This is a story about perfectionism, expectations, and the reality you create without knowing and carry around with you.
It was a Tuesday morning in March and the bathroom after the shower was steamy and warm. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just the running list of things I had to do that day, like every day, every single day of my 39 years on earth.
I had five big contracts going through my consulting firm because I was trying once again to get out of debt, after losing two jobs in the past year, running through my savings, paying off kids’ medical emergencies and house repairs.
Normal life for most of us.
When you start from nothing you’re always one disaster away from it, and every time you get ahead, they move the damn goalposts.
I know this; I’ve always known this; and I’ve always known that the only way through is just to work more to get there.
I had half my makeup on when my skin got tingly and then numb.
My breath wouldn’t come right.
My hands shook and my feet turned white. I couldn’t make my face work and then I bit my tongue until it bled trying to ask for help. [This is a bit on the nose, since I have a hard time asking for help.]
And then I just had to sit, and try to remember how to breathe.
Such a critical thing, breathing.
You don’t think you could ever forget how to do this thing you’ve been doing since before birth. Yet I’d forgotten, and it scared me, more than blood clots or wheelchairs, more than heart conditions and stress eczema and gut imbalances, more than any of the myriad medical issues I’d faced. In those crises, I could still be alive.
This time, I’d forgotten how to breathe.
I’d been so busy and so stressed over the unwinnable game of american existence that I’d literally forgotten how to breathe.
How to keep myself alive, one moment at a time.
I took the month of March off after that. I worked from the couch under a blanket with sweatshirts and hot coffee and the fireplace on even when it warmed up outside. I didn’t wear a bra for three weeks. I canceled in person meetings. I told people I had norovirus just so they’d leave me alone. I bailed on my kids and my partner and my friends and I did the bare minimum for every job. I went to bed at 8:30 pm, before any of my kids. I ate soup. I took all my writing off my task list. I stopped cleaning the kitchen before bed. I let my recycling pile up. I refused to do laundry. I canceled every recurring phone call with a friend and both my writers groups and put in my notice on two of my five contracts and sat.
Every chance I got, I sat the fuck down.
Weirdly, nothing broke.
My partner Josh said to me early on last month that it is okay to be messy and break things, especially the ones you don’t even want to keep.
I don’t think anyone had ever given me permission to be messy and break things. Ever. I have such a need for security and was raised with such a work ethic that I never knew I could.
I didn’t break things loudly or disrespectfully this month.
I just…stopped holding them together.
When I stopped holding everyone else’s shit together, I had the time to see how my standards for myself drove the dread I feel every day, day in and day out.
I had the time to realize that for eighteen long years, ever since my child was born, I hadn’t woken up excited for the day but just ready to soldier through it.
I scared myself with the depth of my despair.
My expectations for myself had put me here, waking up to live a life I never feel like I chose.
I’ve survived March, which I didn’t think I could do in one piece. I wrapped two toxic contracts and for the first time in my life I ended a job because it hurt me to be there.
But I can’t help but think that I didn’t, really, survive. I feel like parts of me may have died forever in this latest episode of “shit will break and keep on breaking, so you work harder to make it go.”
After four weeks I called my friend Andy for help. (Gold star for me.) He sat outside with me and drank cheap Trader Joe’s wine and brought me pizza and made me cry.
He made me feel better by making it feel worse, in a way:
He told me everyone is living in debt and barely getting by.
He told me no one has a life without credit cards.
He told me I shouldn’t make life and career decisions based on how I think that decision might impact every person around me in six months.
He told me I was too hard on myself and he hated that for me.
He told me I was not responsible for the system or even for the people I loved and that after a messy childhood and two decades of raising a kid alone I should maybe just try to go have a life and stop waiting to figure out my financial shit first.
He told me it isn’t me, that the days of living cheaply in America are gone and my lifestyle creep was things like “this kid needs braces” and “this kid wants to go to college” and there’s nothing bad or wrong with me for not being able to provide that any other way except working to death or borrowing money at insane interest rates.
All this time I thought it was just me, that there was something wrong with me that made it impossible for me to ever get ahead.
Even Andy, my most financially capable friend and the only other person I know who loves his five-year spreadsheet like I do, knows this.
“We’re still, underneath it all, from these mountains, girl,” he said. “You might want to leave but you really never can.”
Josh picked everything up that I dropped. He took care of my kid and explained things to his youngest ones. He made sure I ate. He covered me with blankets and massaged the hundreds of knots that had taken up permanent residence in my shoulders and my neck.
He held everything up, so I could set it all down.
Kids brought me the first yellowbells and dandelions of the season, crushing the stems in their tiny fists, because I couldn’t bring myself to go outside into the springtime world and see everything else growing and brightening while I withered inside.
One night last week I apologized to Josh and my oldest because I needed to go to bed at 8:30 again instead of staying up to watch the movie. My kid said to me, out loud, “I never feel neglected when I know you’re taking care of yourself.”
And I broke again into a million tiny pieces. I think I have needed to hear that since the day she was born.
These are the lessons of the month when I forgot how to breathe:
I have an incredibly beautiful life. Just as it is.
Everything I love doesn’t break.
Everything that breaks me I can live without.
Go break something and be messy. It might be the key to saving yourself.
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"When you start from nothing you’re always one disaster away from it." - that's some beautiful writing, thank you :) I'm glad that you broke March, and not the other way around, because how can that be.
This about broke me. I’m honored to be your partner in our beautiful, messy life. To watch you grow into and start to see yourself as the simply breathtaking woman you’ve always been. I could not be more proud of you. Breaking the things that need to be broken, that don’t serve you and that actively hurt you. We didn’t break, and we won’t because of the growth and positive disintegration that you are doing right now love. Thank you for being you.