Does an afternoon of quiet relaxation in a cafe with a journal, a sketchpad, a kindle, and some hot chocolate sound like bliss to you?
More importantly, does it actually yield bliss for you?
Because I have learned that the gulf between “sounds like” and “is” is about as wide as the gulf between my perception of time and everyone else’s.
For the past two weeks, I have had improv rehearsals in the morning and improv shows in the evening. This would be easier if I still lived in the same city as the theater, but the simple convenience of being able to easily commute home between events wasn’t ultimately worth years of ridiculous rent increases once I changed jobs. Even being ridiculous like I was the first week and taking the
train shuttle bus that replaces the train during trackwork there and back again twice in one day so I could spend at least a few hours at home, I am almost ashamed to admit how much money I’m saving by living in my new zip code. Yes, we should have moved years ago. But, umm, the world fell apart for a bit?
But, I will admit that – while it wasn’t a financially ridiculous idea – the prospect of four train trips in one day for a second weekend in a row began to feel a little time management ridiculous after one of my teammates extolled the many virtues of having multiple uninterrupted hours on his “improv” day to simply grab his laptop and book, head to his particular favorite local cafe, and while away the hours reading and writing as another form of “me time” and “self-care” (alongside improv, which is also for him not a career but just a way to destress from a corporate job.)
When put that way, it sounds almost impossibly romantic, doesn’t it? Spend what I spent the previous weekend on train fares on some allergy-safe biscottis, coffee, and hot chocolate** sitting by the cafe’s very prominent open fireplace. Bring a sketchbook, some colored pencils, a journal, and a kindle. Meditate for a bit in front of another form of fire that is actually relaxing because I’m not responsible for it, and then simply fill the rest of the day with self-care, secure in the knowledge that the snow outside and the three-day weekend meant there really isn’t anything else I should be doing. Sounds amazing, right?
Except for that small bit where I’m ADHD, dissociative enough to have to keep a reality journal to make sure I don’t lose track of time and brain foggy in general. My executive functioning does not know the meaning of “time” – and is terrified of its own time blindness?!
Add onto the already too-long list of side effects of being dissociative for most of my life as a survival mechanism the fact that I will, apparently, panic when left for too long in what non-traumatized teammates find a lovely, relaxing controlled form of “whiling away” (aka “losing track of” as far as my brain is convinced!) time like spending all afternoon in a cafe.
I am nothing if not true to my irony magnet label, as one of the ultimate forms of pop culture “self-care” is, it seems, currently a massive PTSD trigger for me.
What is “whiling away the time,” after all, but the undifferentiated passing of hours that – thanks to ADHD – I can’t quite segment in my own brain into discreet units. It thus feels like a complete and forever loss of my own sense of the passage of time and, by extension, my own place in the universe. Relaxing in a cafe for more than about an hour, apparently, feels entirely too much like dissociation to my brain. Even more so for my first attempt given that I didn’t have access to the one person in the world who I would usually call who I could guarantee would ground me in the “you are here, this is now” as opposed to the 9th Circle of Hell: my Partner. His phone picked this particular weekend to completely keel over, and he did not come in to see my performance because he had to re-obtain his own means of remaining connected to the real world and thus proving he is “real” this weekend (aka “get a new phone.”)
So, yeah, right. Not only do lovely “self-care” days that stretch on just a bit longer than my brain’s ability to track time induce panic attacks because they feel too much like dissociation, apparently I also have some lingering issues to work out if I ever can’t reach my Partner immediately after the circumstances of the last time that happened, even though I knew exactly why I couldn’t reach him this time (no phone, duh!) and I was literally sitting in a lovely cafe drinking sweets while waiting to do a thing I volunteered to do because it is supposedly “fun.”
My brain decided it was sufficiently trapped in a grey haze of unending sameness ala zombie apocalypses of old that I really should just give up on my performance entirely and – I don’t know – flee home on the next train in tears and hide alone under a blanket or something because my Partner would still have been out dealing with the phone situation? Because that wouldn’t actually be way more reminiscent of those times when I was truly dissociative than sitting in a bright, visually stimulating cafe with lots of people talking around me and a group of people who remembered I existed who would be confused when I didn’t show up to call time?! Brains are weird and PTSD sucks.
Rather than give in to my timeless dread – or let my bully-of-a-brain decide to reframe what were almost certainly just triggered feelings about hazy shades of waiting out the gap in that “charming” cafe given prior time served in the absolutely-not-charming-at-all infinite featureless plane of dissociation – I (mostly) successfully fought my brain to, instead, let me write and sketch about how different the cafe I was sitting in was from anything trauma-related. (For instance, the cafe had clearly had someone actually design it, with red brick walls and an open-concept fireplace instead of a featureless beige-walled conference room like the time I couldn’t reach my partner during a crisis in October, 2018.)
I (mostly) successfully fought my brain over whether I needed to keep busy at all times to keep myself safe or whether I had failed to do something critical – because I am stupid, no doubt – and everything I care about was thus going to collapse around me. I (mostly) was able to semi-eavesdrop on the people around me (#sorrynotsorry random strangers sharing the cafe with me) to remind myself that none of their conversation topics were life-or-death, and none of their accents were 9th-Circle-of-Hellion. And, I did, in fact, make it to my performance – presumably even (mostly) not looking like I’d just been through multiple panic attacks and back again!
But, argh. Why is nothing ever easy? Because it really does still seem stupid to spend almost the entire day on trains the next two weekends in a row (when I will have the same issue of awkwardly timed gaps between two events). And, while I could always solve the problem of “what do I do with myself for hours downtown now” by paying for distraction (e.g., movies, massages, sit-down restaurant food instead of cafe food, etc.), I know that there will come a point at which spending money on distractions will, in fact, become financially ridiculous.
I could just take the train home, but now that also feels like capitulating to my brain.
Doesn’t it seem like I should be able – in this the year 2020 when nothing to date (my brain always makes me add that disclaimer!) is on fire in my life other than that fireplace in the cafe – sit in a charming cafe all day? Doesn’t it seem like it should be self-care to do so? And, if it isn’t, isn’t it virtually certain that the bully-in-my-brain will berate me for my own “weakness” at associating something that “should” in no way be unpleasant with dissociation if I don’t desensitize myself to this particular trigger soon?
Does anyone else experience a similar problem? Does spending too long “idling” in one place – no matter how nice that place is – ever start to feel panic-inducing because it feels like time is standing still? And is time “standing still” triggering for anyone else because of its perceptual similarities to dissociation?
Any tips for how to combat these triggering feelings of chrono-synchronicity and/or be able to “tell” time (in the sense of mark the passage of time into discreet units) so hours don’t feel “lost?” Because I really rather would spend my money on coffee and allergy-safe cookies than train tickets, especially given my special relationship with transportation travails…
**Why hot chocolate? Well, partly “why not?” But, also because there has been this study making the rounds in dysautonomia groups ranking various liquids by how hydrating they are. By that study, Liquid IV (popular with the chronic illness set) was one of the most hydrating liquids, but milk actually ranked very closely behind. A little bit of sugar and fat help the hydration go down, potentially. I will eventually do more research to see if that study holds up, but, for now, it’s a great excuse to tell myself that hot chocolate is very hydrating and thus “good for me” in advance of a physically demanding performance, so long as it is made the (only way worth drinking) with real foamed milk.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms