Emotionally ‘hot’ material, like trauma memories, grief, or the intense feelings associated with a relationship breakup for example can be very difficult to handle.
When you’re dealing with something like this it’s easy to become exhausted and overwhelmed, whether that’s from the stress of such strong feelings, or from the effort of trying to suppress them. It’s a tough time and I’ve found a really simple idea that has helped me not to wear out so quickly.
When I was a kid, I came home one day from school and didn’t notice that our little dog wasn’t there. I played away the evening until my Dad came home from work, when the neighbours handed him a shoe box with our dead dog in it. She’d got out onto the road and been hit by a car. I was devastated, even more so because I’d failed to notice she wasn’t there, and had been playing and enjoying myself while our adorable faithful little dog was lying dead in a shoe box. I felt like the worst pet owner in the world, and in that unhelpful way kids often do, I concluded that the whole event was my fault. I felt terribly guilty and miserable. So for the next while, I concentrated on making myself feel as bad as I possibly could. I cried until I ran out of tears. Any time I caught myself feeling happy, laughing about something or having fun, I brought up memories of my dog and how disloyal I had been until I cried myself out again.
Around this time my Nan also died, and I used a similar approach. I tried to prove how much I had loved her by grieving intensely without any relief and by punishing myself whenever I lapsed. I did not have a good year. I held onto my ‘hot’ material permanently, scorching myself deeply and remaining flooded with distress.
I’ve noticed over the years that people are often polarised in how they handle their own hot material, some people flood, like I was doing. Other people wall it all out and ignore it long past the point it needed some attention. Finding any kind of balance is really hard.
A few years ago I had another experience with grief, this time losing my beloved Grandma. It was a difficult time for many reasons and I was under a lot of pressure trying to hold everything together. I was watching my mental illness warning signs increase and my symptoms become less and less manageable. I was really concerned that I was going to collapse under the strain. So I set up a night time ritual that I still follow today. I arranged to borrow some Terry Pratchett books, which for those of you unfamiliar with the Discworld, are brilliant, funny and irreverent. Every night in bed I made time to read some. No matter how sad or overwhelming or painful the day had been, I gave myself permission to take a break every night and even have a good laugh. I didn’t force myself to grieve all the time, and I didn’t let the warped thinking that having a giggle somehow proved I hadn’t really loved Grandma stop me from looking after myself. I was quite stunned at how much difference this little bit of time out made to my ability to endure a very difficult situation.
I’ve found that the best way I handle hot material is to ‘pick it up and put it down’ on a regular basis. I have a tendency to carry it around with me all the time, and this exhausts me. I use this for mental illness and other hot topics too, sometimes I’ll read about trauma, or be writing a lot about my situation and feelings. Then I put it all down and spend a day in the garden, just being a person. For that day I don’t have a mental illness or a trauma history, I’m just enjoying the weather and tending my roses. Later on I’ll pick it up again for awhile. I have to work on letting the process take time, or I get trapped in a mentality that says ‘I’ll have a life once I’ve finished sorting this out’, hoping to work through it really fast and then enjoy myself. This doesn’t work well because without getting some rest and nourishment, I run out of ability to keep going. I’ve also watched other people who have more trouble with picking their stuff up in the first place, who run like mad from it and exhaust themselves trying to escape it when taking an hour to do some journaling, cry on a friend’s shoulder or read up a bit about their condition would take a lot of the pressure off and give them some breathing room. So, if you’re struggling to cope with hot material, try picking it up and putting it down and see if that helps you get through it.