I vastly underestimated my ability to do something “impossible.” And I vastly overestimated my ability to recover from it.

* * * * *

It is curious, the formless form recovery takes.

When I was recovering from my Crohn’s onset nine years ago, there was a constant tension between wanting to leap forward, back into life, and needing to fall backward into bed. Maybe this is how our crazy will to live manifests itself: as soon as we’re assured that we’re not actually dying, we’re programmed to grab for the next branch to pull ourselves up with. Only it’s not the logical branch—that one right there, just a few inches above us, with a groove that looks uncannily like a handle; it’s that one over there on that other tree—at the tippy-top, a mere vine’s-swing away. And so—well, there’s a lot of falling and flailing.

What I want right now, for example, is to EAT THE WORLD—to “Mary Poppins” my way back to order and sanity, to launch the 147 new ideas that have floated into my head since this 50-for-50 madness began, and to experience the hell out of everything I’ve had to put on hold. I want to wrassle my Excel spreadsheets to the ground and merge them with MailChimp and fulfill all those perks, already. I want to write that first book I’ve been putting off for five years. I want to bake a freezer-full of SCD-legal bread, walk a labyrinth, drive cross-country, spend an hour on the phone with each of my friends, and digitize my tapes. I want to read the 25 books piled up in my to-read stack and buy 50 more (and still check out a couple every time I visit the library). I want to go paperless, speak Spanish, walk a mile a day, learn calligraphy, buy a sofa, move, adopt a dog, fall in love, host a dinner party, spend a month in Australia, plant a garden, and empty all my inboxes.

What my body wants, on the other hand, is to sit in a tub of extra-salty water with the lights out, a glass each of seltzer and bourbon beside me, and some soothing BBC porn streaming from my laptop a few feet away. (While I slowly, carefully shave my head.) (For the third time in two weeks.)

Two steps up, four steps sideways, and a backwards dip into the bath. It’s quite a pas-de-deux I’m having with myself.

* * * * *

For me, one of the most insidious but helpful indicators of overload is the desire to acquire.

It can manifest as the desire for tangible goods, like books or gadgets or art, but just as often these days, it shows up as digital items—electronic file folders overflowing with stories to read later, eCourses I have no time to complete. I have showed Brooks Palmer my considerable and embarrassing hoard of paper and CDs, but I lacked the fortitude to share the rickety hard drives filled with busted fonts, crufty Quark files, and PDF manifestos.

And let us not speak of the overworked, underutilized Someday/Maybe list.

I have now read enough books about clutter and watched enough episodes of Hoarders to know that this itch to take things on speaks to some lack that these items can never, ever fulfill. When I am sane and well-rested, I have the discipline to resist all stores but the one that sells groceries, and to visit that one only when well-fed, and with list in hand. When I have rested my body I can exercise it, and when I’ve exercised it, I can make it sit still and write. When I have allowed myself to really feel all the things I am actually feeling—which I hate to do, because it almost always involves crying—I find a calm afterward that allows me to do or even just be, that transforms me from Ms. Pac-Man nom-nom-ing my way through random ones and zeroes to an actual human being who can listen to herself and others with something resembling compassion, who stands an honest-to-God chance of really being useful.

* * * * *

When things get really crazy, the only thing to do is get super-normal. I go back to the small, simple-not-easy things that ground me in reality, then let me inch across that ground. I make my bed. I wash the dishes. When enough days have passed where the dishes have been washed, I clean the sink. I buy groceries and cook meals from them instead of eating takeout. I walk, I work out to an exercise video, I hold Horse Stance for five minutes. I lapse. I write my morning pages. I recover. I lapse again (which I guess would be a relapse). I meet with my master mind group; they tell me to do what I know I must, the simple-not-easy things.

Fall off. Get back on. Fall off. Get back on.

* * * * *

I had an idea that recovery would take two weeks, and so I dutifully blocked them off on my calendar. It turns out that blocking things off does not a restful time make—you actually have to rest, too. But there is always something else to be done that looks more interesting, and, more to the point, that seems more productive.

As always, the first step to changing a behavior is realizing you have it; the next is noticing when, then why it’s happening. You get to—or really, you have to keep living your life as you change. Recovery, a.k.a. living, is messy and non-linear. But much like life itself, it beats the alternative.


Wanna make some art, lazy-man style AND help clear out your house at the same time? Check out my friend Leah Peterson’s Group Painting project and contribute some earthly detritus. I’m releasing last year’s three Nikki McClure calendars. Yay, art!

Image by Graeme Newcomb via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. OMG YES. I want to do a million things and do them all RIGHT NOW (and my body wants to nap and rest and chillax).

    And WHAT IS WITH the overload = buy shit? I have that, too. So I get overwhelmed, spend a ton of money, then look up one day to a house full of ugly knick-knacks and crap I can’t even remember buying – and certainly don’t want now, nosiree – and go WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!?!?

