I feel vulnerable posting about this, but since that is apparently a word that makes other people feel uncomfortable, I’m damn well going to use it. Because if I’ve learned anything in the last two-ish years, it’s that Judd Apatow is right: “if it makes you uncomfortable, it’s worth talking about.” The discomfort gives way to growth, epiphanies, and can even help others on their own paths.
Sunday night, my sister called me. Could I go to her house and watch her kids? For an hour, maybe two while she was at work. She’s been working a lot, and I heard that sound in her voice, the one that starts with “please.”
“Sure,” I agreed. How could I say no? Yes, I’d been having a rough go of it recently, cancelling on people I love, declining plans that were really important due to self-care necessities, but it was like 120 minutes give or take. And I was doing a little better today than yesterday.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I’ve just been working so much.”
“It’s okay,” I told her, letting her know that like her, my husband/her brother had been working a lot too. You do what you can. As someone who cannot work anymore hours than currently, filling in the gaps while he’s gone has become key. And I wanted to do that for someone else.
“Well, I speak for both of us when I say, ‘You are our rock!’ ”
I chuckled. “Rock is not the word I would use, but okay. For all intents and purposes, I’m going to agree with you.”
Headed over at the allotted time. Was met by little people with their larger than life hugs, between the ages of 7-13. Four of them.
The night started as innocuously as possible. Would I play video games with them? Of course I would! I did not do well, but they were encouraging and tried to make me successful, showing me all the buttons to push to become a Gang Beast worthy of respect. But I’m not skilled, so when my niece took over, their enthusiasm and competition against each other still made it fun. Maybe even moreso.
At some point between showing me buttons and being my cheerleader, the youngest turned to me and asked, “Are you going to make us dinner?” “I guess I could do that!” I said, the person who rarely tries to make herself dinner. “Do you guys like mac and cheese?”
“YEAH!!” she cried.
“Do you HAVE mac and cheese?”
“Yeah, I’ll go get it. I’ll help!” she promised, running from the room.
Different kind than I’m accustomed to with different directions, and they felt very adamant about how to do it. I’m in awe of the confidence that comes with youth, and watching the kids work together was a beautiful machine. I asked them for things I didn’t have that we needed since they knew this landscape better than I. They asked if I could make other food to go with this…this thing that was not an entree but merely a side dish in their eyes.
“Can you make eggs?” the second oldest asked. “I can make eggs.”
I can, but the questions rendered me impotent. The embarrassment and the insecurity boiled up in me even before the pasta was done. They had already taken over the making at this point, deciding they were the experts. And they probably were. But there was a pause where they looked up with me with inquisitive eyes that seemed to be silently saying, We know this. We do this. But you’re over twice our age! How do you not know this? Why do you look so scared? Thankfully, they didn’t say it aloud.
Time unfroze, and I mumbled something that abated them. They didn’t ask for anything else that night.
Where had I gone? Back to my childhood kitchen, following a recipe while an angry, besotted adult screamed “You’re ruining my kitchenware!”–I wasn’t–and “you’re not following the directions!” When I not only had read but had memorized the recipe. When I was doing the best I could with what I had. Just like I always did. Doubting myself. Hating myself. Wanting to escape and feeling relief when I was left alone or was able to disappear.
When my husband called a few minutes later after he had gotten off work, I tried to sound peppy, but I could hear it. That sound. That “please come over and help me, because I’m drowning, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here” sound. He showed up despite his exhaustion. The kids were thrilled, and I suggested they read him a story instead of using him as a gym. After a few loud recitations on their part, I loudly re-iterated from the kitchen where I had absconded to do dishes.
“No, you guys. He’s never heard you read a book to him. Go find a book to read to him!” So instead of shouting at him much in the way oral storytelling happened prior to written word, they took turns reading to him while I did dishes and inwardly chastised myself for being tired when I’d only been there for several hours.
Earlier this summer, my husband and I traveled to see family. I got to met my middle sister’s new husband. I saw that look in his eyes when meeting me, his new sister. The fear of settling into a day with his new, large family in a new place. When he left, I hugged him and thanked him for coming and tried to express non-verbally the sentiment I wanted to say: You and I are going to be friends. You are not alone.
Because I had been there. It was the uncertainty I felt when I first started dating my husband.
I remember sitting in a pew at a church waiting for my then-boyfriend to start singing with his choir. We were a few weeks into dating, and everything was going well, but there in the moment with people I didn’t know in a place I didn’t feel comfortable, I asked myself: What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. You’re an impostor. Everyone’s going to know. You could run out of here right now. You could leave. You could just keep running until you are home.
But I didn’t. I was 25 miles from home. My boyfriend had driven us. He had people here. This was important to him. Even if I did manage to run screaming from this place, I’d have to find a ride back to the city. Once there I would be forced to think about how I was never going to be able to see him again. And I cared about him. I cared about him so much. Because of those things, I stayed. Sometimes that love combined with recounting the current facts is what buoys me when my “you-have-to-survive-and-this-feels-like-danger” gut inside tells me to go. Even if I am still alive, it’s hard to trust yourself when you experience a far reaching lack of conviction.
Once, and now thankfully rarely, my rescue dog mirrored that same scene in her eyes. The “everything is too much, and I am going to implode at any minute” look. The look of trauma. I often wonder why she really chose us, and I wish I could ask her. If she sat on my husband’s foot, because he looked like a man who could weather the storms, or because she saw him with me, the look of uncertainty that plagues me so regularly scrawled across my face and felt at home. Or maybe she thought, “Cool, Dog People here to take me home!” and made her move.
More times than I would like, I have to ask myself about the logistics of this fear and remind myself that this moment is temporary. That the pain will pass. Then it does. But I don’t always succeed and find myself saying or thinking, “Oh man, I don’t know if I can do this,” at least once a day.
But you know what? I spent time with my nieces and nephews. I didn’t fall apart on them, at least not completely. They got fed. They read my husband stories. They even bathed (well, some of them did). Could I have agreed to watch them a year ago, even two or three years before that? More than likely, no.
I remind myself this panic wasn’t built overnight, and it won’t leave overnight either. It will take time, and I’m making a commitment to better this life and those around me by investing time to make it better. To make me better. Even if it means I often find myself connecting even more with the folks who live on the Island of Misfit Toys than ever before.
So while I sat at home with a stress migraine tonight instead of spending time with family, I tried not to beat myself up over it. The absences are going to happen. So I’ll take them and look forward to my next measure of progress. Whenever I can get it, for as long as it will last, until the next one.