In Troubled Times: Numbing Out

I have long understood the dangers and seductions of overwork. I’ve frequently coped with stress by balancing my checkbook or going over budget figures. Or reading and replying to every single email in my Inbox. It needn’t be intellectual work: scrubbing bathrooms or reorganizing closets works just fine. All these things involve attention to detail and (to one degree or another) restoring a sense of order to an otherwise capricious and chaotic world. I come by it honestly; when I was growing up, I saw my parents, my father in particular, plunge into work in response to the enormous problems our family faced. He and I are by no means unique. We live in a culture that values work above personal life and outward productivity over inner sensitivity.

“Work” doesn’t have to result in a measurable output. Anything that demands attention (preferably to the exclusion of all else) will do. Reading news stories or following social media accomplish the same objective and have the same result: they put our emotions “on hold.”

As I’ve struggled to detach from the waves of upsetting news, I have noticed an increased tendency in myself to overwork. It occurs to me that I reach for those activities in a very similar way other folks might reach for a glass of liquor or a pack of cigarettes (or things less legal). Or exercising to exhaustion, or any of the many things we do to excess that keep us from feeling. There’s a huge difference between the need to take a  breather from things that distress us and using substances or activities in a chronic, ongoing fashion to dampen our emotional reactions. The problem is that when we do these things, we shut off not only the uncomfortable feelings (upset, fear, etc.) but other feelings as well.

The challenge then becomes how to balance the human desire for “time-out” from the uncertainties and fears of the last few weeks and not numbing out. In my own experience, the process of balancing begins with awareness of what tempts me, whether I indulge in it or not. Is it something that can be good or bad, depending on whether I do it to excess? (Exercise, for example.) Or something best avoided entirely? (Some forms of risk-taking behavior, like unprotected sex with strangers.) If it can be both a strength and a weakness, how do I tell when enough is enough, or what a healthy way to do this is?

When is it time to run away (to Middle Earth, to a night club, to answering every single Tweet) and when is it time to come back? Am I able to extricate myself or do I need external help (an alarm clock, a family member)?

What about getting creative with escapes? Instead of binge-watching Stranger Things, how about taking the dog for a long hike and then watching one episode? A bubble bath instead of a drink? Calling a trusted friend before clicking on FaceBook?

Finally, a word on being gentle with ourselves. No matter how resourceful and conscious I am, I’m going to slip. That’s part of human nature. All these numbing escapes work, and that means not only will we reach for them, we’ll keep doing them. Will power alone isn’t enough to break us out of a session that’s gone on way too long (or that fourth drink or second pack of cigarettes). Some days we’ll do better than others. So it’s important to be kind to ourselves and others. We’re all coping with a difficult time, sometimes in healthier ways than others. Beating ourselves up for spending too much time playing video games won’t stop us the next time we reach for the console: it will only give us one more thing to escape from. One of the most helpful things I’ve done is to talk to others about what’s going on with me. If I notice my eyes and shoulders are screaming at me from too many hours staring at a computer screen, that’s a great opening for a conversation. I can ask for a friendly ear, whether I want advice or not. Commiseration and sharing of our different experiences – our failures as well as our successes – makes me more likely to try something else.

What escapes appeal to you particularly these days? Are they healthy (or can they be, if indulged with moderation)? How do you handle occasions of excess? What helps you to stay in touch with your feelings, or to come back to them after a break?

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In Troubled Times: Numbing Out — 7 Comments

  1. This is something that’s working well for us, at least for the moment.

    As the night begins to wind down, I make a big pot of chamomile tea for both of us.

    We retire to bed with the tea.

    The computers are closed. There’s no music playing.

    We read aloud from an old book (published in the early 1950’s) of Merovingian history. For some reason all those varieties of Goths, etc., their names, our pathetic attempts to pronounce them, all the untranslated vulgar latin, old German, old French, begins to give us the giggles. This builds until there are entire minutes in which we’re guffawing and being extraordinarily politically incorrect with languages and words with which we are unfamiliar. It’s all safe. It’s the gddmned 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th centuries for pete’s sake!

    Also wouldn’t you guffaw at the story of how this family became ‘special’ — because one day this woman went to a pond in the forest and met a quinotaur — a mythical sea creature whose head is sort of like a bull with 5 horns — mentioned only in the chronicles of Fredegar, that bitch for the Merovingians, until he primly withdrew his approval for those of the generation among whom he actually lives and knows? Not, of course that the author of this out-of-date scholarship phrased any of it that way, I must haste to add!

    [ “The Quinotaur (Lat. Quinotaurus) is a mythical sea creature mentioned in the 7th century Frankish Chronicle of Fredegar. Referred to as “bestea Neptuni Quinotauri similis”,[1] (the beast of Neptune which resembles a Quinotaur) it was held to have fathered Meroveus by attacking the wife of the Frankish king Chlodio and thus to have sired the line of Merovingian kings.” ]

    • That’s lovely. My husband has been immersed in English history. He doesn’t like to read aloud, but the three of us — he, me, and the elder of my grown daughters now living with us — have begun meditating together for 15-20 minutes before bedtime.

      • I love hearing that you, your husband and daughter meditate together.

        Right before bed is excellent too. We have to cut all that off — as we are still privileged enough to be able to do it!, though for how much longer? — so we can sleep and recharge ourselves.

        For us, with no mission whatsover, socially, politically, academically, professionally, the Merovingians are actually escapism — especially as these old books of scholarship don’t translate anything, so we get to skip lots of parts. And laugh. 🙂

        I’ve made it an absolute rule in our house no news, no anything of this nature after 8:30 PM. Himself is a basketcase and obsessed. He’s starting to be better since I became 100% bitch and instituted this kind of regime. Whatever we read doesn’t matter — as long as it isn’t — as he tried one night — about the tactics of fascistic takeover of governments and so on. NO!

  2. I used to make bobbin lace. Arthritis in the hands and dimming eye-sight make it difficult now. But for many years I could give a project my total concentration. A special light that highlighted a small circle of thread and pins. Making the ultimate dot to dot picture with thread, the dots being about a millimeter apart. 1 square inch an hour.

    I’d emerge as if I’d been in deep meditation.

    Now I just avoid watching any news, especially the late broadcast just before bed. I may not be as well informed as I’d like to be, but I am less anxious and more interested in going about my daily activities. I do scan the headlines of the local stations online.

    • I’m looking for ways to cut down on news exposure without total disengagement. Bedtime is a particularly dangerous time, yes!

      I knit, but usually watch a DVD while I do it. Call the Midwife is particularly good at the moment.

  3. An hour or so long walk on a winding trail along a local rolling creek does it for me. But I realize that not everyone has such facilities at hand – as an alternative I recommend just going outside to observe the ‘real’ goings-on for at least half an hour, if you can.

  4. Actually, I do, but the rains have been so heavy it hasn’t been possible to hike along my favorite trails. This, too, shall pass. Thanks for the reminder!