My partner and I started a puzzle the other night, but we didn’t get far. While our tired eyes studied the tiny pieces, we listened to Terry Gross interview a neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, about his new book, Keep Sharp. They discussed the pandemic’s effect on our brains, namely, the relentless stress.
Gupta said stress is necessary. Change, though stressful, sharpens our intellect and helps us adapt. This wasn’t news to me. Still, I didn’t like hearing it. We were listening to the weekend re-run of the show, on January 10.
The date is important. I had an emotional hangover from watching the US Capitol attacks on January 6, and I didn’t want to hear that stress was good. I wanted to believe that what was happening to me — my gradual dissolve into a puddle — was fine. I wasn’t interested in staying sharp or learning anything.
Parts of the Fresh Air interview sounded like a self-help guide. “We need breaks from stress,” Gupta said.
There’s a lot of self-care advice out there, and it’s attractive for obvious reasons. We want to feel better, and we want shortcuts for getting there. I roll my eyes at platitudes, but then a phrase like,
“instead of taking a break, I gave myself a break”
pops into my head, followed by another thought: I want to explore that idea.
I know how those words — give and take — got planted in my mind. Weeks ago, I read a blog post by Meghan Daum, in which she berated herself for the “dumb” think pieces she had written over the years. She told the backstory for “When Getting Older Means Letting Go of Music”:
I’m not sure what I was doing that week other than bracing myself to turn 50, but it must have been a really bad moment — and not just because I was obviously deliriously hard up for a column topic. With nowhere else to turn, I resorted to expanding on an observation I’d made during a rather melancholy conversation with a friend.
Daum judged the piece harshly, calling it a “bad take,” and she cringed when thinking back on what she had written. I know that feeling, but I was surprised by Daum’s confession.
Then, another surprise: Daum re-read the music essay, and she was “moved by it.” That’s when she planted the give and take idea in my mind:
It wasn’t a think piece. It was a personal essay, an offering. It wasn’t a take. It was a give.
The sentiment seemed a little cheesy at first, but also, touching. And clever too. I liked the word play. People who are sensitive to language can sometimes get lost in the intellectual realm. Writers forget to let their emotions guide them, too. Here, Daum was doing both. Paying attention to the words and letting her feelings come through.
Semantics are important. The people who stormed the Capitol don’t have a good handle on language. They think “freedom of speech” means doing whatever you want, without consequences. Their hero is also confused. But it’s not just their words that are troublesome. Their strong feelings, unregulated and fueled by misinformation, led to violence and chaos. If I had only witnessed careless talk on January 6, it would have been like any other day in the Trump era.
Throughout January, my body hurt. My partner kept asking me, “Why don’t you take a bath?” A reasonable question, to which I responded, “I can’t take a bath, until I clean the tub.”
But then, I finally cleaned the tub, and I still didn’t take a bath. (In case you’re wondering, Why doesn’t her partner clean the tub?, know that I volunteered for tub duty; he vacuums, does most of the cooking, cleans the oven and the shower curtain, among many other chores.)
My body was hurting because I was dissociating from it. When I’m stressed, I retreat into a mental space. The problem is, while my thoughts can seem expansive, my breath usually contracts. And with each contraction, my body shrinks.
There was a voice saying, “Take a break,” but how does one take a break during a pandemic?
I thought about taking a bath; it seemed like a chore. Then, after much avoidance and too much thinking, I did it. I got into the bath, and I remembered why I was avoiding it.
My bathtub is small and poorly designed. There’s no comfortable space to rest my head, so I contort my neck. Also, the hot water, seemingly pleasant, was actually painful. Not because it was too hot, but because my tense muscles relaxed, and as they released tension, the sensations overwhelmed me. I needed to cry, but I didn’t want to cry, so I got out of the tub.
Self-care isn’t easy, and that’s why it needs to be balanced out with other rituals. What finally broke the spell of my dissociation was a conversation with my twin sister. I told her I was depressed, and she suggested going for a walk, or drinking tequila. Both options reminded me of what I was missing — sensory experiences. Her advice was similar to my partner’s: Take a bath. Suddenly, his idea seemed like the easier option, since it was freezing outside, and I didn’t want alcohol.
On the last day of January, a Sunday, I eventually gave myself a break. I was sitting on the couch, jotting down writing ideas, and after I filled a page of notes, I felt satisfied. It was still morning, and I had this feeling like the next hour was wide open, for, whatever.
Without thinking, I ran a bath, and I easily solved my neck problem: I lay flat and submerged my head under the water. For a few blissful moments, I thought of nothing, and then the idea popped into my head:
“instead of taking a break, I gave myself a break.”
When I stepped out of the tub, I glanced in the mirror. My hot skin was the color of terracotta, and my slick hair shined darker. I felt feral, and I liked it.
I could leave the story there, giving you, the reader, a sense that I have a certain message. Like, think of self-care as a gift, not a chore —except, no, that’s not what I want to say. Meghan Daum might have turned me on to the give and take distinction, but it was Dr. Gupta’s “breaks” that unnerved me.
At the beginning of January, before the Capitol debacle, I wrote this headline idea: The Cost of Taking a Break. It sounded too vague, but I thought it might turn into something.
Why was I thinking of a break as costly? Well, at the end of December, I told my therapist I needed to take a break, from therapy. The main reason being that my health insurance has a high deductible for out-of-network fees.
Not all breaks are necessary, and not all breaks are welcome. We tell ourselves to “take a break,” but the message is unclear. What are we breaking from? When is a break a mistake?
Breaks are normal, in the natural world. The sun goes down, and the moon rises, and there are cyclical patterns that offer a sense of stability and meaningful repetition. But humans keep moving farther from nature. And how we’re living these days — separated, indoors — it’s not natural or normal.
My epiphany in the bathtub felt powerful. The words sounded good in my head, but I don’t know if they’re helpful. What I hope is, by sharing my personal experience with you, you’ll feel some kind of connection. What more is there to hope for?
If someone advised you to “take a break,” you would probably be in this situation: You are working, and you have been working for a long time.
But there’s an insidious cliché around taking breaks. The thinking is, when you take a break, that’s when you solve a problem. That’s when you get your brilliant ideas — in the shower, on the toilet, in the bathtub.
What’s insidious about it? Your “break” is a link on the long chain of productivity, the endless grind of bettering yourself, and maybe, making the world a better place. (I would have preferred to fully bliss out in my bathtub, not latch onto another abstract idea.)
However, if someone advised you to “give yourself a break,” you would probably be in this situation: You have been thinking back on something you did, experiencing regret, and criticizing yourself.
So, what if you gave yourself a break for not taking a break? Because, hey, maybe you’re not ready to feel “better.”
And if you’re feeling like, dude, I just want some practical advice, I offer this: breathe.
My therapist, a person who is not a writer, but who shares my sensitivity to language, would say, “Notice how you want to do something.”
In other words, does a break need to be active? Does it need the verbs give and take? Can it be easy, natural, passive, automatic? Can it just be a break?