The Deception of Keeping Busy

Creative Commons Photo by Maria Shanina

Creative Commons Photo by Maria Shanina

I’ve spent the past two days in bed- dizzy, nauseous, feverish, and angry that I can’t work.  I’ve had these symptoms since Saturday night when I woke up at 2am in a sweat about a specific bill I had forgotten about.  I had class and a great family event the next day, so I chose to ignore the waves of exhaustion and the way the room spun when I stood up, and journeyed on in spite of it all.  By Sunday night I was asking Ben if he ever felt like his bones didn’t fit together properly, and he rightly suggested I stay home from work.

So I took a day off.  For my mind, right?  I’m not really sick!  I’m invincible!  And clearly due to my lack of auditioning and lack of blog writing, I couldn’t possibly be doing enough.  So I should probably do things all day.  Which I did, and so I got sicker.  I woke up Monday night with a higher fever, more nausea, and the determination to make it subside before work in the morning.  So I went in and lasted a whole two hours.  I finally got the hint and planted myself, against my urge to “make the most of my time,” and binge-watched Rectify until the sun went down.  Ben magically appeared with an array of soups that evening, and I started to make the climb toward health.

The room still spins but I’m back at my desk.  I couldn’t stay home again, I was losing my marbles.  I haven’t had that much time without structure since the freelancing days.  And I know what you might be thinking, “I would LOVE time off like that!” But it’s a funny thing –when you’re moving along with this many projects, and you suddenly are suddenly rendered incapable of focusing on ANY of them, where does your mind go?  I felt so out of it I could barely read, so that cuts out pretty much all of my usual activities.

What remained were the very basic tasks I flock toward when I am not keeping my ducks in a line:  Netflix, exercising and….social media.  Exercising was out of the question and watching too much Rectify makes you super sad, so that left Facebook.  It turns out, that in between tasks, my hand goes right for my phone to scroll through the various news feeds until I am ready to move on to something else.  So in these two days, I learned two things:

  1. I have forgotten how to completely shut off.
  2. Too much Facebook/twitter/instagram scrolling changes the story in my mind.

And by the “story”, I mean the voice that fills us in on where we think we stand in life.  When I get up and go to work, go to class, learn my lines, read a book, or even watch a tv show, the “story” is supportive, it’s active and positive.  When I get scrolling, it’s passive and often negative.  I start comparing, judging, and projecting.  Or better yet, I put something out there, and wait for something to come back.  I act and I expect an answer.  I don’t hate social media, not in the least, and I know there is a way to use without going into this dark headspace.  And yet when social media is all that fills the “in-between” spaces, who do I become?  The option for every moment of the day becomes: DO something, or passively react to what your friends are doing.

I have been trying to get to the bottom of why I burn out every several months.  Some months I really get writing and submitting for shows, I truly get on a roll.  Suddenly, I face plant into a wall of “I hate writing and theatre and cooking and everything ever good night.”  I sleep it off, write a blog post about what I learned, and start the cycle over.  But why does this happen?  And where is it getting me?

This time around, now that I am coming out of a recent burnout, I am going to focus on the space in between.  Where does my mind and energy go when I am not in the middle of a task?  Do I fill in the time with frustration and judgement?  Or do I fill it in with silence and rest?  Also, do I feel the need to receive something in return for these moments-  such as likes, views, or comments.

I always find it hilarious when people make comments about artists being lazy or trying to get out of the “real life responsibilities.”  I have never met a group of people less likely to give themselves the gift of mental space.  It’s the gift to do something with no outcome- maybe you are literally sitting and watching the leaves blow.  You have no tangible reward, project, paycheck, resume line, article topic, or Facebook post to contribute that moment to- you’re simply just sitting and watching the damn leaves blow.  But it’s hard when you know that you are in a business deeply effected by personal growth.  If you learn something by watching the leaves blow, you want to latch on to it and share it with the world.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but then, are we watching the leaves blow simply to find something to contribute?  Ah!  We’ll drive ourselves insane.

