Long Overdue

I am woefully behind on certain aspects of my life including moderating this discussion forum, and while I hope that is not the case for each of you, I can’t say that it’s all bad…and that’s pretty much what I want to put forth in this topic: functional prioritization when everything seems like it might be too much.

At the core of this topic is what — at least for me — I wouldn’t trade for the world, despite the occasional difficulty. The truth is that I can’t complain about a sometimes overwhelming life. I am fully cognizant of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to be overwhelmed by stresses and triggers and “too much.” There were (and may in the future be) times in my life when that was not the case, when all I could do all day each day was work on keeping my head in one piece. So, I do not intend to complain about my good fortune, but it is a very important part of my daily existence that I be able to gauge when it’s necessary to step back and take a mental inventory of my life so as to keep that life going.

Without dumping it all here (although I probably will in the discussion), let’s suffice it to say that, as I’ve mentioned briefly before, my life has been upended, and I’m hoping the Me that emerges is a more aware and intact me than I’ve ever been. This however takes time and attention.

So, here are the questions: Given the responsibilities — to our loved ones, to our jobs, to our lives, to ourselves — that we are fortunate enough to have, that we’ve worked hard to create, How do you step back when you need to? Are you able to recognize if or when you need to? How do you explain needing to take some time away from your typical activities? Do you try to explain? And, lastly, because my sense of responsibility and obligation has caused rather self-destructive decision making in the past, What happens if you don’t step back when you need to?

As a final note, it seems now would be a good time to remind everyone that you should always feel free to send me topics for discussion. I’ll be happy to post them up for the group.

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12 comments
  1. This post makes me curious what has gone on in your life, so I hope that everything is working out okay, Backward E. About the taking time for yourself: a few months ago I sort of stopped doing some volunteer work with a mental health advocacy group, and it was kind interesting that the people in this group really didn’t seem to understand why when I explained it. I said to one person, “My medications are being adjusted and things are really difficult for me right now”, and expected this person who, for every possible reason could be expected to be sympathetic towards what I said or at least understand what I said, but the person basically stopped talking to me altogether as if to say he was ticked off about it. I then noticed that when I dropped out of the group, it didn’t seem to draw the attention of most of these advocates at all in any way, except for one who I painstakingly talked to about the fact that I was psychotic. I have to say this was kind of offensive. I’ve since gone back to the group, because when I do participate in it I feel like I can have a positive impact on the world, and the people were really nice and welcoming when they saw me again. But they immediately expected me to take up all sorts of duties, even when I said, “I’ve been having a hard time. My medications are being adjusted”, etc. I don’t really understand this behavior, but it seems like the people who have seen me when I was doing well do not possess the ability to understand that I might no longer be doing well and don’t really care to try to understand it much. They just want to know what duties I’ll take on today.

    Another area where this comes up for me is in my family. I have a really dysfunctional family, as I’m sure many of us do. I tend to take on too much worrying about these family members, who are mostly alcoholics which is one of the reasons I worry about them, and it gets to the point that I get physically sick because I am worrying about other people. Right not my brother is in this never-ending crisis mode, and he doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies. It’s hard not to worry about your brother when you care about him and he’s suffering like that. But at the same time, worrying about my brother all the time doesn’t do me any good at all, and never seems to make much of a difference to my brother in the first place because he doesn’t think he needs anybody’s help and doesn’t seem to give a damn how his actions affect others. I try to “detach” though I think that phrase is overused in the twelve step groups and self-help books, because I basically need to survive here, and I’m not going to do that if I devote my life to getting sick worrying about people more than they worry about themselves. I guess, what I am trying to say in response to your question is that sometimes you have to step back from people for your own mental health, and I think it’s okay and even important to do that.

    • said:

      Jen, I think these are two really interesting and rather significant examples of what I was asking about, because in both cases you’re talking about stepping back from things you care about when you realize you have to care about yourself more. And I fully agree that the language of “detachment” doesn’t work — because we don’t fully detach: We still care, we are still committed, but (at least for me) our ability to care and stay committed is compromised unless we can maintain ourselves, right?

      • Yes, I think that’s true. You have to take care of and maintain yourself. I definitely know that for me that has to be the priority over taking care of somebody else, because of that whole things on airplanes where they tell you to breathe into the oxygen mask yourself before you try to help someone else, since you can’t help someone else if you’re dead. So yeah, I definitely get what you’re saying here. I think I tend to be one of those oldest-child-of-alcoholic-family caregiver type people who takes on too much responsibilty for the well-being of others, and sometimes I have to catch that and watch out. After all, I have as many (mental and other) problems as do my family members who I worry about!

