedly. That’s what I’m trying to avoid in the future. We have many challenges to address, like having kids eventually, moving into a new home at some point, and who knows what. If so much of my emotional capacity is tied up with The Fiasco, then I won’t be able to adjust to the wild mood swings of this world.

With some urgent bills behind us, we’re settling down and getting things sorted out. Budgeting, taking down time, having lots of fun, and even unpacking The Fiasco. This time around, I’m able to sustainably approach my own form of recovery, and part of that means living with whatever is “wrong” with me. I’m still anxious, traumatized, defeated. Carrie will be provisional for another year, which means we can’t take big risks right now. Therefore, instead of stopping everything to address some of my trouble areas, I’m moving on, and it hinges on me doing nothing for as long as possible.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le