*Contains an affiliate link or two. Waaaay down…
For a long, long time, I lived my life the way I thought I should live–I had a very good job at a beautiful and generous church, a great apartment in a hip neighborhood, wonderful friends, and a loving family. I traveled as much as my work and my finances allowed. If I had any complaints, it was that I had never really fallen in love and gotten married, and around my early 30’s I got really sad about not having any kids. But life got better, I learned that I loved traveling solo, and if the occasional dates I had didn’t amount to much, that was okay with me. As time went on, I even bought a house. I was settled.
But by my late 30’s, everything fell apart. Work stress was mounting and after one particularly trying period with my boss, something in me just snapped. I had been trying so hard to please this person for so many years and it finally dawned on me that it was impossible–no matter what I did, I could never in a million years please them. Like Sisyphus–I’d get so far and do so well, only to have it come back and demolish me later. Over and over and over again.
At a total loss of how to handle this situation, I finally sought counseling and the church was generous enough to cover some of the cost. I found a wonderful counselor who proceeded to dismantle my entire worldview down to the very core of who I was and what I believed. I went in with two major questions: Why can’t this person and I get along? And what is wrong with me that I can’t find a man to love me?
We dove down deep into my family of origin, burrowed into my concrete “Christian” beliefs–which were really more societal than biblical–and broke them all apart, sifting through the rubble to see what was worth keeping. Being in counseling felt like getting in a wobbly boat and floating out into the vast ocean, away from everything I knew. For a long, long time the words I used to describe myself were “at sea” and “unmoored.”
And this wore me out. They don’t tell you this, but you don’t go skipping out of the counselor’s office full of springs. You drag your body out of that room knowing all the work you have ahead of you because it’s too painful to keep sweeping stuff under the rug like it doesn’t matter. You drag events and feelings out and put them in the light and stare at them, and grieve about them, and slowly you deal with it.
I learned to go home and take care of myself. To be kind to myself. To talk to myself like I want to be talked to, not berating and calling myself names. I quit all my extracurriculars and focused on dealing with my own problems for a while. And I really, really learned to grieve. I allowed myself to be angry and sad and hurt by all the things that a normal life had handed me, and to forgive and let it go, to talk about it and not say it didn’t matter.
While my interior life was starting to get remodeled, a major thing happened at work that also destroyed the polished exterior of my life. I was still trucking along, doing my thing, and getting, frankly, a prodigious amount of work done. There was a new program coming down the pike and it peripherally concerned an area that I was extremely involved with. I asked several times if this would change things for me, and was told repeatedly that it wouldn’t. On the first day of training for this program, the first words out of the instructor’s mouth were, “This will change everything.” I freaked out noticeably and spent the rest of the training making sure this program could do what I needed it to do and finding it clear it was going to come up short for my purposes.
My counselor had given me a list of “distorted thinking”–ways one can make a bad situation worse by catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, taking things personally, etc. I did every last thing on that list as if it were my job. It was as if I were sailing along in this ship I had built over the last ten years with care and precision–and sure, I had this other stuff I was dealing with deep in the hold–but the ship was moving, man. No stopping it for anything when CRUNCH I hit a messy, craggy *something* that I couldn’t even see from where I stood until it knocked me off my feet.
Following this trauma, it seemed like event after event just brought me lower and lower. The final nail was a joining day for new members at the church, a task I usually loved. But our church was in a rapid growth spurt owing to the addition of a fourth and fifth service to the morning line-up and I had more than twice as many people joining the church than usual, over 70. To my defeated and exhausted mind, the whole overwhelming experience was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I finally buckled. I was officially and definitively burned out.
Soon after, my boss rounded the corner to say good morning and ask how I was doing, to which I promptly burst into tears. There was too much to do and I just couldn’t do it. She very kindly stayed to talk and offered to take a few things off my plate. After some thought, I asked for the removal of three tasks and she agreed.
