Tuesday, August 26, 2008

One Thing at a Time

The day I wrote the previous post, I’d woken up feeling like I was coming down with a virus. I cancelled dates and asked my husband to stay home a little later and help out with the kids before he left for work. I called the sitter. I did everything I’ve learned how to do when the flu is coming on.

Only it turned out not to be the flu. It turned out that my brain had the flu, or my soul, or whatever it is that gets “depressed” during these episodes. As I understood over the course of the morning that I was sick in the head and not the body, I told myself there was only one thing I could do to get through the day:

(Reader, are you sitting down?)

Do only one thing at a time.

“Do one…thing…at a time?” you parents might be asking. “But what about the…and the…?” I know. How can you possibly make the kids lunch while not talking on the phone? How can you get them dressed without also doing a load of laundry? And what about all that time you spend going to the bathroom and eating? There are hundreds of questions from the kids that will have to go unanswered while you’re behind the closed door! And if you don’t read the newspaper over breakfast (while also checking e-mail and ferrying food and drink from kitchen to table and letting the dog in and out 14 times), then whenever will you?

Well, some days are just about survival.

I’ve tried other means of survival during mental crises, usually with a different twist, like: no chores before breakfast. No reading the newspaper or being online while the children are at the table. I thought this one simple rule, doing one thing at a time, would streamline the day.

I recruited Jonah and Audrey to help. I sat them down on the window seat in the dining room and made my intentions very clear.

“I am playing an important game today,” I explained. “Since I’m feeling sick and yucky, I’m going to only do one thing at a time. So if you ask me for something, and I’m doing something else, I’m going to ask you to wait until I’m done.”

“Why?” asked Jonah.

“Because this will keep me relaxed and help me get better sooner. And I probably won’t yell as much.”

They were down with it. Having my “game” as the reason why I didn’t cater to their whims all day was a wonderful thing for my mind to fall back on. Normally, I’d have despaired that my kids would NEVER let me get any peace, and they were spoiled, and in my grandma’s day they’d have already been wacked upside the head with a wooden hairbrush. I reminded myself that, oh right, I was trying something different today. And I reminded the kids that. And they were fine with it.

Doing one thing at a time turned out to be a meditation of sorts. It didn’t nourish me the way sitting meditation does, but it kept me from committing what my teacher calls, “unskillful behavior.” Doing one thing at a time, I was always present and I could always handle what was happening.

The downside was that I stayed up late folding laundry, cleaning the kitchen and writing. I couldn’t bear for those things to go undone. Some things took longer. But I was calm.

Is this kind of behavior really possible in modern life?

What if we tried? How different would our days be?


Rose said...

That is a very helpful Idea. I am always doing so much. Actually the other night at dinner deuce said, i have way too much on my plate (meaning food) but I could help but agree and say me too! I will try the game with the kids, Lily asks me for orange juice about 10 times while I am actually in the process of getting it! It is enought to send my day into a tailspin but I don't want it to affect me that much! I will keep you posted! BTW I love it when you reference the reader in your posts, it gives me a little smile for some reason!

Anonymous said...

I love this idea, Susie! So simple and yet complex. When I feel bombarded with demands (my own, my kids, husband, phone, cats, house, etc.) I can almost watch my sanity fly out the window. I think getting the kids to take it on as a game is brilliant! I will start this tomorrow morning. We might not get out the door very eatly...-V

Anonymous said...

So I tried it. And I suck at doing one thing at a time. I am frustrated, amazed, and frazzled when I think of all I do at once while driving down the road (Scary) or getting ready for bed. I will try again tomorrow because I need the sanity saver. Miss you, Susie! -V

susie said...

This is like meditaiton, if you've ever tried that. You never fail, you just come back to it 8000 times per minute. "Oh yeah, I'm just typing right now. The dinner plans can wait until I'm done typing." Think of it this way: every time you make the attempt or come back to your "game," you strengthen that little muscle (for lack of a better metaphor). Retraining the mind is arduous and slow. I think though, that just having that goal in mind, do one thing at a time, and reminding yourself over and over, is an excellent practice.

Rose said...

Totally! Today I was thinking to myself, I must have ADD. I am constantly starting things like folding a load of laundry or uploading pictures or paying bills and will literally walk away and start something else. It makes me crazy. I will walk into a room planning to do something and end up doing something totally different and forgetting why I was there in the first place. but I am going to try and remind myself of what I am doing and stay focused..gotta go Leo is being way too quiet....

Karen. said...

I think this is how people used to live their lives. We didn't expect more of ourselves than what we could give fully in a moment. I think it's good advice any time, regardless of the state of the brain.