Relief as a lack, my life as a garbage pile

This week, we packed our entire apartment into heavy-duty trash bags and stacked them in the middle of the living room. Our entire lives were in a pile of garbage.

The bed bug guys were coming. 

On Monday morning at six thirty, I sat in the middle of the garbage bag pile and felt a weird anticipation. I knew it was going to be a bad day. But that everything would soon be better. 

It was, in fact, a very bad day. Worse than expected. We had spent all weekend cleaning the apartment, putting everything into bags, scrubbing every inch of the carpet. We had broken two vacuums trying to clean up the diatomaceous earth we put down earlier (the dust clogged and broke the motors). We had purchased a shop vac on Craigslist; it sufficed to spread the dust around the air — so much that it set off the smoke alarm — but nothing more. We had to pick up all the dust by hand and clean up the remnants with a rented carpet cleaner named Rug Doctor.  

There was more to do Monday morning before the bed bug guys came. We had to take apart the bed, clean the bedroom rug, and put all the last-minute things away — anything left out would be covered in pesticides. We hurried to finish then I had to rush off. I had to return the Rug Doctor to the nearby grocery store then get to work in time to run a virtual staff meeting (I would be the only one at the office, and only because I needed to get out of the apartment). 

I marched out of the apartment with the carpet cleaner rolling behind me like a suitcase. I hadn’t eaten anything yet so with my other hand I peeled open a granola bar. I walked up the brick alley behind our house, praying the bricks wouldn’t break the wheels. Seth called as I walked; I picked up, and I forget what he called about, because my phone turned off in the middle of our conversation. “IPhone disabled, try again in five minutes.” I got to the grocery store; of course there was a line at customer service. I had to hug myself to keep still; with my phone disabled I had no source of diversion other than to realize how stressed I was. As soon as I handed off the carpet cleaner I ran outside. My phone was working again; good, because I needed it to rent a bikeshare to get to the office. At this point the sun was too warm for my outfit; I stuffed my jacket into my backpack, rented a bike, and took off. I made it to the office just in time to run the meeting. For the next three hours, I talked and talked. 

I have only a few days left at my job before I take a year off to focus on writing. That means I have a few days to pass on everything that I’ve learned in the past four years. A college education’s worth of time and knowledge. To condense it all into presentations and resource documents. It’s not like I wasn’t prepared. I’ve known my end date for eight months now. But I didn’t plan for bed bugs. 

While cleaning up Monday morning, I didn’t think. While biking, I didn’t think. While running the meeting, I didn’t think. My adrenaline had taken over. I just did, did, did. When it was over, when I had time to sit back in silence, I nearly collapsed in fatigue from the mental strain of the day. I spent the next couple hours working in a horizontal position before I worked up the energy to bike home. 

Here’s the moment I want to remember: The bike ride home. 

The cool air on my eyes as I let myself roll down a hill. The lifting sensation that this stress would soon end. I would have closed my eyes if not for the cars. I felt very aware of my brain floating in my skull; I felt as if it were swimming in a pool, plunged into the chilly evening air. 

It would soon be over. The nightmare of living in a garbage heap, of worrying myself silly over bugs. We would soon be able to curl up on the couch with the cat and a candle. We would put our home back together. All I knew in that moment: relief. 

*

The feeling of relief is interesting to me. Interesting in how much it really is a lack of any one thing: It’s what rushes in when the stress rushes out. In fact it relies on stress. After all the stress of Election Night, when Biden’s victory was announced, I felt relief. After this terrible day, terrible even though I knew it would be terrible, at the end of it I felt nothing but joy. It’s a realization that, for the first time, a thing that had weighed on you had now lifted. It is a return to equilibrium but somehow this equilibrium is better than before. 

The best massage I had in my entire life was in Guatemala, the day after a two-day hike to the top of a volcano. My friend and I hiked ten miles straight up with our camping gear on our backs, then ten miles straight down. I learned about every leg muscle in my body: they all screamed for attention. The next day we got massages and it hurt so bad but in the best way possible. 

Flash forward to a couple years later, the next time I got a massage… I had to schedule it several weeks in advance, and by the time the appointment came around, I was feeling fine, I wasn’t sore at all. And the massage was fine, it was relaxing, it was nice. But my body didn’t scream in relief. I wondered: how could I plan for a stressful day? How could I know ahead of time when I would most need it? 

At the end of the day, I’m left with an appreciation for stress, because at some point, stress must end, and what’s left afterwards — the emptiness, the lack — has a meaning worth noticing. 

-Denise

PS: Did any moment stand out to you this week? Do you have a story about stress and relief? Leave a comment or shoot me a reply, I’d love to hear from you! 

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