I’ve cried every day for about three weeks. I have been left clawing for words from an empty throat. It’s one of those seasons in my survivorship, progressive illness, and young adulthood where I am completely overwhelmed by the sum of my life’s parts in America. Even without the crisis at the Capitol, I’ve felt bruised up and emptied out. This is such a common experience for the other trans and nonbinary survivors in my life, but we seem to be talking around it as we take on new projects and bury the wounds with memes. I don’t want to warp my tongue around the pit that has made its home in my gut like I’m fine, like everything’s fine, when it isn’t right now even if I feel safe knowing it will pass. Overwhelm doesn’t have to constitute a crisis to be worth talking about. We still deserve space in each other’s hearts when we’re managing to complete our activities and meet deadlines carrying around a tearful maw in our core. Contrary to every lesson trauma teaches about trusting no one and lacing our own boots, it is necessary and beautiful to let our guards down so that the overwhelm we’re carrying can spill out and not be our secret burden anymore.
Mine stopped giving me the choice. When the tears turned from tame to the grief-sick, I was urged by proximity to let my partner in to just how overwhelmed I was feeling by the intersecting parts of my life that feel so hard to hold right now. Instead of shrugging it off as “just trauma stuff,” I let him sense the shapes and weights of the burdens I was carrying in my too-heavy heart and how they all fit together into a currently overwhelming puzzle. Letting someone in to all the sharp edges and heavy corners of the overwhelming things we’re carrying demystifies the overwhelm and shares the burden. Continuance becomes more possible. He helped me, with my consent and after the emotions had settled themselves out some, conduct an informal values assessment on where I was giving so much energy, asking if I wanted to continue offering so much of myself to those spaces in those ways. While I may not, for example, be able to curl inward and away from involvement with doctors as a chronically ill person, I can reach out for and accept help scheduling my appointments with them and have friends come with me to long appointments. The overwhelm lessens when I redistribute my energy and accept help carrying my feelings and completing my tasks. I don’t have to do all things at all times, and neither do you.
It’s important in this process that I let my feelings show up, be fully felt, and be allowed space. Like some trans and nonbinary survivors I love, I used to cope with feelings of overwhelm in survivorship by pouring more tasks into the wound. Survivors have lots of reasons for turning towards over-work. For me, I’d deny myself time and space to process the very human experience of being overwhelmed because I didn’t believe myself worthy or capable of being human. Thanks to a lot of self work, I’m much more in touch with and in love with my humanity, and can turn towards this experience of overwhelm with more compassion and curiosity than before. In addition to letting my feelings be fully felt without burying them with work, drugs, memes, etc, turning towards my overwhelm with curiosity and compassion means really asking my bodymind if its needs are getting met:
- How is my sleep?
- Am I only consuming media for work/school/the news and not for pleasure?
- Are my nutritional and movement needs met?
- Do I need a shower or bath? Have I brushed my teeth? Am I in clean clothes?
- Are there any calls or texts from friends that I want to return right now?
- What kind of music am I listening to, if any? What can I change about my environment to feel more comfortable and powerful?
- Is there anything I should ask for help with or say no to?
Returning to these questions throughout the day equips me with some resources stored up to meet the rest of my life with more confidence. It’s been important to me in my overwhelm to continue to “suit up and show up,” as they say, but to do it honestly and with boundaries that respect my sense of overwhelm and my compassionate connection to not make it worse. Continuing to show up to my daily life commitments gives me a sense of community and purpose that is invaluable to my healing as a survivor, and I also give myself permission to skip out on the extra Zoom calls that I signed up for when I was feeling better. Balancing purpose and rest is made possible because I’m asking for help and checking in with my bodymind, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sense of heaviness is lifting as I give it respect and love.
Here are some additional tips I’ve gleaned for surviving and healing this pit of overwhelm:
- Remember that overwhelm is a normal part of the survivor’s journey: Even if absolutely everything about the surrounding world was even keel, there would still be times when our inner terrains become dark and unsteady as we process traumatic material or overcome old beliefs ingrained by violence. These periods of transformation are something to be proud of, not try to bury.
- Know when to call in new or additional back up: If you find yourself truly stuck, it might be time to talk with your support team about changing up who is supporting you professionally so that your needs can be met through this period. Do you need a therapist with a different skill set or modality? Would you benefit from seeing a dietician or nutritionist? Updating your team can be scary even when you aren’t overwhelmed, but it’s critical to be getting the proper kinds of supports during these dark nights so that they don’t live up to their potential of becoming a crisis. There is no shame in asking for more or different kinds of help, and it doesn’t mean you’ve “failed” your current team or your time together. This is just a new relational step on the healing journey.
- Don’t take on unnecessary processing: There will be time and space to process traumatic memories, illness narratives, transition fears, and other difficult body stories once your bodymind has reregulated and you no longer feel like a gaping wound carrying around a thousand pounds on your shoulders. Taking time away from processing, even in therapies, is not a waste: It allows yourself time to rest in safety and look around at the new story you’re living in exactly as it is. That is an immensely healing pause. Once I stopped battling to untangle all the names behind why I was overwhelmed, all the traumas that felt too heavy in this moment, and instead just sat on my couch and cried and let myself be here with them as they were, they lost some of their impossible weight and I became able to meet the day that had previously felt unbearable. There’s nothing to figure out or “fix” right now, just ask for help carrying what you know and get through this present moment as it is. Processing everything that led you here will be possible once you’re fully reoriented to this moment and your human capacities for goodness.
- Make a commitment not to hurt yourself or the life you’re building: This can be made with another person, but doesn’t have to be. Is there a pet you’re responsible for caring for that you can commit to giving your full presence to each day? A TV show? Friends over the internet or made playing video games? A neighbor to wave to? Even having a plant to water or laundry to do for someone you love can serve as a commitment to stay connected and vital through this overwhelm. No matter how high the tide feels, you will make it. This will pass. Seemingly small, connective actions help get us through.
Listen: Heavy by Birdtalker
Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist
Tristen Taggart is an agender antiviolence activist pursuing their Bachelor’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tristen joined FORGE as a Policy and Programming Intern in 2018 and now works as the Trans Youth and Trauma Specialist. Tristen is a queer survivor, community activist, scholar, and direct-support volunteer with an evolving focus on the intersections and divergences of queer survivorship, disability justice, and abolition in the lives of young people. They are thrilled to bring their passion and curiosity to FORGE from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.