When I Am Nitroglycerin
By the time today that I’d gotten up far too early for me, had what little breakfast I had time to make, stopped to get coffee only to find the coffeeshop wasn’t opening until ten minutes before the only bus I could take to my psychoconsult was due to arrive, waited half a block away from jackhammering for them to open, suffered through being on public transit, slow-walked from the bus to my appointment, got through my appointment, suffered through more public transit, got to my breakfast spot, ate, suffered through more public transit, and got to the zoo for what’s supposed to be my weekly mental health trip, I already was exhausted.
Someone online asked, “Are you able to compartmentalize until you get home and let it all out?”
The most I can manage in situations like this is what you might term the No Sudden Movements strategy: walk around as slowly as you can, doing your best to avoid any sudden physical or mental jostles. The day becomes mostly a zombified daze, maybe punctuated occassionally by moments of engagement.
Which brought me back to something I wrote about reactions and responses after a different online conversation.
Without going too far down the rabbit hole, it seems to me that true reactions are not the sort of thing that can be “over” or “under” because they are what their name claims to be: reactive. There’s an action and there’s a reaction. There’s no debate, and no decision.
In physics, it’s usually described as being “equal and opposite” but of course the wrinkle when we move from physics to psyche is that the impact of what might be deemed the same stimulus is going to be different from one person to another, especially when we’re talking about brains that aren’t neurotypical. Any given stimulus could be a mild annoyance to a typical brain, yet the emotional equivalent of a sharp stick to the eye to an atypical brain.
Reactions, in other words, are the things we cannot control. Responses, however, are the things that we can.
I would add to my own words here the word “maybe”. Or perhaps just “sometimes”. It’s definitely not a given that responses can be controlled.
There is the stimulus (or set or series of stimuli), the built-in systemic reaction, and the way one responds to that built-in reaction. Sometimes—sometimes—there’s an opportunity to shape those responses consciously, even if it’s an impossibility to exert any control over the reactions.
In today’s case, the growing pile of stressors over the first five hours of my morning yielded the reaction of a mental and physical exhaustion, in fact skirting an outright shutdown (although there were moments of shutdown during public transit). The response to this stood somewhere on the line between unconscious and conscious: the No Sudden Movements strategy.
For two weeks in a row now, I have left my psychoconsults feeling like it was being argued that how things affect me is my fault. While I don’t actually believe this is what my psychoconsultant was arguing, for whatever communications breakdown reason it’s how things have been coming across.
So we are going to have to come to terms, literally, in that we need to be using the same language to describe things. For me, it’s a matter of stimuli, reaction, and response.
More than that, it’s about my needing to make clear that I do not believe even our responses always are within reach of any control. In a day with few stressors or triggers, I could outright slam my own thumb with a hammer while trying to nail something together but be conscious enough of my environment to not launch into a scream of, “Jesus fucking Christ!” in front of a bunch of children.
In a day with many, mounting stressors or triggers, I could “simply” be having trouble removing a nail from a board and there is no stopping me from almost autonomically falling into a long string of shouts and curses, no matter who is around.
Sometimes it will play out as stimulus, reaction, responses. Sometimes it will play out as stimulus, reaction, room to breathe, response.
The important thing for me is that people don’t misunderstand that I can control how my brain reacts to things, and that people do understand that circumstances determine the degree to which I can control my responses to those reactions.
Even with all these terms defined, and even if I convince others to agree with me on them, what I’m left with is the same question I’ve asked several times before.