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Overwhelmed With Troubles?

OverwhelmedLast Year

[This is an article I wrote in early 2008.  On the “good news” side, one year later, my husband continues to be well; chemo, surgery and more chemo stemmed the tide and for the moment, tests come back with our dear friend “NED” – no evidence of disease.  The tub’s been repaired and the toilets replaced.  Life is good.]

Under siege in our battle against an aggressive cancer that has invaded my husband’s esophagus, and, aggravated by a pileup of life’s little irritations, I’m beginning to feel “whelmed” as in “overwhelmed” except that, with perhaps outrageously inappropriate optimism, I refuse to be “overed”! I depend on my resilience to bounce back from this onslaught of bad news.

Yeah, there’s all his BIG DEAL medical stuff. He’s had to deal with the biopsies, the cancer diagnosis, the tests, the chemo sessions and their repeated yucky aftermaths; and, lest we become complacent, I have a few medical issues of my own and we both have waaaay too many doc’ appointments.

And there are the everyday, little irritations: our TV died, our bathtub cracked and leaked through the ceiling to the dining room, the upstairs toilets backed up, two car batteries died, two tires flattened on different cars, the electricity went out, the freezer and refrigerator in the garage suddenly stopped working. I could go on, but you get the picture. Every day is an adventure in dealing with the mundane and the life-threatening.

I Need a Way to Ride It Out

I find myself succumbing to a sense of drowning; what I need is a way to just ride it out like “Wilson” (the volleyball in the Tom Hanks movie, Castaway) bouncing atop the crest of the sea waves, never quite “overed” by the “whelm”.

How do I become “wilson-like” – buoyant despite the forces that threaten to drown our wellness? How do I deal with minor irritations and major worries? Without losing more sleep? Without surrendering optimism and hope? How do I keep up the good fight?

I suppose there’s always drug therapy… perhaps embracing the advice of Bobby McFerrin’s lyrics: [amazon-product text=”Don’t Worry, Be Happy” type=”text”]B000TE1BE6[/amazon-product]? But I know, unfortunately, from the experiences of others near and dear to me, drugs are just a very tempting, deep hole that I’d have to dig myself back out of … and seriously, I have stuff I need to do!

There Must Be a Better Way

Little did I know four years ago when I finally signed up for art lessons at the local school district that I would be girding for war. I thought I was foolishly following a false hope that I might, through hard work and due diligence, discover some hidden talent. Alas, I’m as creative and talented as the average student – meaning not very talented but amusingly creative none the less.

And, as it turns out, creative expression is another avenue to attitude stability and resilience in the face of daunting adversity. Surprisingly, I’m indeed girded for this war on cancer heaped with life irritations – thanks to lessons in artistic expression.

In the course of my art studies I heard an artist-teacher, insist that all art must be, “first and foremost about emotion.” Ah, and I thought my quest was about mastering drawing & painting technique. Ta-da! I had crossed an artistic and mental health threshold!

I asked myself – what emotions adequately describe and capture our struggle to survive and thrive? “Oppressed and hopeful” – that’s what I’m feeling.

So, during the next week’s art class lesson – drawing clouds with soft pastels – I fantasized “storm & sunlight” as metaphors for “oppressed and hopeful” or “pessimism vs. optimism” and this was the result:

Storm and Light 1

But, for my classmates’ this was too much of “oppressed” and not much of “hopeful”. So I played some more and here’s what I got:

Storm and Light 2

Interesting, But It’s Still Too Ominous

Changing tactics, I went for a dreary, but light-drenched, rainy road flowing into an unknown, cloudy mist.

Misty Road Flowing

Still kind of desolate, I thought. Not much “hope”.

So then I decided to take a different approach and go for the optimistic emotions of “joyous anticipation” (of wellness all round) coupled with the “awe & promise” (of generous and loving friends and relatives and curative treatments and recovery sans cancer.)

I recalled a recent rainy morning when I was driving my husband to his early morning, 0-dark hundred, Lions Club meeting and on to his office. I was doing the driving so that he could conserve his energy for necessary demands like keeping his business on even keel while weathering the onslaught of the chemo’s nasty side-effects. Stopped at a traffic signal, I became enthralled with an expanse of turquoise light beaming from behind ink black hills drenched with purple sky… I would, I decided, call it “Blue Dawn in the Rain”. Or some such title.