So my challenge for myself, and for you if you relate, is to choose a “non-activity” with no outcome.  Something unplanned, for five minutes (amount really doesn’t matter), just to do something without expectation, judgement, or the need to share it online.  Go for a walk (without your fitbit), eat some chocolate, have some tea, pet a cat!  The irony is that taking these moments and adding them up may actually improve your mental health in the long run, but thinking about that may defeat the purpose of the exercise.  So I’m putting down my phone, going for a walk, and I am not going to return with pictures or a post about how it went.  I’m just going to go watch the damn leaves blow.

A Day of Rest and a Pot of Soup

photo-1421338443272-0dde2463976a

I woke up this morning feeling more exhausted than I’ve been in months.  Perhaps it’s from finally letting my guard down after several hard weeks, or just too many days in a row of running around, but my body is done.  I went to the grocery store this morning and literally crashed my shopping cart in every special arrangement of crackers and organic dish soap that the employees so nicely and precariously stacked in the center of the aisles.  The real challenge was the epic tower of toilet paper rolls, already half knocked over that I knew would be the end of me.  I decided against that aisle.  This was also in the yuppy part of town, so I felt like all the little rich ladies in their Lululemon outfits, shopping for cinnamon scented centerpieces, were watching me careen into the stacks of sale items with delight.  By the time I made it to the cashier, and made her listen to how sleepy I was, I decided I needed to put myself back to bed.

Too tired to sleep

I am notoriously terrible at letting myself rest.  Usually, I run at full force for several months until I hit a day like today.  It’s been an eventful several months – the move to Montclair, my new job, the growth of this blog, and just a general new outlook on where I am headed.  It’s great.  On the other hand, it took a solid five months to feel like we could spend a dime without guilt.  And Friday marked the long-awaited day where our meticulous budget finally stated that we had caught up.  We went out yesterday and had dinner in the city for the first time since we moved.  A real dinner- one where you don’t look at the clock or have a heart attack over the prices of the appetizers.  No we didn’t go wild or anything, but we had a long, Italian, “let’s get dessert” kind of meal.  And it was glorious.  I felt like we had made it to the end of the race.  My body feels a bit different.

After the grocery store fiasco, I laid in bed for two hours, incapable of getting my mind off everything that was still on my things-to-do list.  I have a poster to design, a book to read, a play outline to complete, a blog post to write.  I had planned to vacuum, to go for a run, to finally weed the garden.  And yet I couldn’t do anything.  I couldn’t even sleep.

The stigma of rest

The other night, I had a dream that I was being chased by a giant Indiana-Jones-esque boulder.  Every time I tried to relax, a giant boulder would roll up the driveway of this dream house and threaten to attack the everyone inside.  It seemed to have some sort of tracking system.  Also, Bush was on the radio talking to the country about how to deal with the boulders.  Apparently it was a national problem, and he was still our president- both adding to the nightmare.  Either way, while I laid in bed today thinking about my list, I felt like the boulders were chasing me again.  As if the moment I let me guard down and actually just took a nap, I might be squashed by one of my forgotten tasks.

Luckily, I came across this Elephant Journal Article, that brought me back to earth a bit.  It was perfectly timed and allowed me to think about “rest” a little bit differently. Because no matter how hard I try, I am never going to be great at sleeping through the day or watching the hours pass while binge watching Gilmore Girls.  My guilt is a powerful thing.

Personal Nourishment

So I began thinking about what actually feels restful to me:

  1. Writing- hence this blog post
  2. Cleaning the floors- weird, I know, but for some reason I feel much better about the world after sweeping
  3. Making soup- currently in the slow cooker.  I was so sleepy, I’m even following a recipe!

I am currently sitting on our side porch, writing this and watching the bubbles float by that our 8-year old neighbor is making in the next backyard.  Our soup has another two hours and the floors are clean.  I still feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, but I’m much happier taking in this chilly calming day outside than laying in bed feeling like my list will is waiting for me as I get up.

My point?  I think it’s important to find your specific way of resting.  If all our other daily activities are unique to our personalities, then our methods of rejuvenation can be as well.  The important thing is to strike the balance between rest and nourishment.  If a Gilmore Girls binge-fest is what brings you back to life, then that’s important.  For others, it’s chopping vegetables and setting up shop in the porch with tea, a blanket and a blog.

Our things to do list will be there tomorrow.  Without rest, those things will only be done poorly anyway.  And after a day of rejuvenation, they will look much less like boulders.