On comfort and stress
A few weeks ago, I left work early* after two unpleasant, consecutive interactions with a couple of people who really should have known better. While my colleagues were very supportive and allowed me space to talk about what happened, I was seething (the irony wasn’t lost on me that talking about what I was feeling sparked this particular incident in the first place!). And while I walked around the block (it was a big block!) to try to let off steam – and help soothe the seethe – all I wanted to do was go home. So I did.
A few days later, this particular episode got me thinking (and feel free to call me Captain Obvious right about now) that people deal with stress – and seek comfort – and cope with the stress they are feeling in different ways. I’m aware that sometimes our coping mechanisms – imprinted in childhood – are self-destructive and can lead to bigger problems. I’m lucky: I tend to deal with stress by seeking solitude and my own counsel. Generally speaking, I can mend myself faster, better, stronger when I’m alone. But there’s a process that I go through, and it’s this.
Talking is akin to thinking for me: I think through problems by verbalising them. Talking – and verbalising my thoughts – helps me make sense of what’s going on. That’s why, when I get stressed, I talk. I want to talk. Talking is comforting. (Although I did joke with one supervisor last year that I might be loud, but it’s much better for everyone if I talked. And that actually, he should be worried if I was quiet. Because that’s when I’m plotting revenge.)
I talk about how a problem or issue came about, why I feel the way I do about it, what can and should be done about it (if anything), what’s not being done about it (and should). I talk to analyse, critique, assess, appraise, evaluate, synthesise, and create. Basically, I go through the entire spectrum of Bloom’s Taxonomy when I de-stress verbally. Nine times out of ten, I just want the listener to listen – not to go into “fix it” mode. Please take note, males of the species! If I am shut down, or am misinterpreted, or dismissed, or “fixed”, or my views are invalidated during this phase, that’s when my stress levels rise. My threat response has been well and truly activated.
If I my stress levels are high because I am feeling shut down, misinterpreted, dismissed or just generally invalidated, my first instinct is to head for home. My home is my metaphorical castle – actually, it’s a full-on fort with a crocodile-filled moat around it – where I can block out the world. It is a healing salve for my soul. It’s a small place: a two-bedroom 1970s era cream brick unit that I love being in. It’s my sacred space, and I generally don’t encourage people to enter my sacred space. I know many people who love to entertain at their homes. They thrive on parties and dinner menus and choosing the music and the guest list. I’m not one of those people. If I socialise, I go out. And I love living alone (apart from my daughter, who’s not there much, and my cat.)
So it makes sense that to rid myself of the heightened and negative effects of people – which is generally the source of most stress I experience – I go to the one place where there are no people. Home. It’s where I can close the door firmly and decidedly on the world. It’s just me and the cat. And sometimes the kid. Bliss!
And when I get home, I draw myself a bath. Hot. Bubbly. And deep.
When I renovated my unit five or six years ago, that renovation included an update to my bathroom, which was old and tired. I had the shower plumbing relocated to the outside wall to halt a rising damp problem in my daughter’s bedroom and the inside passage wall. At the time, my renovation project manager asked me if I wanted to keep my bath. Are you kidding? I asked, and asked him to not only keep it, but make it bigger. And deeper. And he did.
There is something soothingly primal and comforting about a soaking in a long, hot bath. Maybe the act of having a bath mirrors our in vitro days. The fluid emulates the warmth and security of being in the womb, protected by our mother’s amniotic sack. Maybe it’s about the time it takes to draw a bath that is so appealing: one does not simply take a quick bath. It takes time to fill a bath, time for its warmth to seep deep into our bodies, into our bones. It takes time to unwind.
And then there are the rituals and decisions associated with bathing: bubbles, salts or just plain water; whether to refill with hot water as it cools or not; to bring in a book, listen to music, drink wine or light candles – these are our personal rituals from which we seek a sense of surety, comfort and escape. (And just in case you are wondering, I love bubbles, but don’t read in the bath or light candles or drink. Sometimes I listen to music, but mostly I just enjoy the silence. I do refill, and I generally immerse myself for up to half an hour. Often Bella (my much adored cat) visits me and will sit on the ledge, swiping the bubbles lazily with her paw. Occasionally she falls in.)
Once the bath has revived and soothed my spirits, I don my pyjamas and dive into my bed. Bella usually accompanies me, and often tucks herself right in under the covers, particularly if it’s cold and my electric blanket is on the super turbo setting. She snores and purrs, and sighs in contentment; just being around her is an excellent stress-buster and source of comfort in and of itself. I have found that as she ages, she is wherever I am. She is a rich source of simple companionship, particularly as she is undemanding in her needs. Love. Warmth. Companionship. A clean litter tray. Food. Water. I am more than happy to oblige.
In my bedroom is my TV and my DVD player, which has a USB port. I have books on my bedside table, and my tablet and iPhone in easy reach. All my devices pick up the wi-fi signal from the next room. I can read and watch all the good movies and TV to my heart’s content. I have no qualms about eating in bed: not just breakfast, but lunch, dinner and snacks. And dessert. I love my bed. I love being in bed. And after a long bath, being abed extends the cocoon of comfort. I plump up the pillows, pull up the doona, turn on the ceiling fan (if it’s hot and always to sleep with) and just… relax.
I come from a family of alcoholics. My father was one, as was my grandfather – my mother’s father. I am not, luckily, but I do enjoy a tipple. Wine – red or rosé – is my alcoholic beverage of choice, unless I’m run down or sick, and then I choose whisky. To go in my hot toddy, of course, with the lemon and ginger and honey and aspro-clear. Whisky has many benefits, including being an immune system booster, so it would be sheer madness not to drink it when one is ill. (I am also partial to vodka for its no carb properties. Actually, whisky has zero carbs too. Come to think of it, I’m partial to anything that has zero carbs!)
I don’t drink much these days, and when I do, it’s mainly in social situations – Friday night drinks with friends – which happen once or twice every four to six weeks. But if I am particularly stressed – and I’ve worked my way through each of the above steps and the thoughts are still swirling around in my head like dust and dirt being buffeted around by a strong wind – alcohol seems to quiet them. So I help myself to two or three glasses of wine, and my thoughts slowly morph into a comfortable, buzzy fog. Not enough alcohol to induce a hangover, but enough to dull my senses and ensure a good night’s sleep. I am a runner, after all!
If, after all these steps have been undertaken, my mind is fuzzy from wine and I still can’t de-stress, I put index finger to iPhone and write down exactly what I’m thinking. Just being able to articulate my thoughts in writing and seeing them on my tiny iPhone screen helps calm the mind swirl. I can see what thoughts are worth pursuing further, and what are not. The words and sentences that form are almost like pulling loose threads and seeing which ones end up short, and which ones are longer and ongoing. Some of the longer threads knit themselves into short stories or poems or essays. Sometimes the short ones crochet themselves into granny squares, and form the basis for a larger throw rug of creativity.
As I assimilate the various threads of my experiences, trying to make sense of them as they swirl around me, many “short thoughts” end up as blog posts here. Writing – even in an alcohol-induced blurry haze – provides me with clarity. I trust my ability to unravel the problem and reformulate into something more palatable and solvable and deal-withable.
And, more than anything, this gives me great comfort.
*One of the few remaining perks of being a public servant – and there aren’t that many anymore – is flexi-time.