Well, this weekend, our grandson wanted to paint during his visit, so, to my already jumbled art studio, a.k.a., kitchen table, we imported a French easel (for him) and suitable painting supplies for both of us.

And Inspiration Struck

I gave my “Blue Dawn” idea another try, “Try #3” to be exact. With acrylic paint, I blocked bands of deep color wash (purple, turquoise, black and white) then I abandoned restraint and went wild with bold, upward slashes of new colors and brush strokes that carved out the wash in their wake.

It was an impressionistic mess (!) that I walked away from not knowing whether I’d started something interesting or simply relieved some tension with unbridled brush-finger painting. When I returned to the “mess”, I added soft pastels strokes & smudges to bring meaning to the scene and this is the result:

Promise of a New Day

I like it! Yes, it’s dark and it’s raining. But to my amateur’s eye, the painting now says: “Oh! Look at the promise of the new day!” Though it hardly qualifies as a professional work of art, it certainly qualifies as my “work of resolution”, my channel to the “wilson-like” buoyancy of spirit that helps me stay in the good fight. A bounce back moment to savor!

I’m not the only one who finds relief in art. Another local soul who turned to creative expression in the face of trauma was chronicled in our local paper with the headline: “Bank teller paints portrait of robbery suspect. Man turns ordeal into inspiration to paint ‘Hobo Bandit’, suspected in three local robberies.” I’d bet you can find more examples if you look.

How About Trying Your Hand at Doodling?

Even if you don’t have time or inclination to take a drawing or painting class, you could try the timeworn and unappreciated art of doodling. All it takes is a pencil or a pen and whatever “canvas” is at hand. The website tells us “Doodling allows the unconscious to render in symbolic expression [which has] universal as well as personal meaning. When you are stuck for an answer to a problem or looking for creative innovation, the technique of doodling will unleash the hidden symbolic powers of the unconscious mind.”

To get started, my art teacher suggests this exercise: Take a blank sheet of paper and just start scribbling, starting at the middle of the page with the intention of filling the page, edge to edge. Let your pencil wander anywhere it wants to go. Try it; it’s waaay easy.

When You Find Yourself Drowning in a Sea of “Overwhelm”

Pick up that pen and try doodling your way to “Wilson-like” buoyancy! Even if it’s not great art, it will give you some respite moments that will help you bounce back from whatever’s harrying your day. Sometimes that’s all it takes to keep us in the game – a refreshing moment of resilience, a moment away from the battering sea of troubles.

What creative outlets could you turn to when you’re about to succumb to the “overwhelm”?

4 comments to Overwhelmed With Troubles?


    My Father had a sign on his desk, given to him by his company–THINK—
    I always interpeted this to mean singularly, not plural. “Overwhelm” is a good example of pluralism–too many ideas running around in your head, leading to unnessesary stress. The female mind may work well for multi tasking, but I prefer to still think singularly.

  • PattiAnn

    Having worked for the THINK company, and having the same sign in my office, let me defend the multi-tasking talented. Our species would not have survived without those who can watch the kids, cook dinner, talk on the phone and do laundry all-at-the-SAME-TIME. According to Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, our(men’s and women’s) brains are just plain different. We see differently, which is why women tend to prefer different colors than men. We also hear differently, which is one explanation for why you guys sometimes don’t hear us. Maybe too many ideas running around in my head leads to unnecessary stress, but I maintain that if I don’t keep track of all that stuff in my head, the stress may well go from unnecessary to necessary – as I drop some of the balls I’m trying to juggle.

  • LifeBricks

    I think my new motto in the face of my ever vomiting “to do” list is going to be…”I’m ‘whelmed’, but I REFUSE to be ‘over’d'”!!! How do I normally deal with it??? Well, a good healthy “vent rant” to my husband, a good friend or unsuspecting family member always seems to help. AND, every once in a while a mini-meltdown “pity party” quickly ending in the “seriously, I have stuff I need to do!” multi-tasking flurry of get it done activity!!! : )

  • PattiAnn

    I agree, a “pity party” helps tremendously to get me moving in the right direction. I think physiologically, it ends up bleeding off the adrenaline created by the fear that goes with the ‘whelmed.’ Maybe it’s just a female thing, but a good cry can really help! Maybe the guys go out and beat a tennis ball or a baseball. Me, I just want to curl up in a ball, go thru it and then get back to work.