    I love you to bits. <3

    1. And WHAT IS WITH the overload = buy shit?

      I should probably write a whole post about this sometime, but so far, I think it’s two things:

      First, it’s a comfort. For a lot of us, stuff equals comfort. It’s how we’re raised: do something good, get a treat. A ribbon, a tchotchke, an outfit, a book, etc. I think we start associating (or confusing) the good feeling of a job well done or love expressed or what have you with the tangible good exchanged.

      Second, it *feels* like a shortcut to what we really want, which is time, and which, if you go a bit further (sorry: morbidity alert) is about forestalling our inevitable death. This is totally the case with buying books: you want to have the time to read them, just like with an ebook or ecourse, you want to have assimilated the skill promised within. You want to be a French-speaking traveler, or writer, or whatever. Shortcut mentality. (And shall we all pause now to repeat my favorite quote of all time, by Beverly Sills: THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS TO ANY PLACE WORTH GOING.)

      So, of course, as you already know, there is nothing wrong with you. The wrongness lies with a world telling you to consume, to do, to act in the way it wants you to for its own survival (megatheocorporatocracy, I’m lookin’ at you).

      And lady, you have no idea how much I love you. Or maybe you do. Hard to tell with these things.

  2. “I had an idea that recovery would take two weeks, and so I dutifully blocked them off on my calendar.”

    Make sure you extricate that line and put it somewhere safe. It’s among your best: the first line of a novel, or a memoir, and one that would guarantee your reader’s attention for many, many pages.

    1. Yes, fabulous first line. The best.

      Colleen, you have no idea how much you have inspired me to make big, much-needed changes in my own life. Bless you for taking the leap to show us the way.

      What a woman!

      Oodles of love to you on this fine, Autumnish day. Now go forth and rest, gal.

    2. Ha! The strange thing is that even as I wrote that line, I wrote in inside of an M.C. Escher drawing: me, writing about me, writing about me.

      Bless your heart, Dan Owen. You rule the comments section wherever you turn up. Would that we could bottle and dispense you as needed.

      (And thank you, too, Ellen. Always good to get double-confirmation on the opening line of one’s book.)

  3. I was exhausted just watching you do 50 for 50 from afar. Recovery has to happen, but life goes on and the struggle continues.

    I want to do this, and this, and this, and get that and get rid of ALL that, etc… My list is much like yours.

    I have gotten so much better at not buying stuff, but still I came home with 2 new books last night when the intention was just to buy tissue paper for mailing prints. No they don’t sell books at the tissue paper store :-)

    It is 9:22 am and I am writing to you instead of writing my overdue blog post and proofing head shots for the woman coming later today. So it goes…

    Your words appease me, and I know in the end it will be OK. I can’t not tell you that.

    Much Love!

    1. It’s so tricky, isn’t it? Because one wants to remain open to serendipity. But how do you separate serendipity from the wolf in Grandma’s bonnet?

      Well, we muddle through. And with enough indicators of past happy outcomes, we trust that yes, in the end, it will be OK.

  4. “Spend a month in Australia” – when you get here you will never want to leave!

    I love your honesty! Thank you.

    1. I have a friend for whom that exact thing happened. He semi-regularly posts pictures of his gorgeous farm outside of Adelaide; most of the time, however, he’s just leading a ridiculously balanced life in paradise.

  5. Thank you for always writing with such honesty about what someone with a brain that moves faster than her body can always keep up with. Your 50 for 50 campaign has inspired me that a campaign I’ve had in mind for a while now really can work – and work bigger than I’d first imagined. But as someone who struggles with migraines and fatigue I need to remember to take good care of myself – which is often so hard to do. Your branch statement says it all. I am one of your many fans who looks forward to that book whenever you get around to writing it.

    Best to you!

    1. …writing with such honesty about what someone with a brain that moves faster than her body can always keep up with.

      Wow. That’s exactly it, isn’t it. I like it! It’s a whole different way of articulating Eyes Bigger Than Stomach Syndrome.

      Thank you, Melissa!

      1. Yes, Melissa!
        How did I miss this one?

        I like doing/making, but *I love* thinking-thinking-thinking-planning-designing how to best do/make. SO much faster. Seems (!) so much more “productive.”

        It is truly my disease. No joke.

  6. “For me, one of the most insidious but helpful indicators of overload is the desire to acquire”

    AMEN. My subconscious urges me to buy books when stressed and overloaded. I think my subconscious believes I can cheat and buy books as a shortcut to what I actually want, which is the uninterrupted time and leisure to read them.

    1. Thank you!!! for putting “overload” and “must acquire more stuff” together!! I’ve noticed them both, many times, but never the connection.

      Love and Hugs ~ K

    2. So I’m not the only one? :-)

      As I noted above, I thank you for saying out loud what I neglected to. A very important set of dots to connect.

  7. May we all need recovery from the accomplishment of such a profound endeavor. I wish you some good laurels- resting time Colleen — to truly take in the JOY of all of this.

  8. Well, I’ve been deep in my own !#*$%, trying to MAKE STUFF HAPPEN, of the very type mentioned here (go figure) and haven’t even been reading you – or anyone – lately.

    Gobsmacked to come back on this one.

