Running on Empty

rl_11-18-14_1For some reason, I’ve been putting this one off although I’ve mentioned wanting to write it maybe three times now. It’s not like it’s an idea particularly difficult for me and it’s not triggering at all. I imagine it’s because it might still be one of those concepts that my brain understands through its mystical and magical ways of forming cogent non-linear thoughts, but has yet to funnel into the bit that lines everything up for more restricted things like words and stuff. I’d tried to explain it to my doc the last week, and even though I was stumbling she got it right away, so if you’re smart like she is you should be all right.

I’ve always called it my psychological fuel, the finite amount of inner, personal resources I have available to use throughout my day. Inside of us all, we have a container that’s constantly being refilled as we draw from it, but not everyone’s container is the same size, not everyone’s inner psychological engine has the same mileage rating, and not everyone’s refill is super efficient. I imagine in this, the 21st century, I could refer to batteries, amperage, and electric motors, but I remember adjusting the carburetor on my ‘73 Pontiac so shut up you tree-hugging hippie weirdo.

Here’s where the metaphor goes off on a completely bizarre tangent, so bear with me. Imagine the containers that hold this fuel are the various-sized glasses you’d find at a bar. A normal, healthy, average person has a pint glass that’s filled pretty easily from a tap, while someone else might have a schooner or a highball but still get by pretty well. Mine, however, is a shooter glass, a little larger than a shot, not so big as a tumbler or lowball, but emptied pretty quickly and not so straightforward a thing to fill back up again. I have to be very particular about how I budget this psychological fuel. I can’t slam down the gas pedal, I can’t go long distances, and I can’t race through yellow lights all the time like I used to.

And that annoys the fuck out of me, but I have to be careful not to indulge even that so much that it drains me.

My doctor likened it to resiliency: the ability to bounce back from trauma or moments of stress. You know that really old pair of tighty whities in the drawer, the ones that don’t hug your hips so well now and you’ve been meaning to throw out but never do? They’ve lost their resiliency. They’ve seen too much trauma, buddy, time to let them go. It’s a real-world term that captures the gist of my more complex metaphor quite well, but for many of us it’s an abstract and those can be difficult to personally identify with. Everyone knows what happens when your car runs out of gas. That’s a tangible experience most of us have had.

In more real-world terms (but because it’s me, still more wordy and awkwardly complicated), people with limited resilience can find situations highly stressful that someone else shrugs off, or even enjoys. Large family gatherings, for example. Meeting new people or just making a phone call (a huge one for me) are others. We will avoid them because they overwhelm our ability to manage, and anxiety episodes, acute and immediately overwhelming or more chronic, longer lasting, and simmering, occur when our psychological fuel hovers close to empty.

I’m still trying to work out if we can go into a negative balance, or if there’s some hidden reserve tank to draw on in emergencies, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular post. I will probably explore that idea another time.

If all you’ve got is a shooter, you’re probably already nodding your head. If you’re one of those with a pint in your hand, think about this before you tell someone to suck it up or judge them unfairly: You’re out in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere with an eighth of a tank and no BP station in sight. How anxious would that make you?

4 thoughts on “Running on Empty

  1. I think I have the same size shot glass – or a battery running seriously in the red at about 9% after leaving a 20-year career this summer. We don’t realise how fragile we have become until we begin to crack in a myriad of tiny pieces prior to shattering. It’s not a gentle shattering, either: it’s one of those sharp, explosive snaps that breaks utterly. When that happens, the task of salvaging the tiny broken pieces of ourselves can almost seem insurmountable. One day and one tiny step at a time does it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very well put. It was about 5 years ago that mine shattered so completely that I was drinking out of my palm, ignoring the pieces and even walking over them until recently. I learned to never look at the big picture, as you suggest, and take the tiny steps to the small, easily achievable goals and then celebrate them as if I’d won a great championship each time. Maybe that’s the only thing that kept me alive. It certainly was the only tool in my toolbox for a very long time.

      Thank you so much for your insight.


  2. Pingback: Waiting for Godot | Patrick Riley

  3. When my glass shatters (It’s happened more than once), I go to level 1 of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I take care of basic needs….sometimes not well….and that’s it. I call it “survival mode”, although it involves my whole life, not just “fight, flight, freeze.”

    Physical problems…recently having a heart attack, add to the glass on the floor, needing to be picked up.


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