Medium 9781523094752

The Age of Overwhelm

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Whether we are overwhelmed by work or school; our families or communities; caretaking for others or ourselves; or engagement in social justice, environmental advocacy, or civil service, just a few subtle shifts can help sustain us. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, bestselling author of Trauma Stewardship, shows us how by offering concrete strategies to help us mitigate harm, cultivate our ability to be decent and equitable, and act with integrity. The Age of Overwhelm aims to help ease our burden of overwhelm, restore our perspective, and give us strength to navigate what is yet to come.

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8 Chapters

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One: What Does Overwhelm Look Like?

ePub

“Your chances of becoming an alcoholic are higher. You are more likely to get divorced. Chances are you will contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide.”

Bullshit. That was my immediate reaction as the risks of trauma exposure in my new career were spelled out in a classroom at the state police academy. Not me. Maybe that quiet guy in the next row, but not me. I had my shit together. Period.

I graduated the basic police course at the top of my class, worked hard on the road, and after a couple of years landed a special team assignment. I was on a roll. Then I stopped at the grocery store.

It was my Friday night and I was ready to start my weekend. I would stop at the store to grab a bag of chips and my favorite beer. Three minutes tops. As I walked toward the Ten Items or Less express lane, a man pushing a cart slid in front of me. Slight delay, but no big deal. At least until I counted the items in his cart.

You motherfucker. There are twelve items in your cart. Can you not read the sign? Do you not know the common rules of our society? You are fucking with my timeline. Breathe. Just breathe and let it go. Wait . . . did you just pull out a fat stack of coupons and start slowly searching through them? You unbelievable asshole. I fantasize that you pull a gun on the cashier and demand the money in the register. Green light. In one smooth motion I drop my beer, lift my shirt, and draw the Glock from my right hip. I put two tightly grouped rounds into your temple from close range and watch you drop, lifeless, to the floor.

 

Two: What Causes Overwhelm?

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The litany of factors contributing to our sense of overwhelm is long. We’ll uncover some of the contributors here, but the point is this: The conditions for overwhelm exist for every one of us, whether we were born into them, walk consciously into them, or they descend upon us. But being aware of the many directions from which waves of overwhelm may come can help prepare us to navigate those waves with more self-compassion and prowess. And if we are lucky . . . grace.

It’s a new anti-depressant—instead of swallowing it, you throw it at anyone who appears to be having a good time.”

I don’t think we can have too much humility and compassion toward ourselves and others as we consider what may cause overwhelm. I learn over and over through my work with trauma survivors just how deeply personal and subjective our experiences are about everything from feeling maxed out to actually being traumatized. Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein reminds us that, “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence.”

 

Three: A Way Through: When Less Is More

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As we dive deeper into the art and science of addressing overwhelm— individually and collectively—let’s explore how to metabolize what we’re experiencing and bearing witness to in a constructive and meaningful way, how and why we become saturated, and what to do about it.

You should relax less.”

We’ve already discussed many of the factors that can contribute to potential overwhelm. Every single day, we are exposed to countless issues (some beyond our control, some within our control). Some buoy us. Some strengthen us. And some of this exposure can erode us.

When exposure erodes us, we begin to accumulate harm. We accumulate disappointments, slights, and disconnects between what we’d hoped or planned for and reality. We may simply be collecting the weight of lots of small, daily setbacks. (As one of my teachers cautioned me, “Expectations are premeditated disappointments.”) Or we may be constantly pummeled with trauma of glacial proportions. But if for any reason we don’t tend to this growing accumulation along the way—metabolizing it—we can become saturated.

 

Four: Less Distraction, More Intention

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One evening deep into winter I had a car brimming with swim team kids; it was my turn to drive everyone home. The afternoon was a whirlwind, and nothing had gone as planned. I apologized to the wet swimmers reeking of chlorine and explained that I needed to stop quickly and pick up takeout food. I ran from my car into the restaurant and stopped abruptly at the hostess station. The young woman looked up and asked if she could help me. I told her I had an order that I was very late picking up. She said, “Great, what’s your name?” I stood there. She looked at me. I stood there some more. She looked at me. I finally said, “That’s a great question.” I could not remember my name. As those words left my mouth, one of the women seated at the bar to my right spit out her drink, laughing. My name came back to me, I got my food and turned to leave, feeling very unnerved. The hostess called after me, “Good luck . . . you know . . . with your name and everything!”

