The Edge of Overwhelmed

I’ve been thinking about what it looks like, the edge of overwhelmed. Does it look like a forest, when the trees get thicker and thicker, and there you are among them, in the darkness? Or does it look like the edge of a cliff, where you look down and see rocks below? I’ve decided that it looks like both.

When I was in college, I worked as a counselor in a summer camp for gifted children. One weekend, between two of the sessions, a group of counselors went for a hike in the mountains. In Virginia, the mountains are covered with forest. We climbed and climbed through the trees, until we were high up. They were oaks and beeches and pines, mostly — tall forest trees, so we could only see the path in front of us, covered with fallen leaves and pine needles. And then we came out of the trees, to a place where large rocks jutted out of the mountainside — that had been our destination. Below, we could see the slope of the mountain falling away, like a green skirt made of more forest, with a road winding through it. In the distance were more mountains.

Below us was a cliff — if we had fallen off, we would have fallen into air. And that, I think, is what the edge of overwhelmed feels like. It’s not actually dangerous. You can sit comfortably on the rocks, looking out at the view. But you can’t go any further.

I write this because I’ve been to the edge of overwhelmed many times in my life — who hasn’t? Who with children, who with a job that involves responsibility for other people, who with an ordinary human life in which we must try to manage so much? But I’ve been feeling it especially in the last few weeks. Part of it is workload — the university semester has started, and I have so much to do. I’m already behind because it’s taken a while simply to figure out how to teach my classes during this strange semester. I’m using technology more than ever before: Blackboard, Digication, Zoom. The technology has been integrated, so that it works together, except . . . when it doesn’t. And since I have fifty-four undergraduates, the technology fails on a weekly basis for at least some of us. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I teach from home on Zoom. Sometimes students have problems with WiFi. Sometimes they have problems uploading assignments to Blackboard. Sometimes Digication crashes and isn’t available at all. Mondays I teach in the classroom, to half my class in the room and half online, and that has its own problems. In the classroom, we are masked and socially distanced. Mostly, I lecture — it’s too hard to do the close, collaborative work I’m used to. So it’s a new way of teaching for me . . . And my daughter, who is in high school, is also in a hybrid program — half remote, half in the classroom. It’s a difficult year to be a junior, just starting her college entrance exams.

But there’s something else as well. In the past, when I’ve felt almost overwhelmed, it’s been partly workload, and partly people. When my daughter was very young, it was sometimes overwhelming to care for just one child. I remember going to high school myself and feeling overwhelmed by the crush of people in the halls, the constant interactions in the classroom. When I was a lawyer, the demands of the partners could be overwhelming — as well as the need to act and think and even dress in a way that fit into the corporate law culture. Sometimes, as a writer attending conventions, I could be overwhelmed at the end of the day simply by all the people I had talked to — writers, readers, editors. They were lovely people, but after a day of professional conversations with even lovely people, I would be exhausted.

Part of it is being an introvert, I suppose. Being with people sometimes drains my batteries. Often, I need to recharge alone.

And now, we are with people but not with them — we are interacting with them constantly online. In some ways it’s easier, in some it’s more difficult. Sometimes I feel as though energy is flowing from me into my laptop screen, like a constant stream of particles — but particles of soul. And reaching people through the laptop screen takes more of that soul than if they were physically present. By the end of a day teaching on Zoom, I am drained.

The problem with the edge of overwhelmed is that you feel sick and tired and as though you just can’t anymore. In the past, I’ve gotten to a place where I couldn’t even talk anymore, where I couldn’t face another person, another obligation. I just needed to lie down somewhere dark and sleep or read or think. I’m not there, at that edge — but it’s been very difficult lately to do any of my own work or keep up with friends. There is always another obligation — and sometimes I’m not even keeping up with those! It’s life as a process of triage, figuring out what absolutely needs to be done. It’s life as a to-do list.

Of course I don’t want to get to the edge of the cliff, the place where you look down and there is nothing but air under you. The place where you simply have to stop. So I’m trying to find some sort of balance. I think the antidote to that sense of being overwhelmed is joy. So I’m trying to find all the joys I can, whether it’s a bowl of ice cream or a walk in the rose garden or ordering tulip bulbs for spring. Or stealing an hour to read a book, really read, going deeply. Or talking to a friend. Or writing a poem.

We are all going through such a difficult time, and I don’t have much wisdom to give, because I’m trying to deal with it myself. All I can say is, when you get to the edge of overwhelmed, stop. You can’t go on — there is no on to go, without losing yourself. Sit on the rocks. Look around, admire the view if you can. The world is still lovely. Have a bowl of ice cream.

(The image is Interior with Young Woman from Behind by Vilhelm Hammershøi.)

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9 Responses to The Edge of Overwhelmed

  1. Many of us have been there at different times and different places. When I am there, or near enough to smell the chaos, my recurring image is baby birds, multiple nests of them squawking for food. And, like a mother bird with a thousand nests, I feel stuck with a thousand obligations that, for an introvert, are difficult at the best of times–which these are not.

