Friday, January 3, 2014

Better Together

Today I'm taking down the Christmas tree. We didn't leave our childhood with many objects to remind us of our family's life together. Illness, financial problems, a sheriff's sale--circumstances. But we have lots of memories. I'm old enough now to have accumulated a great many objects, including 30 years worth of Christmas ornaments. As I look at them, boxing them for another year of attic storage, I see that they tell a story. One collection took years to assemble, the gold plated ornaments with intricate details that sparkle madly on the tree. There is the collection of Lenox snowflakes, glowing porcelain lace. There are ornaments that perfectly capture the spirit of a year. They tell stories of my years of plenty and joy, and the years when no new ornaments came into my home. And I look forward as I box this year's additions, a beautiful silver bell ornament that was a wedding gift, and a heavy, pretty mistletoe ornament that I found for Eric. And so a new chapter, a new season of plenty, begins.

One of the things my counselor often asked me is "what is the worst thing that can happen?" I have relatively few fears about being in the world, or about my ability to "take care of business" but, as it turns out, I have quite a lot of fears about people letting me down. It's a strange business, this messy process of learning to count on other people. And I have lots of reasons to suck at it - many of the people I've tried to count on in my life have had illnesses (and early deaths) that prevented them from being able to be my safety net. My logical brain knows that it has been circumstance that prevented them, not their choice. But fear is not based on logic, as it turns out.  

I accept that I am not practiced at counting on other people. That makes sense, right?  Being out of the habit makes sense. But it makes absolutely no sense to me that I'm so afraid that when I do ask, the person I ask will let me down. This fear keeps me from asking, even when I dimly realize I could, or even should. Why all the anxiety? Really, what is the worst thing that can happen? If I ask and am let down, can't I can just take care of me, instead? Well, yes, but it might be harder because I might have less time, or have budgeted my time or money expecting not to need to handle X. Still, though, I know there is more to it. It has something to do with feeling valued, or loved. Because while we can logically understand why people we love who are sick or absent can't take care of us, while we can absolutely put on our big girl panties and make sure they never ever know that we are hurt or feel bereft--we are still actually feeling hurt, or bereft or both. Abandoned or let down or some combination of the two. And unfortunately, this habit of non-communication can develop into a bit of a problem. Let's be real, here: the last thing a sick person needs is confirmation that the reality they fear most is true, that their needs are very difficult to meet, that the family's resources are focused first on them, that their spouse (or children, or parents) are hurt in ways they cannot fix. Finding a way to live around a loved one's illness, to stay loving, joyful and authentic with one another when an illness is chipping away at not only your health but your finances, your daily lives, your routines, your self esteem--this is one of the greatest of life's challenges. So when counselors say to be open with one another about needs, even in the midst of illness or depression or crippling anxiety attacks, I have steadfastly disagreed. The patient comes first. Corollary: ask only for what can be given or can be soothed away. If I'm ever in that situation again, it will very likely continue to be my plan. 

But I'm not in that situation now. My life has changed. I've moved into a new life with people who are not sick. And yet those habits are deeply ingrained. They extend outside my personal life to my professional life. So maybe I struggle to ask for help. Or maybe I struggle to hold the people in my life accountable because I am so out of practice. Or maybe I become paralyzed in my communication (this is not the same as silent, although sometimes I'm silent). I've done all of these things. But none of these behaviors is "how I am." They are, instead, simply a set of behaviors and habits that I can change. If, as you read this, you find it resonates with you, then this next bit is for you and me: we have to hope that we'll figure it out. We have to try to figure it out, and stumble. And ask for help, or say when we are hurt, which feels as monumentally difficult as a kidney transplant.

So, to answer the question, the worst thing that could happen is that I say what I need and find that no one cares. The worst thing that can happen is that I will need help and no one will be there to help. In the range of human possibility, that's not so big a risk. I can take that one. And I can live in hope and certainty that most of the time, someone will be there for me. My husband, my siblings, my friends, even my colleagues. When it is truly important, someone will be in that scary black void with me.

So - one of my most closely-held commitments this year is to identify, accept and embrace what I need to be fulfilled in my life. I need to practice acknowledging it, first. I need to practice giving my needs and wants language, because that is how they will become real to me, how they will move from pie-in-the-sky dreams to goals. And then I need to practice reaching out to those who could help me find or attain those things. I need to ask people I love, people who love me, people I've helped along the way who would love to return the favor.

The Christmas tree has been disassembled and wrestled into a new storage bag.  I'm here with a cup of coffee, looking at the empty space where the tree has been twinkling cheerfully for the last month or so. It doesn't look bereft, it looks like a blank slate.  And so it is with the year ahead, as I go inward and try to find the route that will put my life, especially my professional life, on the path to something I find truly fulfilling.

We are better together than we are alone.  Happy New Year!



Anonymous said...

Cheers, Patti. Great to see more of your thoughtful writing. Here's to every success in your finding and creating more fulfillment in your life.

Anonymous said...

You and your enormous heart make me smile.

Anonymous said...

So glad to read your words again, and know that you are okay. ~A