I held myself together with an modicum of finesse, on the precipice of chaos, for years. My recipe for survival begins with a large helping of total avoidance, mixed with random counseling sessions every few years, weeks liberally doused by loads of activities, a side of overcommitments, and a generous dressing of red wine and writing. The writing is how I work through everything I can’t express face to face. It has been great. This method has seemingly worked for years.
I feel balanced. I’ve worked through my issues. I am a walking success story for the self-help book of the month club. I can go on about being emotionally available, knowing what I need in life, my ability to say no and address my boundaries. I even say, nay believe, I have worked through my relationship issues. I declare that I am ready to begin a relationship with someone who has their life figured out as well as I do. I know I have done so much work. When I look back and compare MeNow to the emotionally non-verbal ball of sarcasm I once was, I am brilliantly well adjusted. Look at me, using all the emotionally healthy words. I am living well.
One perfect spring afternoon while walking barefoot down the center of a local creek toward an undisclosed outlook with Frank, who had simultaneously frustrated and inspired me to be a better person over the previous six months, I saw a young copperhead snake swimming at the edge of the creek. It was about 18 inches and moving away from us. I froze and could barely breathe. Apparently, snakes in the wild terrified me so much that I didn’t even know how much I feared them. After several minutes of gentle coaxing by Frank, I asked one more time, “Is where we are going that good?”
“It is. Yes. It really is lovely.”
Finally, I put my shoes on and forced myself to move forward. One arduous step after another we kept moving. After another thirty feet or so he stopped and pointed toward a gnarly tree root system stretching into the creek, “There’s another copperhead.” I stopped mid-pace and looked, “I don’t see it,” I said as I felt my breath suck into my body and intense fear wash over me for a second time in less than 20 minutes.
“Oh, it’s there. See, in the roots. It’s bigger.” He didn’t mean to scare me. He saw beauty in the creature and couldn’t comprehend fear in me.
At this point, I saw a copperhead, approximately four inches in diameter and of unknown length, writhing about the roots. Wrapped around the roots of the tree, it appeared to be trying to get loose. I couldn’t move or talk. Internally coaching myself, I tried to use all the avoidance tactics and tools of self-conviction in my arsenal to push past the debilitating fear that had washed over me, but this unexpected natural fauna had blindsided me. There was nothing to do but breathe and that felt barely involuntary. With more coaxing from Frank, I finally walked past the damn snake who didn’t seem to notice we had passed. We made it to a beautiful rock outcropping. After triple checking we had an egress point that did not involve passing the snakes I felt reassured, and we climbed the outcropping and moved to its triangular edge. We sat about three stories above the creek, legs dangling over, laughing about how the people below us had no idea we were there. I was terrified, but he was next to me and I felt a quiet reassurance in his company.
Later that evening, as I rehashed the terrifying snake episode for perhaps the 10th time, this man I had spent the last six months getting to know said, with the kindest smile, “I never thought I’d see you afraid of anything.”
I completely lost my heart. I heard myself saying, “Not afraid of anything? I am always afraid. I’m terrified of screwing up my kid. I constantly feel like total fraud – soon everyone will stop talking to me and I won’t be surprised. People have started taking my advice, but it’s only because I’m starting to get silver in my hair. It’s not because I know anything, just that I appear to because I am Of Age. Every time I get in a car, I am pretty sure I am going to die. I always say I love you to my kid when I leave her side because I know I will never see her again. The word “good-bye” makes me feel like I’m going to vomit because it may never lead to another hello. I am sure when I get in a plane it will crash so I always kiss my hand and touch the plane when I board as a token of goodwill. I am certain I will freak you out at any minute and you’ll just disappear from my life as suddenly as you appeared. I decided a long time ago just to fake it til I make it and now I can’t stop. I will never have the strength I pretend to have. I am completely exhausted after I spend time in a group because I feel all the people and try to listen to all the things because I want to be there for everyone. I never have the right words when I speak so I write it all down, but am terrified to put my words into the world because that’s the me, in the dark, in the corner, afraid of the g-d damn snakes. Nothing will ever be right and I just barely stumble through my days by lists and notes. My brain never turns off and it’s exhausting,” but that was just two seconds of dread spinning through my mind.
Instead, my voice articulated, “Not afraid? Me? I am terrified everyday. I don’t have time to stop. I can’t give myself any choice but to keep moving forward or so many days I wouldn’t get out of bed,” tears had begun streaming down my face.
In that moment, I realized the falsehood of my emotional availability or stability. There I stood, in front of the man I was in love with, and realized the absence of my vulnerability. I hadn’t been able to tell him I was afraid of the snakes because I feared looking weak. I couldn’t ask for help. I hadn’t been able to tell him I was overwhelmed – daily. I couldn’t ask for what I needed beyond my preference for steak over chicken at dinner. And the kicker, until he made the statement, “I never thought I’d see you afraid of anything,” I was totally blind to the fact that I still lacked almost all vulnerability. Until that moment, I couldn’t see how much work I had left to do, to be where I want to be as a person.
Over the last couple years, people talk a lot about their spoons – how their spoons are full or they have no more spoons. As it turns, Spoon Theory is a metaphor to explain the utter exhaustion of chronic illness, but it’s been become a common expression for not having emotional space left to deal with one more anything. I had so many days when I ran out of spoons, but I couldn’t stop – so I ate life with a fork and then chopsticks. It looked all put together, but my laundry was a disaster. It’s not that I didn’t have spoons, it’s that my kitchen was wrecked and my spoons had been moved so they weren’t even available to be used. I felt like a baker in a kitchen where I had access to all the ingredients I could ever need, but the ingredients were all stored in identical packages and labeled in dream English. That writing that appears when you dream and you can read it, but then it’s not what it says. It looks right, but isn’t actually a known language. I had all the pieces, but everything was just off kilter enough that I was in a continual loop of uncertainty so I plotted a course and charged forward with hope that my momentum would keep me upright.
After the snakes, I refused to be that person anymore. I’ve been working for years to be well-adjusted, but it seems I was only living a bulleted list titled “A Well Adjusted Person Does The Following.” I had learned to be by myself, but I never did it with intention or focus. My life was unexamined, but that could not remain the status quo. I had to get back to work on me.
Over the last few months, I’ve actually spent time with me. Walking and sitting for long spells, feeling my emotions when they are difficult. I am moving words from journals to public space – perhaps one person will read my journey and not feel so alone. I am learning when I say thank-you I can feel appreciated rather than embarrassed. I ask my child if she had hardships in her day, because I want her to learn how to face them and not avoid pain. Then I give space so she might find her words. I linger in her laughter and encourage it, because for any pain our joy should be amplified. I’m learning to ask for help. If someone expresses a trouble, I am learning to sit with that and listen rather than tell them why their trouble isn’t really a problem, but somehow a strength. I’m learning that it’s ok to have fears and problems and hardships. I’m learning it’s healthier to have people in my world who help me to work through fears and problems and hardships than to simply wall off my pain from the world. I am blessed with so many of those people and I am working diligently to understand, appreciate, and grow with each of them. I am beginning to know vulnerability and it’s terrifying, but survivable. I am beginning to see the counters of my kitchen and may soon be ready to open the cupboards. Maybe soon I will truly be ready to share the nourishment of a healthy relationship, even through the chaos of life.
(Artwork by James Bullough)