My last post was deliberately a deviation from all the reflection here. The past year has been seemingly one godawful thing after another. My sisters and I hoped that somehow the turn of the new year would bring with it less tragedy and trauma. We each held our breath, hoping, believing that maybe the universe or God would see fit to just back the fuck off for a little while and give us a minute. We just need a minute.
But it doesn’t work like that. January first did not bring with it bright blue skies and a long stretch of quiet wherein we could all come up for air and try to sift through some of the wreckage and grief of the preceding year.
And as much as it sometimes feels very personal, it’s not personal. There is no karmic or cosmic or God-driven reason behind the difficulties we face in this life. While I want to lament that I clearly must’ve done something terrible in a former existence given the steady barrage of calamity with which I’ve been faced since I was a youngster, the reality is there are plenty of people who have it worse than me, and plenty of people who have it better.
We are all the center of our own universe, and the toil of our own journey feels so colossal, and sometimes so insurmountable. I try to remind myself of this when I am strangled by my own bitterness at hearing someone who has seemingly never known true adversity whine about their life. Enlightened though we may be, still we are all burdened with the tunnel vision that is an intrinsic part of the human existence.
My sisters and I each have our own unique ways of coping. What works for one of us does not work for the other. I am my father incarnate. To survive pain and difficulty, I box up my feelings and quadruple wrap those boxes in packing tape and then vacuum seal them and add on some duct tape for good measure. Normally I keep one box accessible, though I put a lid on it. That box sits on a shelf until I am in a safe space and can pull it out, sit with it, examine its contents. It allows me to emote in a controlled setting, to sob and wail and writhe around on the floor in the dark of night when I am alone and no one is around to be alarmed. Nearly thirty years of struggle and loss and physical pain and predisposition toward depression and grief and anger and abiding sadness rapidly ascend to the surface and mix with myriad other emotions and I release. I let go of as much wretchedness as I can, and then I pull myself together. Once in a while, if I am besotted with whiskey, the boxes all burst open at once and the result is mayhem. This is why I am sometimes a Crying Drunk.
When the boxes are all safely closed up, like my father (and my mother, honestly), I throw myself with utter abandon into whatever it is that I do. When I was a student, it was my studies. As a professional woman, it is my career. Tasks make sense to me. They are logical and clear-cut and in general you get out of a task what you put into it. This has been one of the most stinging lessons of my adulthood: that life is not replete with an orderly cause-and-effect system where whatever effort you put into your relationships and into being a good person begets healthy reciprocity and an existence void of misfortune.
Life is messier than that. No matter how hard you try, sometimes people are just asshats. Sometimes you lose your job anyway. Sometimes your loved ones die for no reason. Sometimes people just don’t like you. Sometimes you are awkward and uncomfortable, despite your best efforts. Sometimes your lover falls out of love with you. Sometimes you cannot overcome poverty no matter how hard you work, your partner lies to you, your car breaks down even though you just had it at the shop, your pets run away, you cut yourself or stub your toe, you can’t stick to your budget, you can’t beat that addiction, you lose your keys.
My approach to grief, my burying myself in my work – it is anything but perfect. In some ways, it sets me up for disappointment and failure in certain arenas. I am a primary decision maker in my job, but I am beholden to a political system that is much larger than me and a board of directors comprised of several unique and demanding personalities. I am beholden to a staff who doesn’t come in to work or doesn’t perform to the level that I think they should. Sometimes my expectations are unclear because I am a fallible human being and I fail to communicate as I should. There are plenty of things in my job that are way outside my control. But the tasks that I can completely control? Those are mine and they are my favorite drug. I thrive on order and balance and control. Databases and machines and formulas and code make sense to me. They make my pulse quicken because if I dog them hard enough, if I search long enough for the answer, I can make sense of them and force them to behave and produce as I desire.
Although it probably could be massaged and redirected somewhat in therapy, my desire for control is not completely incapacitating; I am able to relinquish it at times. But what I have noticed is that over the past few years, it became more and more difficult for me to relax and unwind. When I spent time in the woods back in October, at least half of the time I spent was worrying and wringing my hands about what was going on in the office without me there. In my defense, there were some pretty big things that did not get taken care of while I was out, the repercussions of which I am still resolving.
