When you’re prescribed pain medication after a surgery, everyone tells you to take it on a schedule even if you’re not currently hurting, before the pain starts up again, because otherwise it’s nearly impossible to get on top of it. I find it’s the same with almost everything painful in life. It’s why we say we’ve have to nip things in the bud before we get behind the eight ball or have to reap what we’ve sown. It’s also why I’m writing at 1am on a Tuesday instead of being asleep.
As a sober woman, I’m supposed to accept people for who they are, not try to change things to my will, and let things go with the same abandon wild horses show when they refuse to be tamed. But I’m also supposed to set boundaries and have standards and stick to them, develop a human-emotional epoxy. Where these two sets of principles overlap, I can’t say. But wherever it is, it’s in a messy space that, after visiting, leaves me exhausted and raw.
What’s the difference between accepting you need something (healthy) to be true to yourself and telling someone you love what they’re doing just isn’t cutting it? Between setting a boundary out of self-care and moving (or re-moving it) when someone you love isn’t able to see its purpose? When does asking for more turn into a demand for something to which I have no right? How can I tell when I’m trying to be the director instead of an actor interpreting her role in a creative way?
There are no easy answers, if you haven’t guessed. Just people fumbling their way through life hoping they don’t hit too many obstacles and, if they do, that the stumbling blocks are temporary or manageable or at least won’t hurt too much if they cause an untimely tumble.
I’ve spent a lifetime yearning for more, sometimes because what I had was less than what I deserved and others because I was greedy and didn’t know how to stop. I’m prone to restlessness and criticism (perfected when directed inward) as well as blissful ignorance and unwrecked optimism, sometimes all within a single sentence. I want. I want. I want. We are all toddlers wanting things; some people find them with ease, while others wait patiently for moments (or people) to present themselves.
My most recent therapist noted I have trouble when I don’t have at least one stable and reliable thing in my life. For most of my time in NYC, everything has been precarious. Anything can change at any moment: my mood, my health, my financial situation, my housing, my everything. There are a few things I know will not change—I won’t die by my own hand, and I won’t drink before doing everything possible not to—but they are all intangibles, ideas swirling around in my mind and values permeating my being. And it’s all a juggling game, too: I find stable housing and I drop the juggling pin labeled JOB, I find a relationship and down tumbles HEALTH, I find a few extra dollars in my pocket and lose HOUSING when an unexpected eviction notice arrives. I don’t know whether the universe is playing a cruel joke or trying to convince me how strong I am, but whatever the reasons are don’t matter. I’m the toddler on the playground who will always have trouble climbing the slide because it breaks just as she starts to the top, who can’t swing that high despite pumping her tiny legs furiously because no one is around to push her, who loves the thrill of the merry-go-round but vomits every time she gets off. I’ve come to accept my life isn’t one of the easy ones that’s handed out; and, yes, I know everyone has troubles. But there are troubles and then there are troubles, and mine, without fail, are the latter.
There’s an inside joke I have with my younger son; if there’s a 1% chance of something happening—a side effect, a bad reaction, an unusual occurrence—it always happens to me. When I say things like, “I had injections in my back on Friday, and 5% of the people who get them experience excruciating pain for about a week instead of immediate pain relief…,” I don’t even need to go on before he adds “…and, let me guess, you’re one of the 5%.” All the painful facts of my life become a source of humor in this fashion, and the fact that I keep getting up to have pies slammed in my face is a testament to either my fortitude or my folly. Does it really matter, though, as long as I stand back up (albeit on a time-delay now and again), every time?
I’ve been told I’ve become an expert on accepting the unacceptable. This was first mentioned in the context of my staying in an abusive relationship; later, it became a compliment for handling difficult situations with grace. Today, it’s just what I have to do to be happy instead of wanting to be right all the time.
Still, I don’t know what the Venn diagram looks like when I try to map out my self-esteem and boundaries alongside my deep capacity for acceptance and forgiveness (with more than a tinge of self-forgetting). I do know a few things, though, and one of them is that I stand up every time. Even after 40+ years of ridiculously improbable things happening against the odds, I’m still here, and I’m not going anywhere but up, up, and away.