Since falling down the stairs, hitting my head, getting concussed, and experiencing a panic attack, I’ve found I’ve had to be diligent about rest to heal my brain, body, and spirit. It has been a humbling experience.
With three children and a full-time job, I’ve learned to get very good at squeezing in several activities in a short period of time. In a one-hour window, I can throw some clothes in the wash, get dinner started, vacuum, move the clothes to the dryer, and mop the floors. Writing this sentence, I feel a strange mixture of suburban mom pride (“Look how much busywork I can get done!”), embarrassment (“Maybe I’m actually not doing that much?”), and squeamish guilt at boasting about chores as a descendent of enslaved people and as a resident in a world where people do backbreaking work for dollars a day.
It is the guilt that bothers me the most, and that makes resting feel not rejuvenating, but like I’ve won the lottery with a stolen ticket. I work through the guilt by keeping myself busy. So busy have I made myself, in fact, that I find it difficult to use a spare hour for anything other than errands and chores. Sometimes I’ll read, write a little, or go for a walk, but most often I find myself scrolling the annals of Instagram before giving up and zoning out on Netflix.
The accident temporarily changed all that as I had a bout with post-concussion syndrome. This meant that when I read too much, concentrated on a piece of writing for a few hours, or focused too long on a screen, I ended up with a foggy brain, headaches, or delayed word recall.
This was challenging for a person whose day job involves reading and editing text on a computer, who writes for fun, who likes to unwind by hanging out on the internet, and who is trying to replace her social media habit with reading a few good books.
I had to tap into an ability I haven’t really honed since grade school: the ability to exist alone in quiet. I was an only child and lived in a trailer with a quarter-mile driveway that often separated me from the neighborhood kids in my rural town. So, in the summers and after school, I learned to spend hours in the woods building shanties out of sticks or in my mother’s tiny art studio painting canvasses while she worked. Unencumbered by thoughts of what I “should” be doing, I played and created until my heart’s content and learned to sit with bouts of ennui until they passed. What choice did I have? There were only four television channels and no internet.
Now, though, I feel a nervous boredom when a few hours of silence land on my lap. Podcasts, music, and old SNL skits on YouTube fill the quiet so I don’t have to sit with my thoughts for long.
I’ve had to re-learn how to not do. I already know how to do. How to work nine- or ten-hour days, how to juggle multiple projects at my job, how to use a lunch break to load the dishwasher and make a dentist appointment, how to squeeze in fifteen minutes of work between picking up kids from different schools, how to listen to music or a podcast while I’m going for a walk.
Doing nothing is far more challenging: Like, spending a lunch break just…eating lunch. Or walking by a pile of dirty dishes and leaving them there. Or lying on the bed to daydream. Or taking a walk with the pat of my footsteps as the only soundtrack.
Perhaps this is such a challenge because rest is an acknowledgment of my mental and physical limits. When I rest, the world goes on without me. This is a fact that is at once painful and liberating, because it means that everything and nothing matters.
Rest also means facing my feelings. The fear I had when I sat on the couch with paramedics surrounding me. The terror that replaced it when the paramedics attributed my symptoms to a psychological episode. The strange relief I felt when I learned my panic attack was likely triggered by concussion symptoms. The fear that I will have another panic attack that will blindside me, one with no clear antecedent. And the ongoing pang of guilt I have when I feel overwhelmed by my worries in a world where so many people struggle to simply survive.
I try to sit with the feelings without being overwhelmed by their volume. I lie on the bed and ice and heat the ankle still bruised from my fall. I tuck myself into bed and sip a warm cup of tea. I remember that, as yoga teacher Tracey Stanley has said on this blog, rest is a birthright that belongs to all of us. And then I rest.