    Bravo for your initial, nth-level-heroic achievement, and bravo for being the You that brings this face-punching post.

    Thank you very, very much. And I ‘third’ the comments about that opening line.

    All the best best best to you.

    1. Oh, so you have been immersed then. :-)

      Thanks for your kind words. And good luck with making your Thing happen.

  9. Boy, did you hit a nerve with this one. I was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder 12 years ago (before it was fashionable) so if I’m not recovering from a bout of depression or a spurt of hypo-mania then I’m just trying to figure out what “normal” is.

    I have the added pressure of knowing that I need to get all of the things done on my list before the next episode hits. I share Heathers book-buying urges (worse since I got a Kindle.) So that also indicates that I am a sucker for gadgets as well.

    I did however manage to find and walk a proper Labyrinth. You may find that as peaceful as your bath. My problem now is, I want to build one in my back yard.

    1. I’m secretly happy I misplaced my Kindle sync cable. It’s way too easy to get into trouble with that thing.

      I have found a labyrinth near-ish to me! (Because after all, I do live in Southern California, where you are never more than a sacred stone’s throw from the unusual.) I am praying they don’t have a gift shop, as I would probably find the lure of the souvenir hand-held labyrinth irresistible. (I found myself playing with it quite a bit while staying at a friend’s house.)

      As to your bipolar issues, well, I cannot imagine having that heaped on top of the rest of it. Then again, we can never imagine that next thing, and then it happens, and somehow, we manage (most of the time most of us do, anyway.) Sounds like you are handling your basket with grace. Kudos to you.

  10. “blocking things off does not a restful time make—you actually have to rest, too.”

    Ah, yes – Do The Work, eh?

    Love you, C ~ Enjoy your salty bath and bourbon!

  11. Oh, to have someone put words to it. I’m coming up on the year anniversary of my mom’s death only to learn that my dad has three-to-six months to live and I am am making to-do lists like a mother-F@#@ lunatic. And I can’t do ANY of it. ANY of it. Because I NEED to sit in bed and eat Fluffernutters. This is all my body will allow.

    And I’ve been sitting here chastising myself for all I want to do and can’t do and should do but shan’t do (and of course eating Fluffernutters) and then—your blog post! I’ve reread this entry three times and will continue to come back for more.

    Thank you and thank you and thank you.

  12. Am I the only one whose attention was snagged on “BBC porn?” Is there such a thing?

    Something you said really hit me. I don’t think of myself as a thing hoarder. As I get older, I can’t stand clutter, always feeling like I want cleaner spaces, perhaps to make something grand in. But I AM a project hoarder. And yet, I have a number of unfinished projects or unrealized ideas and each time I see something new, I want to make it (instead of buy it). Think I need to start examining that a bit more. Like I have to can one more jar of pickles or paint one more picture to be worthy.

    Thanks for saying what I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking or feeling (horrible sentence). With so many lazy, uninteresting people around, you’d think we’d drink the Koolaid they’re drinking once in a while.

  13. Dearest Colleen,

    I am a huge FAN of your writing, your poetry, your honesty, your humor, and your down-to-earthness … although, I find you very much “out there:, which I love to death! Fibromilalgia keeps me humble and honing in on what matters most almost every day, since I have no energy for the ‘extra”. Still, you darling being, while I have unsubscribed to almost every blog that was taking my precious time and energy that I would much rather be investing in the world in a productive way, I continue to read yours. You make me laugh. You make me cry. You make me want to be a better person. You make me want to write. Your gifts are many. Hats off to you – thrown so high in the air they disappear … because why would you want to cover your beautiful, bald head?

    With love and too much gratitude to put into words – a loyal reader,


  14. Bloody hell this is a great piece! I feel like jumping up and shouting ‘Eureka!’ Except I’m at work, in my pod, and the room is particularly quiet at present. Sssshhh!

    Please come to Australia. There are lots of fabby things to see, and do, and more to the present point, places to just be.

    I am going to print this post – and the comments – out, so I can ponder it as I travel to visit my Mama, who is in one of those hospitals, and not very well at all.

    Thanks C. And don’t rush with the postin’ of the perks.

  15. This was my “vacation” I took a couple of weeks ago as forced relaxation after the launch of my biz. I knew I needed the time, but when I emerged from my eight days, I didn’t feel any better. I’m still not sure I’ve actually recovered. I think there’s something about being at home, even if you go out once in a while, that negates a lot of the restfulness and healing properties of time off for recovery. Whatever the reason, I’m feeling your vibe, sista.

  16. hey W-
    I am going to be driving across the country ( well- stopping in Indiana) mid Nov or early Dec- with Charlie the wonder dog… wanna come?

  17. I love how Melissa articulates it: head moving faster than her body. I get dizzy inside my head and “fall and flail.” That branch way over there looks so VERY appealing and the jump feels so wonderful. Until. I’m. Tumbling.

    I crash and burn and I find I spend a lot of time trying to brush off the dirt and recovering. Branch by Branch. This will be a nice little meditation for now. Thanks.

Comments are closed.