What followed was about a year of the deconstruction and rebuilding phase of my counseling. I really got into journaling–I hardly knew what I thought unless I wrote it down. I journaled at work, I journaled at home, I wrote all the time. It became the most important part of my day. All the new information from the counseling, all the new information from my thawing-out emotions, all the thoughts I had about everything at work kept up such a noise in my brain so that if I didn’t organize it on paper, I couldn’t think straight at all. I learned how to identify what I needed, from myself and from others, and how to get it, but almost totally impossible for me to identify unless I deliberately wrote it down.
At some point during this time, I started a few new podcasts, craving connection to interests that I didn’t necessarily share with anyone I knew. It was while listening to two travel podcasts that I first realized that there were people out there who travel for a living! More or less full time, all around the world, all the time! It was as if the sun had broken through the clouds and Gabriel’s trumpet sounded and my eyes were opened for the first time to my true calling. If other people can do it, surely I could figure it out. I began to talk about it, and everyone that I mentioned it to would nod and say, “I can totally see you doing that!” The thought was, and still is, intoxicating. But I still had work to do, literally in my office, and still in my counseling. I had a mortgage, and I was tired. I knew this was something I had to at least attempt, but I knew it couldn’t be quite yet.
At around a year and a half of counseling, my bosses were wondering why I wasn’t any “better” yet. One tentatively asked me, “Isn’t it working?” and another, the same one who gave me a generous reprieve a year earlier, became tired of me not pulling my weight. The message was that I should be better by now, and the implication was that it was my fault that I wasn’t. I was disappointed in myself, as well. I thought counseling would take a year, tops, and I would be “fixed.” Unfortunately, that is definitely not how it works. My funding from the church dropped off and I kept going on my own dime. And eventually, I did get better, or at least I felt like I did. I felt like I was finally approaching some farther shore of new groundedness, as if I could see it in the distance. My work picked up. I started wearing uber-confident bright red lipstick.
Then my father died.
Only the fall before we had gone on a three-week trip, driving through the west, visiting Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone before arriving in Seattle and departing on an Alaskan cruise, plus the whole drive back. And he was fine. Soon after that trip, he had this spot of skin cancer on his hip that was removed and he complained about how much they had cut out. Dad had heart disease and diabetes, and he moaned and groaned about his aches and pains all the time, but still got all the yard work done and was constantly fixing people’s houses and cars. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do as a handyman, and he’d even roofed houses and built decks.
Around February/March of 2016, he started to complain of feeling sick. He had gone to the doctor who said he was fine, go see your cardiologist. The cardiologist would run tests and say, you’re fine, go back to your general practitioner. And back and forth that went for six weeks or longer. Finally, he landed in the Critical Decision Unit of the hospital where they tried to decide what was wrong with him and that’s when we first heard the words cancer. But not a bad form of cancer, it was totally treatable! They scheduled an appointment with the oncologist and went home.
But he was back in the hospital before that appointment could come due, in terrible pain. They did scan after scan, sometimes carting him off, sometimes roughly cramming a plate behind his back to do an x-ray in bed. Eventually, they did a CT scan and it showed up black blotches of cancer embedded all in his torso and bones. The Squamous cell cancer that they had removed from his hip had uncharacteristically and violently spread itself almost throughout his entire body. The whole family lived at the hospital and took turns staying overnight. Pastors, siblings, and cousins came by and brought food and visited. We laughed at the crazy things Dad said on the painkillers, the faces in the ceiling, the noises in the hall. But sometimes he was alright. He understood what was going on and was very matter-of-fact about it. He told us where to find the combination to the safe, and where his “letter of instruction” was, where to find all the account numbers and how to pay the bills.
It’s amazing how quickly humans can adjust to a new normal. Staying at the hospital became what we did. Then as things declined we got used to that. As he lost control of his bodily functions, we got used to that too. This is just what we have to do now, no big deal. On the day he died, it felt like any other day. I was actually later than I meant to be so that I could take care of some stuff at home and pack up for the overnight stay. We were all there, chatting and laughing, having adjusted already to the fact that Dad didn’t say much anymore and slept most of the time, except when he woke up and in his confusion wanted to go home. I hadn’t been there an hour before the nurses suddenly rushed in, responding to a blip on the monitors, saying it wouldn’t be long. We had even heard this once before too, but as we crowded around the bed and attempted to call absent family members, he was already gone.
