This past year, I became overwhelmed really easily. It just happened one morning, without any notice, and one day turned into another as I became anxious at the very thought of life. I’ve always been a go-getter, an overachiever, and could laugh in the face of stress, but this fall, stress laughed in my face daily. I would be confronted with a normal task,and would immediately feel my fingertips tingle, my heart race, and my brain panic with the thought, “I just can’t accept another thing”.
I would have to excuse myself, go to the bathroom, and take deep breaths. Pray. Ask for grace. Drink water, eat crackers, basically take communion in the hopes that my body could reset itself, start over, and remember that being asked to come over for dinner or hang out was out of love. I think I was expecting so much of myself, and if I felt it from anyone else, I panicked.
Some nights, I would lay in bed and become over aware of my body. I would feel the sheet against my legs and my hair blowing over my forehead. I would count my fingers, my toes, notice myself blinking, breathing, feeling. One day, I noticed this strange feeling in my stomach. It was a day where I felt overdone, overwhelmed, and guilty because it really wasn’t a stressful day by most people’s standards. It felt full, but not from food. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it felt like someone had blown up a lot of balloons and somehow stuffed them inside of me.
This was the first time I noticed this, and after that I started to understand, in my own way, what was going on. It gave me words to explain my feelings:
Inside all of us, balloons are blown up everyday. Balloons are things that make you sad, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, scared, challenged, or worried.
Most people keep them outside. You can blow up a lot of balloons and it doesn’t matter; there is plenty of room. You share your sad and worried balloons with friends, and suddenly you feel better. Your scared balloons sometimes blow away when the sun comes out. Challenge balloons make you stronger.
One day, all of my balloons moved inside the house. I’m not sure why, but they flew in the windows and I’m stuck with them like a birthday party that ended badly.
People, like me in this season, have a hard time with these balloons. They are puffy and make bad sounds when rubbed together. They make your hair stand up with their static. Sometimes they even pop and make your heart jump.
As the day goes on, more and more are added to this bad party. Soon the whole room is full of balloons. There’s not one spot left- the room is completely stuffed with these awful, squeaky, fragile, bad-feeling monsters. Some days they stay in the living room. I can keep a little more in that room; the ceilings are high and there’s room to spread out. But on my hardest days, the balloons are stored in the guest bathroom. I’m usually full by lunch.
I hope the they move outside again. But until then, all I can say is, “I don’t have room for anymore balloons”.
I started telling people about the balloons. It explained why I couldn’t take on another task at that moment. Maybe in five minutes, an hour, tomorrow, I could, but not now. It really helped.
One of my favorite moments this spring was when I walked in the kitchen, and Ben turned around, made eye contact with me, and said, “Rachel, I have too many balloons”. I hugged him for a while; sometimes thats the best way to pop them. After we let go, I said, “How can I take some from you?” I helped him make dinner that day, and I had the privilege of relieving someone from their load of those awful squeaky things.
I don’t know why sometimes you can handle one hundred balloons, and other times, only ten. Or one. But there is no shame in numbers. You don’t win an award for the amount you have or don’t have.
You are allowed to feel. What you feel matters.
My friend Tyler once told me, “Your emotions aren’t always true, but they are always valid”.
I’ve come to learn that perception is so powerful, and even if what you're feeling isn’t based on reality, it's true for you. Fear is always real for the personal experiencing it. Sadness is always real for the person experiencing it. Sometimes hearing truth can shift your reality, and sometimes you just need to ride out the storm.
But there is no shame in feeling. There was a time in the spring where I felt amazing. Beyond amazing. I woke up to birds singing, I was inspired, I could run far; it was like everything was sparkling and going my way. I felt good. However, In the midst of this happiness, there was pressure to continue it, because if I became sad or angry, I might ruin this feeling forever. I was so afraid to feel anything negative those few weeks. Feeling happy became attached to fear.
Late one Saturday night, I ran next door and sat on my friend's bed and helped her fold laundry. Its funny how your worries get smaller when you're in the presence of people who love you and are doing menial tasks while sharing their heart. She asked me what we going on and I was so thankful to gush it all out; I was really afraid to feel negative emotions. Feeling happy felt dangerous, like, “don’t get too used to this or the joke's on you."
The puppy whined in the next room. With a sleepy smile, she said, "You are allowed to feel emotions without feeling guilty; and You should want to feel them because they are beautiful. You need to learn to not over react to them, though. You also need to recognize that you are fragile right now and protect yourself by avoiding triggers. It's not worth it. You're allowed to have bad days and even bad weeks. It's normal. If it lasts too long, all you need to do is find someone who loves you and share with them. You know vulnerability makes you powerful."
I did know that, but I needed a bit of reassurance in that area. Little fears had grown into monsters over the course of a few bad days.
She put down the shirt she was folding, looked at me and said,
"You're smart. You know everything will be ok".
"Sometimes I need to hear someone else say it," I replied.
"You'll be ok".
I ran home in the safety of the stars, walked in through the kitchen, grabbed a handful of M&Ms, and went to bed feeling like I had a chance again.
I admit that sometimes I'm afraid to have normal emotions and I feel so guilty for being human. Because if you're normal, you're one sneeze away from being a monster. One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott says “If you have a body, you are entitled to the full range of feelings. It comes with the package.” Sometimes its hard to learn to embrace the whole package.
But that night, in the presence of a steady, loving, friend, I was reminded how beautiful it is to feel, to love, to be in relationship. I want to be content with feeling every emotion out there, knowing that they won't last forever.
Right now the balloon situation is manageable. I’m getting better at ignoring the sounds they make, and I’m learning to ask people to take some away or at least not give me any extra.
As I'm in the process of learning to give myself extra grace, I’m able to see others through the lens of grace. We all need it. Lots and lots of it.