    Thankfully, you have provided the wisdom we need. Stopping in small ways for helpings of joy masquerading as a bowl of ice cream or a wonderful book like the latest by Susanna Clarke. Even an interesting TV program (often an old movie) or writing something of my own–for just moments perhaps, will help recharge nearly dead batteries. No, I’m not charged up enough to feel like the Energizer Bunny. But better, much better even though all those nests filled with needy baby birds are waiting

  2. ronwodaski says:

    Simultaneously sad and beautiful; your words are suffused with your feelings. Love to you for being committed and honest. 😉 I like your metaphor of place for overwhelm. For me, the woods and cliffs are places of beauty and sincerity. I spent a long year by the ocean in Sitka, AK many years ago; I literally lived my life in a place that was my physical edge of desperation and mourning. I was trying to find a reason to continue living there. I found it, somewhere in that year I crossed a threshold and ever since, all the meanings, all the references changed. Beyond overwhelm, at least for me, is a new life; finding the boundaries, crashing into them, gracefully navigating them: it’s the same, I become a citizen of a new land. I get my certificate of navigation of the unknown, and I am pleased. Even so, you have taught me something new and precious today: ice cream. If you had asked me about ice cream a year ago, I would have said I don’t really care if I have any or not; it’s an OK treat but it’s nothing special; I could live my life without it. But now? I find that ice cream is incredible; it is healing, it is pleasure, and sometimes those things are so distant or small or painful to gather the energy for. Ice cream, I love you. 🙂 Your essay reminded me of that, it clarified the role of pleasure in stress. And I remember that overwhelm is a weird gift that makes you stronger by emphasizing your weakness. Your piece is something I will always treasure; it was my ice cream for today.

  3. cathypearl says:

    Thank you! Wishing you good flow and ease; oh, and a bowl of ice cream. Cathy Pearl

  4. Nancy says:

    I walk. To my Woods. In my Garden. I stitch. I create. I breathe the air. I touch the soil. I taste the raindrops. I listen to the crows at sunrise, and the owls at midnight. I read. I visit my grandchildren and children. I always make sure to “balance” the threat with the hope. Bright wishes to you, Theodora!

  5. Hi Theodorea,

    I was saddened to read what you sent me and I can understand it completely. I feel and have at times to get a grip on myself, and if it is any consolation, I do the same. I have punctuated my day with ‘little joys,’ and though when I speak or communicate with others from this space, I know they don’t understand, but for me it is meaningful and I see life in a different way.. I have recently created a Faery garden, a vegie patch, find different pathways in the forest, watched sunset, dallied with wild ducks, take scones and hot tea for interludes when walking by the river, drawn a flower, coloured my ‘inspiriation Board,’ do colour theraphy upon waking, change my colours daily – all matter of things coffee and cake, too is a favourite. I know these times are difficults and they are virtually non existant in Perth, Western Australia, but I have been quarentined for two months this year and could not leave the house to being ill, being lonely, being sad and I have pulled myself through too, with my love of simplicity and finding joy in small things. I hope you keep your resolve, for this time will surely past and I look forward to reading more of your beautiful stories and hope you visit Budepest again sooner than later. Carole Lane.

  6. Anne Marie Brown says:

    I love, “You can’t go on…there’s no on to go.” It really is that simple, isn’t it? I relate to the challenges of being an introvert. Luckily for me, I live alone and work from home, so living in the time of a pandemic isn’t traumatic like it is for so many. For me, the challenge is the barrage of chaos and pain and conflict in our world that comes via the internet. For me, my bowl of ice cream, is shutting it all off. All of it…and then I have ice cream.

  7. Suddenly Jamie (@suddenlyjamie) says:

    Wise advice from your tired heart. It is so important that we learn to recognize when we’ve reached true overwhelm, and there’s nowhere left to go. Our culture pushes us to carry on, battle through, persevere. But, sometimes, the best thing you can do (for yourself and the task at hand) is to just stop for a while. Like you said – sleep, read, have a bowl of ice cream. I am constantly amazed at how little it usually takes to reset my equilibrium, not to a point of being completely balanced and rested, but to a point where I can either see a safe path down off the cliff OR I acquire the sense to turn around and head back where I came from. Here’s to taking those moments of respite when we need them. xo

  8. Our neighbor literally just brought over a carton of homemade ice cream, while I was trying to clean out my email. And then I reread this post (after eating some of the ice cream of course!) Little moments of synchronicity still have the power to make me happy.

    A friend showed me how to hide the video of me from myself while I Zoom on my iPad. I still haven’t been able to make it work from my laptop. But I was astonished how much more energy I had for my friends via iPad video chat once that mirrored doppelgänger was no longer stealing my attention from them.

    I love your posts so much. I like to read each one two or three times because your language is beautiful, and there are so many ideas that resonate with me–especially right now.

    And I have a wild little vegetable garden. It is time to go out and check on my sweet potatoes.

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