  2. erinire said:

    Dude, get out of my head. No, SERIOUSLY. This post is everything I’ve been thinking.

    I’ve been working a lot lately, and by “a lot”, I mean “nonstop” – during the day at a non-profit and during the night at my own company, a video production service. We do mostly weddings, but have had steady business clientele as well. Usually I enjoy working, both at my job as well as for myself, but recently I began to feel it was too much.

    I find myself getting overly emotional about inconsequential things and hyperanalyzing every situation (to my detriment, of course), and even though I can see it happening I sometimes feel powerless to stop it, or to ameliorate things in the short-term.

    I guess I’m still figuring out how I handle it, because I’ve re-typed this paragraph like six times. I think I just try and get by, moment to moment, and do simply what needs to be done. Sometimes it’s something big, like, oh, editing somebody’s wedding ceremony, but sometimes it’s something small, like picking up that goddamn rag that’s been sitting on the porch for three months. Very zen and all, but when I keep doing these concrete things, eventually I feel better. At least for a little while ;)

    • said:

      I hate that rag on the porch. Seriously, I hate it.

      I feel you on the moment-to-moment getting by. (What’s this site’s subtitle?) There are moments when I realize that keeping that going, the dealing with what needs to be done next in order of priority or deadline despite how long the list is without looking beyond that task, is itself overwhelming and perhaps too much. (Most of the time) I can do one thing at a time and eventually the list gets thinner or shorter or more manageable. But then there are times that, without major schedule slashing, I’ll be completely consumed in the enormity of the tasks at hand — when I’m very certain that I’ll never get through it, when I know that unless I undo some of my commitments some major crap will fall through the cracks and one such “major crap” thing might be me. Maybe what I’m getting at (and I haven’t written my contribution to the discussion yet) is that the “just getting things done and getting by moment to moment” thing isn’t always sustainable…and I’ve been alive long enough to kinda know myself these days, and if I think it might not be sustainable, then odds are that I’m right.

  3. Alan Smithee said:

    How do you step back when you need to? Are you able to recognize if or when you need to?

    I don’t know really. I think a lot of times I am not choosing to step back, but it’s something animal in me that makes me do certain things: stop answering the phone, sleeping too much, calling in sick to work– I don’t WANT to do these things, I just start doing them when it’s too much.

    How do you explain needing to take some time away from your typical activities? Do you try to explain?
    Sometimes I try to explain, depending on the person who is involved. If it’s someone I trust. I usually say, I’ve been really depressed. So I haven’t been able to answer the phone/call you back/get out of bed/shower/ make plans. I usually would rather not have to go there.

    And, lastly, because my sense of responsibility and obligation has caused rather self-destructive decision making in the past, What happens if you don’t step back when you need to?
    I become a very unlikable person. I meltdown.

    • said:

      Christ. I didn’t even think about the possibility of your first answer when I wrote these questions…crap. I so know that one, the “It’s not so much that I’m conscientiously and consciously stepping back, so much that I’m really just dropping the ball out of some subconscious necessity to save myself from that stress right now.” And while I didn’t think of it…it’s precisely the reason why I have been aware that I’ve stepped back from some things (and linked to the sustainability issue I just wrote about in response to Erinire): because if I don’t step back, my survival will depend on me dropping the ball…

      …and then I hate myself for that.

      • erinire said:

        Yes, there’s always the line between dropping the ball and DROPPING the BALL, or feeling like you’re doing one when you’re actually doing the other.

  4. said:

    I suppose I should start with the fact that the last few months have been characterized with more self-awareness and being-good-to-myself-ness than I can last remember…precisely because I really do want to emerge from this time better than I had been.

    My husband moved out in August, and we’re working toward official divorce. If that weren’t enough of a life change, in the last couple months I’ve started a new job…without having left my other job, so there’s that extra stress on my plate. (Seriously, though, the added funds are pretty important when you start carrying all the bills yourself and need to get divorced.) There are other pretty large changes, but those two might be the quickest to explain. Suffice it to say that I’m in an emotionally charged period of transition. I’ve had enormous support coupled with enormous amounts of soul-searching.