But still. The point of relaxing, the point of vacation, is to unwind. It is to loosen your grip on the things you think you are supposed to be controlling, to just be.
Over the past couple of years, I was worked increasingly into a frenzy, a byproduct of feeling like I wasted my final year in college toiling in a bad relationship and drinking way too much and sacrificing my grades. It is also a byproduct of grief and what I feel is my need to have dominion over everything, including my emotions. I should be a successful business woman, I should have a clean house, I should be highly functional in my romantic relationship, I should be a superior pet owner, I should be funny and insightful and know exactly which moment calls for what approach in social settings, I should be charming to strangers and friends and family alike, I should excel at everything. Anything short of perfection is unacceptable, and if I let up for even a second, I might lose my grip and the whole world might just completely fall apart. Neurosis is a long-term consequence of grief that I think is sometimes overlooked.
But it has always been the case for me that the moment I let go of the wheel, the car crashes head-on into a brick wall and then flips and burns. This penchant for control is as conditioned as it is inherent. The moment that I let myself inhale deeply, let my guard down, and start to loosen my grip, cataclysm visits in a torrent of anguish and it takes me being hyper-controlled to regain even a modicum of order.
In February, my sisters and I lost our beloved uncle. A mere two weeks later, his wife – our aunt and my mom’s sister – also died. I will cover that in the detail it deserves sometime later, but I bring it up now because at that moment, as a result of that loss, something in me snapped. I let go. I just … couldn’t … anymore. I still managed to make it to work and keep up the appearance that I was a functional human being, but a very large part of me shut down completely.
Depression wrapped its icy hands tightly around me, pulled me in, and I was in a stupor. I stopped showering regularly. I stopped eating regularly. When I came home from work, I would let the dog out and lie on my bed feeling guilty for not exercising her more, feeling hungry but too overwhelmed to try and feed myself. Often, I would go to bed for the night around 6:30 just to avoid having to deal with my inability to function as a human.
Finally, I began taking anti-depressants at the behest of my therapist, and already my system is recalibrating in a way that gives glimmers of hope that I am going to make it out of the woods. Sometimes I actually cook myself a balanced meal, and sometimes I stay awake all the way until 9:00!
I am approaching my thirtieth birthday, knowing that my Aunt Cathie won’t be here to call me obscenely early in the morning like she has every year of my life, knowing that I won’t hear my Uncle Tom call me “Iggy” and tell me how much he misses me, knowing my mom won’t be here to apologize that she couldn’t get me more and that she would get me more if she could and she hopes I know that she would get me more if she could and she wishes she could get me more.
But I also approach my thirtieth birthday with a renewed sense of the need for balance and a new understanding that it’s not about controlling everything so that nothing blows up in your face. It is about the level of grace you exercise when things inevitably blow up in your face. Life is fraught with trauma, large and small. Disappointment lurks everywhere. Life is neither about total resignation to the point of nihilism, nor is it about remaining upbeat no matter what. When things are dreadful, it is not inappropriate to acknowledge that they are dreadful. It is not necessary to conjure a list of things or people worse off than yourself to enable you grabbing firmly a hold of your bootstraps and slathering a smile across your face.
It’ll be a rough birthday, to be sure, but turning thirty also brings with it an objective understanding of humanness that has been buried under years of remorse, despondency, grief, and obsession with control.
I’m not saying I have it all figured out, and my coming to these sort of “life lessons” at the end of my meditative (see: whiny) blog posts is not meant to convey some sort of sophisticated grasp of humanness. Far from it. Even with chemicals working on the neurotransmitters in my brain twenty-four hours a day, still I fight daily the desire to stay in bed until the end of time, to crawl out to the dumpster behind my building and fling myself into it, to shove rocks in my pockets and walk into the sea.
The point of articulating some sliver of my own understanding of life is simply that: one person’s desperate uphill clawing in an effort to make some sort of sense of our suffering and our joy. My brain responds to structure. And if I can neatly arrange the bits of my comprehension of the human existence into a logical order of some kind, maybe I can find it all a little more bearable.