Written by Charlie Martina
I once played darts with a best friend of mine during a weird time in my life. I don’t remember the name of the pub exactly, but you needn’t pay to play, and she brought me a drink or two whilst I had little money in my pocket. Knowing her well, I knew she liked to ask pretentious movie-type questions that you might find on the list of 36 questions to make you fall in love. I was adopting the terribly painful technique of using my entire body to throw a dart when she asked me the question of the day: if you had to choose a word that captured the essence of your life, what would it be?
I laughed; it was typical of her to come out with some romantic-sounding drivel during a completely unrelated activity, it was also one of the many reasons I loved her.
“Well, give me a second to think,” I said, following up with, “go on then, what would your word be?” “Guilt,” she replied.
It suited her. Not because she did terrible things (though everyone does, to some extent) or because she deserved to feel that way, but because every time she did something wrong she’d look at you with those big, worried eyes and you’d know the shame she felt was real.
I was adjusting my bra strap in the pub toilets when my word came to me. You see, I don’t often wear bras, but on this particular day I had chosen to – for goodness knows what reason. The underwire had poked a hole in the material and was slightly nagging my upper rib cage. My whole body went hot, and my mouth felt some strange combination of sticky and sweaty. I sensed the ever-familiar feeling of warm rising tears, and right then I knew what my word was: overwhelm.
I am, and always have been, overwhelmed by most things. Don’t be mistaken, I believe myself to be capable. Like most of us, I have lived through a plethora of difficult circumstances and have come out on the other side stronger and better equipped to deal with life. But overwhelm has always been there, my little inconvenient shadow. Maybe it’s a thing of beauty, or perhaps a curse, but I am sensitive in a way that means I feel things so deeply that it’s sometimes difficult to manage.
There’s a feeling I’ve heard people describe, the feeling when you’ve put time and energy into holding things together; you’ve carefully pitched and secured the tepee of your emotional stability. Everything’s going wrong, but you’re keeping it cool. Keeping it cool until the day you’re making breakfast alone in your kitchen and you burn your toast. Burnt toast pulls apart your expertly crafted shield, and the blackened bread mocks your attempt to be strong by generating smoke that makes you wheeze through your tears. I know this feeling all too well, my interaction with burnt toast has now become a well-rehearsed pantomime starring my little shadow: overwhelm.
I am sensitive in a way that means I sometimes cry at burnt toast. I sometimes cry at the prospect of taking a shower. I sometimes cry when I realise I have to decide what to have for dinner every night for the rest of my life. I often have to leave rooms when people are passionately discussing something because I can’t bear the noise. I’ve been known to get changed into 20 different pairs of pyjamas because they just don’t feel right tonight. It’s intense. I should also note that it isn’t the same as my mental health struggles; my mental health is involved, intertwined even, but not the same.
This might seem, from how I’ve described it, as a miserable (borderline unbearable) way to live. Sometimes it is, but the “this is too much” feeling I can’t seem to shake can bring good, too. I am deeply empathetic and caring; I unapologetically weep for hours during (and in the aftermath of) films; I love my friends, family, and dog with a tender, unshakeable force. Overwhelm has been the foundation of some of my most precious moments.
Some time ago, I went wild camping in the Scottish Highlands with three of my best friends. I’d never been to the Highlands before, and the landscape’s beauty struck me with an intensity I can hardly describe. We spent the days exploring, making half cups of coffee on our mini stove, and jumping naked into muddy lochs. We spent the nights in solidarity – after struggling to put up tents in stormy weather we’d squeeze into one of them and share stories, secrets, and love.
There was a moment on this trip that I’ll never forget. We did the Quiraing walk on the Isle of Skye – one of the most incredible places I’d ever seen. It wasn’t a long walk, but I’m certainly not a seasoned hiker and it was enough to make me feel overwhelmed. The ground was mostly flat, but one small slip and you’d be tumbling down the rocky cliff face. I was convinced I was about to fall to my imminent death and my throat began to tighten.
There was a point at which we had to climb a small number of steps to cross a gap in some fencing. Half concrete, half slippery grass and mulch, the steep incline seemed to mock me and my efforts to remain calm. I began to climb on all fours, given I had so stupidly decided to wear trainers and didn’t stand a chance at proceeding on two legs. All the overwhelm in the world had joined forces with the sole objective of tormenting me. I was physically tired and hungry. I was cold, wet, and on the verge of tears.
But then something happened. I sat down to ground myself, and I looked at what was in front of me. The magnitude of the landscape was so awe-inspiring, it was the very definition of “too much.” I couldn’t comprehend it; what surrounded us was so vast and expansive, so beautifully quiet and peaceful. The hills and rock and sheep seemed to become a part of me. Deep breaths of air filled my lungs, and things were no longer separate. There wasn’t a “me” to feel overwhelmed; overwhelm just existed, alongside beauty, love, connection, and peace. I felt it so deeply. In a single moment, nature seemed to break me down to the most exposed, vulnerable version of myself whilst building me up to be more powerful than I’d ever been. I got up and made my way to the top of the steps. I’d been struck by an epiphany, a realisation I had surely known all along – vulnerability was the very thing that made me so strong.
As I stood on the edge of the Quiraing, I thought back to the day I played darts. It seemed like a lifetime ago. My sensitive nature had seemed so negative back then, like it was the very thing holding me back. This couldn’t have been further from the truth – sensitivity was my superpower. I laughed, cried, looked at my best friends, and knew in my heart I was lucky to be overwhelmed.