October 10, 2020

Despair and Stillness

By Vega Subramaniam

Great blue heronWhat is happening? What. Is. Happening?

No, don’t answer that. I’m actually not interested in prolonging that conversation in this moment.

In this moment, what I’m actually interested in is turning again to taking care of ourselves.

During a recent call with a friend, I asked her what she was up to at the moment. Her reply was, oh, I’m just hanging out on my couch. “Watching TV?” I asked. “Reading? Scrolling?” Genuinely puzzled, she responded, “no, just…hanging out on my couch. Just sitting here.”

What, now? “Just sitting here”? That is not my experience of life. It’s not that I live at turbo-speed or anything; far from it. It’s that if I am awake, I am in motion. Sometimes literally, floating from room to room on a constant chase after my memory: “why did I come into the study, again? Hm, can’t remember.” Float back into the living room…“oh, right, my notebook.” Back to the study, grab the notebook, back to the living room, drop the notebook on the couch, head to the kitchen for a glass of water…“wait, why’d I come into the kitchen? Can’t remember.” Back to the living room—oh, right, water. And it begins again.

But my “being in motion” is not always physical. Sometimes, even though I’m sitting in one place, I’m still in motion. I am scrolling, while the TV is on, along with responding to emails, in addition to talking with Mala, all at once, simultaneously, at the same time.

You know what it is? It is a gambit to deaden the constant noise in my head. I can’t sit still because if I do, then I’ll hear the dreaded cacophony in my head. That’s very dangerous, you understand. That’s red-alert levels of stress and anxiety and grief and rage—and, lately, more than anything, despair. My brain won’t shut up, and most of what it has to tell me falls into one of three categories: (1) nonsense; (2) execrable nonsense; (3) doomsday level, apocalyptic, truly off-the-rails nonsense.

Hence, my motion. I am on the run from the despair lurking just beneath my constant motion. “Hanging out on my couch” (and doing nothing else) is an unacceptable invitation for a meltdown.

…Is what I fear.

But is it what I know?

No, actually. It’s not what I know. What I know is that in fact, and counterintuitively, it’s only when I slow down that I regain my ability to silence the cacophony in my head. It’s when I stop running, pause, and breathe, that the noise dissolves. And then it’s just me and fresh, clear, life-giving air.

What a welcome reminder that now, especially now, is exactly the time to revisit and reinstate the full assemblage of routines and practices and every last damn thing that keeps our heads above water, because for the love of all that is holy, as many of us as possible have to survive. We have to crush these next few days and weeks and months.

At the risk of repeating myself, again and again, I am beseeching you (and by “you,” I mean “me”) to take care of ourselves. For me, that means

  • Starting my day with my morning rituals, including sitting for just five minutes
  • Breathing
  • Spending time with my Mala, my friends, and my parents
  • Breathing
  • Moving my body
  • Reading murder mysteries
  • Breathing
  • Journaling
  • Along with journaling, externally processing, with anyone who will listen
  • Did I mention breathing?

For Mala, by contrast, that means quelling her fears by planning. As she says, “If I have my Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, then I can take care of myself in order to be in the best shape to execute on the plan.” Once she’s done the scenario planning, then she can shift her focus to the internal work necessary to keep going.

And for you? What are you doing that’s keeping you centered? If you’re drowning in anxiety, what can you return to, starting now? What will support you to return to yourself?

It’s on, friends. Let’s take care of ourselves.



  1. vegamala

    Aaditi, your wellness tracker spreadsheet sounds fabulous. I’m curious about what all your tabs are. I definitely track my daily practices, but not anything else.

    Wow, acupressure mats. Thanks for the tip. I’d never heard of them before. What a creative and wise (and scary-sounding!) solution.

    I can’t overstate how envious I am that you live somewhere sane.

  2. Aaditi

    A few months ago, I built a wellness tracker in Excel – a tab with a list of activities that I know work for me that I can mark off each day; a tab with a template to help me work through challenging experiences, and so on. How I didn’t think of this before, I don’t know.

    Re: despair, I needed to find a safe way of acknowledging and experiencing my nerves/anger/suffering. I got an acupressure mat, and, with deep breathing, it’s been my way of converting anguish into physical pain, while also experiencing that pain as temporary since I eventually end up relaxing. (I suggest finding a brand where the reviews say the spikes are sharp, and made of Lego plastic.)

    I (currently) don’t fear despair as much as I used to. I know that my emotional skills were worse, and just with time, that I had less life experience and context since the last time I despaired. Easy for me to say though, living somewhere sane.

  3. vegamala

    I agree that meltdowns are inevitable. I appreciate you sharing your tools, and hope you’ll save some of that prosecco for me (and maybe the cake for Mala). Raising a toast to presence, calls to action, and readiness to pivot!

  4. Agreed on all accounts!! You know, I expect it’s probably inevitable to meltdown at some point – that anxiety pit is deeeeeep and wiiiiide. And we have to use every tool in our toolkit now to show up for ourselves and those we are fighting alongside.

    Some of my tools are to bake a lot of cakes (there IS a Choctober Cake Plan), get some prosecco and toast myself/all of us for making it this far, get my flu shot, put off whatever decisions don’t need to be made today and will be clearer or easier to make in 1-3 months, stay off social media, and bring everything I’ve got to presence, calls to action, and readiness to pivot from uncertainty to uncertainty (cake is pretty critical for that).

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