We can become so saturated by all that we encounter that we become completely distracted from the very fundamentals. Like, you know, remembering our name.

 

Five: Disconnect Less, Be Present More

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When our beloved dog had cancer, we did all we could to help him be comfortable toward the end of his life. Because Rottweilers are so strong, they require a lot of pain medication, so we essentially had to give him what seemed like horse tranquilizers. While we were all caring for him, my daughters were in charge of giving him his daily meds. One day the girls were gone, and as I grabbed his handful of meds I thought, “When’s the last time I took my stuff?” So, I gathered all my vitamins, got a glass of water, and swished down my pills. Then I turned and looked at the counter, and my vitamins were sitting there. In that moment, I realized I’d just taken all of my Rottweiler’s meds.

I stood there for a minute and decided to call the vet. The vet tech on call wasn’t particularly reassuring, so I called Poison Control. [Mind you, I have never had to call Poison Control before. Not for my own kids or for any children in my care. But there I was, standing in my kitchen, calling Poison Control on myself.] When the pharmacist answered the phone, I said, “I just did the stupidest thing ever,” and proceeded to describe exactly what happened. There was a significant pause, and then out of her mouth came, “This happens all the time.”

 

Six: Less Attachment, More Curiosity

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As I approached the Canadian border late one night, I contemplated the reason I would give for my visit. I had been invited to work with a hospice team in a small First Nations community the next morning, but working in other countries can really hold one up at the border. I decided to tell the truth, though “vacationing” was a tempting answer.

The border agent in the booth opened his little window and asked some benign questions; he seemed quite lovely. Then he asked why I was visiting Canada. I said, “I’m going to be working in one of your communities.” He looked at me, and in an instant, everything shifted. It was as if I were presumed—immediately—to be guilty. Suddenly then, I thought, “How many bags of heroin have I swallowed? How many dead bodies are in my car?” I was awash with dread.

The agent peppered me with question after question. The content of his queries was legit, but his demeanor was . . . rough. His level of intensity was so disproportionate for the situation at hand, and after a long series of questions, which I answered thoroughly and politely, he said, “Okay, we need you to go inside the building.”

 

Seven: Less Depletion, More Stamina

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I was so grateful to be lying there amid the quiet of the office, familiar sounds, and soft sheets. And I was so, so tired. I chatted with my gifted acupuncturist before the needles fully took effect and asked if anything could be done to replicate, throughout the day, the feeling that can come from the serotonin coursing through one’s system after a high-intensity workout. He finished placing a needle, paused for a second, and said definitively, “Cocaine.” While I have not gone that route, I’ve certainly explored a lot of options to help me outswim what feels like a slow tide pulling me out to a vast body of permanent fatigue.

Standing by a neighborhood pool, talking with a friend, I asked if she ever felt tired. She exhaled and said pointedly, “I have so much less capacity now. For everything.” And of course, the sensation of being completely depleted, drained—running on empty—is not exclusive to the older set. My kids are tired, their friends are tired, the kids I work with are tired. And not just tired like on-the-way-home-from-football-practice tired, but tired. Of dealing. Exhausted. Flat out. Professionally, this territory of diminished capacity is one of the common denominators in every single field in which I work. It’s not just that you’re tired. It’s truly that sense of, “I can’t deal.” And the more depleted we become, the more impossible it seems that we should be able to muster the strength to overcome it.

 

Eight: When to Step Away

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There is a Hasidic story of a respected rabbi who taught his disciples to memorize and contemplate teachings and place the prayers and holy words on their heart. A day came when one of the disciples asked the rabbi why he always said “on your heart” and not “in your heart,” and the rabbi replied, “Only time and grace can put the essence of these stories in your heart. Here we recite and learn them and put them on our hearts hoping that someday, when our heart breaks, they will fall in.”

Once we deepen our insight and awareness into how our lives are currently going, if the way we’re spending our time is edifying or eroding, we have a final set of considerations to evaluate. A central tenet of our ability to sustain is being able to discern when to approach, when to maintain, and when to call it a wrap.

This ranges from the countless small decisions that make up our waking hours to the major choices that punctuate our life. Sometimes, one of the most self-preserving choices we can make is when we’re done—even for the day. I think frequently about my friend’s two-year-old nephew who midway through dinner stopped eating, put his sweet little hands down on the table, and said resolutely, “I am done being awake.”

 

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