Once Upon A Time…
I had a great counsellor. That sort that gives you unconditional positive regard, and listens to what you’re actually saying (instead of what they’re expecting), and who also asked especially good questions. Some of the questions were of the Zen-master category of counselling, the sort that jog you from your everyday running, smacking palm to forehead and saying, “OH!” or else stopped you short because you had been doing something totally irrational and then had it pointed out to you when you were at a point to heed such. Other questions were more like planting little seeds, things that seemed innocuous at first but that later proved to be much greater things.
This is the story of the little seed question. It was a very dangerous question, not in the hazardous sense, but in the transformational sense.
I went in to my counselling session feeling really stressed. I suppose this is kind of stating the obvious, because no one goes to a counsellor when they’re not stressed to the gills. But instead of addressing what was going on in various arenas of my life, the usual three-ring circus of school-work-family, he asked about what I did to deal with stress.
I didn’t have much of an answer. Granted, I had managed to avoid various self-destructive activities like drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, cutting and other SIBs*. And I did have a good diet and tried to get some exercise. I did not, however, find a lot of common social activities to be relaxing (and a university with 20,000 students has no lack of events). Indeed, I had to make a point of planning a social event once a semester. I could say that I liked to read extensively about my current topic of interest, and that I found my twice-weekly two-hour commutes to be relaxing … and then I got stuck.
Sadly, over the years I had lost some coping methods, at the expense of gaining other skills. I didn’t even want to admit to myself that I couldn’t recognise my own needs any more, those highly-individualised needs of the sort that Maslow never put on his pyramid.
Then he asked the dangerous question, “What would it take for you to feel comfortable?”
I didn’t know. I would have to think about that.
Which I did, because there wasn’t any point in the whole exercise if I didn’t address important questions. I began by realising that the answer had two parts: Firstly, one becomes more comfortable by removing discomforts, and secondly, one becomes more comfortable by adding comforts. Well yeah, that sounds like a “Duh”, but determing the details really required a lot more self-aware analysis than you might expect.
What made me uncomfortable? Over the days I began to compile a list. It sounded like a list of piddly-ass complaints, because it was full of the sorts of things that I had been repeatedly told that “should not” bother me. It was full of the things that weren’t horrible individually, but piled up all day long and created ambient background stress. There were annoying, itchy clothes tags. There were all manner of noisy, smelly, visually-overwhelming things. There was the (crowded, noisy, rambunctious, smelly) dining hall and the (crowded, noisy, smelly) public bathroom on my doorm floor that had driven me to take a campus apartment after three semesters. There was always shoes. There were the noisy flickering lights and dusty fixtures and cramped ugly desks and rickety chairs and endless phone calls (and OMG did someone microwave leftover eel for lunch today) that made it so hard to study in the Graduate Student Suite.** (And the inevitable oversexed roaches, because the department was in a huge, rambling old building that had needed refurbishing since before the undergrads were even born.) There was the intimately personal annoyance of tinnitus, and also the attention-drawing “over-reactions” of being startled by any number of alarms, clinks, clashes or smashes, due to the hyperacussis.
What made me comfortable? Well, that was a more key question, because there are some things one cannot avoid (although finally realising that if the damn clothes tags bother me, I can cut them out! really helped). Taking my shoes off made me almost instantly happy. Removing socks was even better (Free the toes!), but just slipping off my shoes, or unbinding myself from hiking boots, and sitting cross-legged on a padded chair was bliss. Taking breaks, just getting away from everyone and everything to some small oasis for my lunch hour, proved to be wonderfully therapeutic for de-stressing and recharging my mental batteries for the rest of the day. Music was fabulous, or rather, listening to my own music was fabulous, because it drowned out the tinnitus and other background noises and helped me focus on whatever I needed to do. Indirect, incandescent lighting was relaxing. Even having my own mug and tea-making equipment creating little puddles of bliss in the day (cheap tea from a small Styrofoam cup almost makes things worse). Really new or LCD computer monitors also made my life much easier, because there wasn’t the flickering to give me headaches. Not such extraordinary things. But rocking, I found, was soothing — not the stereotypical back-and-forth rocking, but a slight side-to-side rocking. Rocking is considered to not be a grown-up thing; it’s the sort of thing you’re trained to not do, much like you’re trained not to sit with your feet on the chair seat. Neither is staring off into space considered to not be a grown-up thing; but after a while, I collected several shiny blue or green spirals to hang from the ceiling, lovely objects for staring at while thinking about things.
Once I began identifying these various important details, the personal accommodations given by me to me, I started making small adjustments in my habits and my surroundings. I slowly learned to monitor my stress levels better, although I won’t say that I am always good at being aware of them. I also began to implement little bits of advocacy to get what I needed; for example, if I was the only one in a lab, I turned off the overhead fluorescent lights and turned on an incandescent desk lamp I’d bought. I learned to ignore the funny looks from strangers about my random motor tics or hyperacussic reactions, and gradually started to shed that “kick me” aura, and practiced being comfortably “out” as a bit of an oddball person, in the positive sense. (We need to both practice self-acceptance and model acceptance, and we need to practice expecting of others that respectfulness of both ourselves and others.)
It’s extremely stressful spending all day pretending to be normal. Often we need to give ourselves the personal accommodations that we need to be comfortable in our worlds, and avoid being over-stressed — regardless of whether or not others think the stresses or accommodations are “important”.
* SIBs = Self-Injurious Behaviours
** suite in sensu stricto “a group of connected rooms”; there was nothing fancy about it