It felt like such a shock! Here we were, knowing they could do no more for him and practically sitting around waiting for him to die, but when he did, it was still such a surprise. In the end, it was kidney failure and he passed away on May 14, 2016. He was in the hospital only for a few weeks, had only received one round of chemo before they decided it was too late. None of the many doctors who treated him knew why his kidneys had failed or why this cancer had acted the way it did.
I remember having to step out so the nurses could straighten him out and fix the sheets. I remember touching his hands as they grew cold, “just to make sure.” I remember walking out of the hospital as a group, almost laughing, almost relieved that we wouldn’t have to live at the hospital anymore.
The visitations and funeral were almost a joyous time–getting to see all the people we don’t normally get to see, and seeing all the people I live life with who cared enough to show up, not because they knew Dad, but because they knew me. So many people from the church, my co-workers, elders, almost all of the six pastors were there, plus many of my friends. It was so warming to know they cared enough about me to show up. We experienced all of the frustration of dealing with the funeral home and of burying my father, including that the grave wasn’t dug in time for the graveside service and the wait while the crowd dwindled until the stubborn few of us that were left could see him be put in the ground with construction equipment.
The church generously allowed me a week away from work, to include the planning and burial, plus a few days extra to recover. And when I came back, everyone was wonderful, everyone was understanding and so, so kind. In those first weeks I grieved very hard and with purpose, all the training I had to this point to grieve all the childhood hurts–including those concerning Dad–I put to use after his death. I dove headlong into my sadness, examined it and felt it with my whole self. I read books and talked to people and hid and cried everywhere–at home, at work, in the supermarket, in the car.
Work was very patient with my obvious grief, but then the workload picked up as the fall activities started, and I wasn’t ready to go full steam. I even complained to my counselor that I was frustrated that I couldn’t get my head in the game and she suggested I look into antidepressants, something we had never discussed before. But before I could get that started, it was made clear to me that it was time for me to resign from the church. They all knew I wanted to get into travel and that my involvement with the church was waning, and they seemed frustrated that I wasn’t working as much as I used to, not only in the three months since my Dad died, but in the two years before that. My annual performance reviews were poor and based on them, they decided to gently push me out the door with enough help to give me time to find a new job.
In the end, it was the best thing that could have happened. The force of inertia is strong when you’ve been sitting at the same desk, doing almost the same tasks for the last 12 years; it’s hard to get out of that rut. They gave me the push that I needed to move ahead, but it was still true that I had a mortgage to pay and didn’t feel comfortable launching straight into my travel-the-world plan just yet. I wanted a “just-a-job” job to keep me going until I could put more away in savings and start earning some money online.
I paved the local market with my resume and found I was pretty marketable. I had always freaked out about looking for new jobs before because it all seemed so overwhelming, but now that I was out in it, I met loads of diverse people and made many new friends. I worked for Cigna for a little bit, then switched to the Postal Service in order to not be stuck behind a computer all day. Now I’m a carrier substitute with a mail truck–I listen to music all morning while I organize the mail and listen to podcasts and audiobooks all afternoon while I deliver on the street. It’s quite a hard job–be nice to your mail carrier!–and pretty far from full-time right now. But I seem to make ends meet and, as bad as I am at it, I like the work.
I don’t feel as unmoored as I used to, either. Or maybe I’ve gotten used to the uncertainty of not always having a concrete plan for my life, or even for my day. I seem to have added on to my wobbly boat–like having a new sail and tiller, I have more tools and new perspectives with which to deal with the uncertainty around me, and I accept that this is a life-long struggle. Unfortunately, I will never be “fixed.” But I have shed that idea that I have to be perfect or people won’t accept me. I fail a lot, and that is now an acceptable outcome.
I can see the farther shore from here, too. It looks HUGE, as big and as interesting and as colorful as the whole world. I think back on the little, gray island that was the life I lived before and it seems so far away. Why did I ever live there in the first place? It was a prison island of my own making. But now I have set sail and there is no going back.