Sensory Ramblings About Building a Fire

One day it’s 70 degrees, and the next there’s freezing rain and heavy snow. February in Colorado is a strange creature. After a day of low light and cold fingers, I clomped down the stairs to the back door, Stella in tow. She stood on the stairs to the deck and watched me as I chose logs from the woodpile underneath her. That’s by far my least favorite part of building a fire; I always inspect each piece carefully for spiders before I put it in the crook of my elbow. It’s probably too cold for them to be at the top of the pile, but as seeing black widow spiders was not unheard of in the house where I grew up, it’s my preference to be a choosy wood-carrier.

Building a fire is a skill that I learned as a child. We heated our house with a wood stove, and my formative winters were spent helping my parents keep the fire burning and the cold at bay. Now, when the snow is falling and I have nowhere to be, my first inclination is to get a fire going and then park myself in front of it with a book and a blanket. On this day, I brought two armfuls of wood upstairs and then searched the recycling for some newspaper or junk mail to burn. Then I grabbed some matches and plopped down in front of the fireplace.

From an occupational standpoint, building a fire is a fairly complex task, and it offers a lot of sensory input. You have to be able to tell which logs are dry, which ones have dangerous spiders on them, and then carry them safely to the fireplace without tripping over the dog. I know what kinds of materials are good for getting the blaze going, and which kinds are good for maintaining it. Arranging all of those materials in a way that lets enough oxygen in is a skill that takes practice, and you need to be able to look at your materials and imagine the best arrangement. This is a praxis-heavy task. Fortunately for my coziness goals, I’ve had plenty of practice. Building a fire is also a task that requires a lot of sensory discrimination; you have to use your eyes and ears to determine when and where it’s safe to put your hands near the flames. Even lighting a match is tricky if you can’t tell how much pressure to use. I remember being horrified as a kid, watching my dad place new logs in the fireplace, convinced he would catch on fire as he stuck his hand over the flames. Now, I know that he simply had a good sense of the heat and sparks.

I love sitting in front of a fire in winter. It feels cozy and warm, and it gives me the sense that there’s nowhere else I need to be. There’s the sound, the flickering light, the heat, and all the other parts of being inside by the fire, like hot chocolate and pajamas. Sitting in front of a fire evokes a feeling of security in me, even if I’m already safely indoors. Many people believe that the discovery of fire and how to control it marked an acceleration in human evolution because it offered a new abundance of calories and nutrients from more easily digestible, cooked foods. It may also have served to bring communities together, strengthening bonds and changing the dynamics of an already social genus. Perhaps my brain recognizes this ancient connection and knows that family is nearby and predators will stay away. At the very least, there’s gentle crackling and a nice, orange glow that puts me at ease. Plus, my domesticated canine, who also evolved around fires, likes to rip up the paper and small kindling while I’m getting it started, and that’s always fun to watch. She’s such a good helper.

Stella fire

photo of desert ground with interlocking cracks and dry plants

I’m a (Self)-Control Freak

I’ve trained myself to be restrained whenever possible. I hold myself back when I don’t like something, and even my enthusiasm is tempered. People find me hard to read, and I don’t open up immediately, a little later, or even a bit after that. It takes a while.

Some of this is surely a product of my Sensory Processing Disorder. The world is abrasive to my nervous system; it’s loud, fast, bright, and unpredictable. So, to avoid standing out, I bury my reactions. I’ve developed excellent self-control. Of course, this has repercussions for me when I go home in a haze and need to do a lot of nothing for a while. Hiding how I feel about outside stimuli often protects me from two of the things I dislike the most: interrupting people and being the center of attention. Sometimes, enduring the feeling of people crowding around me is more bearable than attracting attention by elbowing my way to the door on legs that don’t feel like mine.

I have a fear of not being in control of myself. I find nearly every environment to be full of stimuli that are “too much” for me. Even my internal body sensations are problematic. My brain doesn’t always know exactly where in space my body is located or how things are moving around me. All of this feels very much out of my control, so I cling to my self-control for safety. However, I think my self-control has expanded past its allotted jurisdiction, and it’s time to address it.

My need to be in control of my reactions has seeped into my sense of what is my responsibility and what is not. It’s easy for us to think we’re responsible for others; we come to think that their feelings, their setbacks, and their decisions are on our shoulders. What any good friend would tell is you that you aren’t. You’re not responsible for how other people move through the world. We make our own choices, manage our own feelings, and deal with change on our own terms.

small black sign with white letters reading make today tolerable with succulent in wooden container next to sign

My particular misplaced sense of responsibility lies in how I think about my depression. I have always had a nagging (or roaring) sense that my depression is my fault. If I could just do more, or try harder, maybe I could fix myself. I’ve recently been faced with a treatment option that forces me to confront the fact that I have treatment-resistant depression, and that it’s not my fault. Seeing my severe depression as an illness that is out of my direct control is terrifying. It’s simply more comfortable for me to think that I’m just not doing a very good job at solving a problem that can be solved with enough effort.

And that’s how I realized that I’m a (self)-control freak.

actually would rather believe that I’m a failure than that I drew the short mental health straw. At the same time, it’s freeing to view my depression as something that has happened to me rather than something I caused. It takes some of the burden off of me, but it also takes some of the control away from me. Brains are weird, and sometimes they have a mind (har har) of their own. Sudden relapses, triggers, and even seemingly spontaneous ends to episodes are not entirely understood. It’s scary to think that after all of this- the numerous medications, the hospitalization, the group therapy, the individual therapy, the occupational therapy– my brain has stubbornly remained depressed.

If I’m going to get better, I need to stop blaming myself. I need to accept that some things are out of my control and that I don’t need to hold myself entirely accountable for my symptoms. I’ve learned a lot about healthy coping mechanisms in my years of therapy, and although right now I feel too debilitated to put them into useful practice, I hope that a new approach might relieve my symptoms enough to let me begin to heal on my own, the way I like to do it: with hard work.

The term “control freak” has plenty of negative connotations, and it can be hurtful to people who struggle to trust others or to let go of perceptions about the “right” way to do something. This post is in no way a jab at others, only at myself. The title is meant to be humorous, to poke fun at a coping mechanism that holds me back. I’m a self-described self-control freak, and as the term does not bother me, I hope that it doesn’t come across as insensitive.