    In very practical terms, sometimes all I need to step back and get some breathing room is adjust my obligations to fit a more realistic timeline. Times like now just require attention and energy, and as a result things I can normally do quickly just don’t get done so fast…and I try to be upfront with when people can expect stuff from me. Beyond that it’s really tricky. I suck at saying No. I suck at explaining. I mean, this is the first time in my life that I could just say something like “I’m going through a divorce” rather than wondering what would happen if I said, “I’m a little psychotic right now.” But the feeling is similar…I know that the emotional charge of my life’s changes can trigger me if I’m not careful and so making the adjustment is necessary…but I don’t always know how to do it. Deadlines are not always up to me and slacking on a new job is not an option…so it is sometimes just a matter of prioritizing and holding off on things I care about but really can’t responsibly (i.e. in such a way that holds me responsible to myself) do. The result of not stepping back is usually catastrophic…and historically my MO. I will go about trying to get shit done on a moment-to-moment basis without a long-term plan for dealing with everything that needs to be dealt with (c.f what I wrote in response to Erinire’s comment), I will eventually drop the ball on something when I can’t sustain that (c.f. what I wrote in response to Alan’s comment), and that’s when the trouble starts…

    What I tend to repeatedly call “dropping the ball” usually means letting something important slip through the cracks, which I then have to find some way of (re)covering, which leads to worrying about answering the questions about why or how that something important didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way it was supposed to, which leads to varying degrees of hiding the fact that it was my fault or hiding from the responsibility I couldn’t rise to because I couldn’t explain that I needed some time for myself and my MI, which leads to more worry and more hiding until the next thing I know I’m legitimately paranoid and worrying about things that don’t require worry and hiding from things that I’m making up. Yeah, allowing myself to get to a point where I drop the ball is pretty much always bad…and I’m trying hard this time to not get there.

    • I hope that the divorce is a positive change for you and improves your life in the long-run (which I’m guessing it will otherwise you probably wouldn’t be doing it), and that it ends up benefiting you, even though I know it must be really hard to go through at the moment. I am always worried about dropping the ball, but like Alan Smithee said, sometimes I find myself curled up in my bed not functioning (heh.) and it’s not a coincidence even though it’s not planned and doesn’t seem to be being done out of a conscious choice in the matter. It’s just a survival mechanism, I think. This is exactly the way that I dropped out of that advocacy group for months and stopped volunteering, as I was mentioning in my first comment to this post. It just sort of stopped being something I did; I didn’t really plan on not doing, but I couldn’t do it. Sometimes the world gets more narrow and you have to focus on the basic survival stuff too much to care whether or not (or be able to care whether or not) you do well in other aspects of life. This is normal for people in general, I think. So sometimes, you might “drop the ball” in some areas since the most vital areas are taking up all of your energy and will power, while the non-vital areas are more of the optional variety. If that makes sense.

  5. erinire said:

    I kind of stopped reading after the first sentences – having been through (going through, whatever) divorce, having been through (going through, whatever) a total life change, having been through (going through, whatever) the constant juggling act needed to maintain relative sanity WHILE going through divorce and total life change (yup), please feel like you can reach out to me. Would be a pleasure to chat. You’ve got my info, right?

  6. Meredith said:

    ok, my turn, I guess. This (Define Functioning and other blogs) is a ball I drop the most frequently but one that can really help the most. Hmmmm. WTF?
    First, Jen, I find it amazing that people act like that, but I also find it very common. Sucky. I’ve been in a support group where the people who ran it had to stop. It was scary, like changing therapists. And I’ve been in a group where the main person I want to see decides to stop coming. :( But those of us with enough self-awareness and whatever else it takes can see that those people are doing what they need to do…it is not about us.

    I changed my meds in the summer and I cannot tell anymore if my issues are due to that, teenager parenting, an almost 10-yr relationship and where does that go, money, or perimenopause. With that, everything becomes too much very quickly. I take naps. I’m getting better about knowing when I need one and they are usually 20-minute naps. perfect.

    One of the biggest things that overwhelms me and I’m finally speaking up about it is related to parenting. My son pushes the buttons so far out of the ballpark, I have to stay on top of him constantly. I have my wife to help be the watchdog as he and I are usually on separate floors. But sometimes, she will tell me something as I’m talking with him. She holds me accountable. I like the idea of it, but holding him accountable is such a full-time job, I get tired. I get tired of hearing his crap come back at me when he doesn’t want to do something. I get tired of having to ask him to do something 5 times in a few days. And I get tired when my wife tells me he did something yet again that he wasn’t supposed to. So I have to go into the ring again. It’s overwhelming and it makes me make too many decisions. I have to take that on a case-by-case basis with my wife. I’ve talked to her about certain incidents but I don’t really want her to stop all of it because I can’t see all of what he does. It’s sucky.

    Luckily I have mostly my wife and children to answer to and they know the crazy of it all. So when I need to step back, I can, and they get it. I’m lucky that way.

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