I learned in school that when a gas is heated within a container, thermal energy is converted to kinetic energy, and the particles move around faster. They rebound off the walls and off each other, exerting more and more pressure on the container as the temperature rises. Initially, the container will stretch to accommodate this–by varying degrees depending on its material properties. But if the pressure continues to build, it will eventually exceed the tensile strength of the walls that hold it, and the container will burst.
This is an uncanny analogy for my mental space. I am a container, and my thoughts, ideas, memories, longings and fears are each their own particle. Those particles usually float around at a gentle pace, content to just be. When they bump into one another, they spark little connections or come together to form something entirely new.
Sometimes, the temperature rises and the walls of my container can gently stretch to bring my internal pressure back into equilibrium. This process happens beneath my awareness–mind and body working as two partners in an elegant, subconscious dance. If there’s such a thing as normal, I fancy that it looks like this.
But all too often, something in the process goes wrong. Sometimes, it’s simply that the temperature exceeds my capacity to stretch–those life-altering traumas that hit us out of nowhere and change the entire trajectory of our life going forward–but mercifully, those are rare. Though the initial impact of such an event can threaten to tear us apart, I’ve always marvelled at the body’s ability to stretch until it can distance itself from the catastrophe, by proximity or by time. I’ve always found the survival mode that comes after such traumas to be paradoxically soothing. Such extreme pressures usually allow me to build a narrative that is simple and, perhaps most importantly, external. It’s the other causes, the ones that are hidden and insidious and internal, that truly trouble me.
Because in a closed system, the equation must be balanced, and any rise in pressure must have a cause. But if I feel my container stretching when the external temperature remains the same, where else can this pressure come from within?
Perhaps it’s the microscopic tears in my container walls that I’ve accumulated throughout my life–each rejection and failure, each loss and broken dream, slowly amassing to threaten its integrity and reduce its elasticity. Or perhaps there’s something wrong with the particles themselves? Maybe I gathered too many–my overcrowded mind pushed beyond my intellectual capacity to process–or maybe the space in my mind is shrinking–the inevitable yet terrifying effects of age beginning to claim me. Maybe I picked up some bad particles at some point, and each time they collided with the good particles, they spread their influence like an infection?
Regardless, my brittle edges cannot alleviate the pressure, and the particles of my mind move ever faster. They compete for less and less space, ricocheting off the inner walls of my skull and off each other, colliding in haphazard and noisy ways that don’t make sense. The mounting pressure aches, drawing my conscious awareness and initiating a chain reaction.
My conscious mind, though well-intentioned, is not as good at this dance as my subconscious, and my awareness of the problem usually only serves to compound it. As I flood my system with new particles of concern and doubt, there’s even less space and even more noise. Eventually, it’s as though the container itself is collapsing, compressing the thoughts within until they move at lightning speed, colliding almost constantly, becoming a vibrating mass where one thought is indistinguishable from the next, where everything is connected in one tumbling, unstoppable mass.
At this point in the process, all my usual coping mechanisms are offline. Attempting to halt the process with mindfulness, hopefulness, and gratitude feels like standing in the path of an avalanche and holding out a palm to stop it. Distraction and numbing can sometimes pause the progression, though only for as long as I am actively engaged. And creative work?
I want to make sense of this experience. Perhaps I can turn it into something meaningful that might help others or at least bridge a connection between us. I remember the image of the tortured artist, who captures the minutiae of the lived experience with such genius that we can only conclude that the muses were whispering directly into their troubled ear. I wonder if, like them, I can bravely delve into this raging tempest within me and return with something profoundly honest and painfully real.
I sit down and tune into the chaos inside me. I pull at the tangled threads, hoping I might find something to work with, but all I find is a swirling mess of mud, each contributing component inseparable, inextricably tied to everything else. It’s as though I have everything to say and nothing at all. Like it is the most important thing in the world and also entirely pointless. Alas, it seems that no muses reside in my pain–only self-criticism and a dash of unwelcomed nihilism. I require calm and focus to make my work, and I find myself envious of my tortured brethren.
In these spells, I watch the world around me and wonder if this is normal, or if there is something terribly wrong with me. My family and friends are productive and conscientious, contributing in their unique ways, and don’t seem paralysed by their minds like me. When I’m in the passenger side as my husband is driving, I play a little game in which I watch the houses rolling past the window, and I wonder at the stories of those who live within. I see one with a vibrant collection of lawn ornaments and know someone cared enough to curate this eclectic collection over time and display it proudly to passers-by. I see another with a wrap-around porch and two rocking chairs, and I imagine that a retired couple lives there, and they are content to pass their quiet evenings in those chairs reading beside one another, a dog curled up asleep at their feet. And in that scene, there is no space for the sort of existential panic that so often resides in me.
But then I wake one day and find the clouds have inexplicably parted. My elasticity has returned, and I wonder why everything felt so heavy before. Perhaps I hadn’t slept well, or I was hormonal, or some other chemical process I have no awareness of was governing me, but I find my particles behaving themselves today. I shrug it off and get back to living, playing catch-up on all the responsibilities I neglected while I was trapped within myself. I promise myself I’ll do something with this clarity–turn that pain into art now I have the capacity to make again–but when I try, I no longer have access to that place and every attempt feels like a hollow, clichéd impression. No matter. It doesn’t feel so important to capture that experience now I’m back to being normal. Perhaps I’ll get to stay that way, this time.