Today, I realized I was highly triggered, and had been for days. Another school shooting set it off; my grief over the event and my anger at the lack of answers mingled with my fear of my daughter growing up in a world where schools were not safe, and shootings are just a price we pay to attend one. World events and conversations online heightened my emotions to the point of painfulness. I was wound up so tight by yesterday evening that the sound of my daughter’s laugh, her pure joy and silliness and joking around, were like nails on a chalkboard for me. I repeatedly caught myself snapping at her to knock it off, which only increased my guilt, sadness, and irritation, in a cycle I couldn’t seem to pause. Then, the icing on the cake: maybe because I really did need to pass on the gift of the book I am reading that made me think of them, or maybe because I am a glutton for punishment, or maybe because I was already spontaneously breaking into crying fits multiple times a day and figured it couldn’t get worse, I broke down after months of no contact with a love who wounded me deeply and messaged that person. Their simple and heartfelt response of thankfulness and well wishes felt like a dagger to my tender and damaged soul, and broke whatever façade I had left that I was okay. I was crying, I was overflowing with sadness, and I was most definitely not doing okay.
Once upon a time I used to live in such a state almost without reprieve. Rare moments of calm were spotlights of shock and awe that, even though comprised of the simplest, smallest moments, were memories that stood out vividly years later. But that is no longer my life. I have worked hard to move away from a constant state of trauma and stress, and while everything is far from sunshine and rainbows in my life, I can say that most of the time the boat moves ahead through calm waters as I chart my course. For that reason, these storms of intense emotion stand out much clearer, and are often felt with much greater impact than I consciously remember feeling them years ago. I’m not used to hanging on for dear life anymore; it’s not my daily existence. Because of that, these instances always feel more vivid now, and more intense.
The first couple times that this happened, I had no idea what to do with myself. I tried tools I had used in my previous, hectic, storm-ridden life. I tried to shove the emotions deep, deep inside myself; no dice. I tried to outrun the emotions by piling a million to-do tasks on my plate and working non-stop; I only got more irritated, my temper even shorter. I tried to smother the emotions under numbing agents, like really great whiskey that I drank so fast I barely enjoyed it, and pints of Ben and Jerry’s, and Netflix binges; I woke up feeling worse. Clearly, my previous life had been a storm-filled mess for a lot of reasons, one of which being that I had no valid, healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the negative emotions of life, and not dealt with, those emotions (and the unhealthy coping mechanisms used to deal with them) tend to become a rather ugly permanent state of being. Now that this state of being was no longer my status quo, now that I was aware of how damaging all my unhealthy ways of dealing with unhappiness were, and now that I was no longer okay with living in such a state for weeks or months until some sunshine broke through, I found myself rather lost. How can I deal with the moments when life gets the best of me? I knew I couldn’t avoid them completely; no human being does. My therapist wasn’t available at my beck and call to help. I had to look for other options to minimize the trauma and impact these moments had on my life.
One day, after being in one of these highly-triggered emotional upheaval states for a week or more, I got out of bed and suddenly stopped. I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure I could move through another day feeling the way I was feeling. So, even though it was very hard for me, I paused. I took a couple of deep breaths. And in that moment, I consciously decided to spend the entire day walking on eggshells around myself.
We all know this feeling. We’ve all done it with a loved one at one point in time or another, and in general, it’s not any fun. It’s the feeling that you have to be so careful with what you say to someone, or how you act around them, what you ask of them, what emotions you show… the feeling of walking on eggshells in order to not trigger them, to not start a fight, to not upset the waters and get drawn into the drama. When this act is done in order to not upset someone else, it often feels draining, and frustrating, and like an intense burden that unless you are much a better person than I am you resent having to carry. It seems like an odd tool to use against yourself, and I’m not at all sure why I did it or what made me think it would help. But in that moment, it felt right, and I was too exhausted to fight the idea. I went with it. What I found when I did felt like a miraculous discovery. But first, let’s talk about what it looks like to walk on eggshells around yourself (or what it looked like for me, anyway):
1. I gave myself permission to not get anything done for the day.
2. I moved very carefully, and very slowly.
3. Every time I thought to go do something, I asked myself, “Is this going to make things better, or worse? Will this make me happy? Is this something I truly want to do, right now, in this moment?”
4. I committed to only moving toward the things I truly wanted to do and that would bring me a sense of calm, peace, happiness, or joy, and I let absolutely everything else go.
My therapist would probably just call this mindfulness. And to an extent, it is. It’s an extremely heightened version of mindfulness. I call it walking on eggshells, because that is what it felt like to me. Whatever it is called, it saved me. By the end of the day, I found all the weight I had been carrying had lifted. Where all my problems solved? All my sadness gone? No. But everything was manageable again. I was able to listen to my daughter, watch her be silly, hear her laugh, and not snap at her. I was able to see the beauty around me. I stopped crying (so much). I was able to find gratitude again. I had given myself the space to grieve, to process, to start to move forward, and in that space I was able to find the light breaking through the clouds again.
It was a realization that I will never forget, and a new tool was added to my belt that day. Today, crying into my cereal, I realized it was time to pull it out again. I got my daughter ready for the birthday party she was going to attend, and called my mother to ask her to pick my daughter up from the party and keep her overnight. I dropped her off, went home, and sat very still. I visualized in my head holding myself like a very fragile thing that might break at any time. And I moved with intense slowness, all day. This time, that meant leaving home minutes after walking in the door, just to go get myself an iced coffee because that sounded like heaven, then going right back home. It meant messaging my love and telling them with careful words what I would need in order to even answer the question, “How are you?” without causing myself damage, and knowing that I would hold that boundary regardless of the answer. It meant going to a store in the mall that always carries my size, with saleswomen who always genuinely attend and offer heartfelt compliments, and trying on dresses that made me feel beautiful. It meant cleaning my office so that it was once again a sanctuary, turning on my favorite lamp, made of gorgeous stone which offers a reassuring and comforting glow that I bought in Mexico one year, and curling up in my chair. It meant opening a really great bottle of wine. And it meant writing this blog post for you.
At the end of it all, I can tell you that I have found my calm. In the happiest of accidents, I also found closure in a situation that has been haunting me for months, which I hope will allow me to cautiously approach again a friendship I have missed. I found five amazing dresses that make me feel beautiful. I found that inspiration visited me and allowed me to create. I have found my center again.
The next time you notice yourself feeling as if the world is spinning out of control, or find yourself bristling with irritation, or drowning in sadness, I urge you to take a moment, and pause. Even if you cannot carve out an entire day, just carve out an hour, or even a few minutes, and walk on eggshells. See the places that are tender within you, and move carefully around them. Show them love and kindness. Erase the judgment. And move very, very slowly. You might just find that in walking on eggshells around the tender places inside you, you start to find the healing you’ve been searching for.