The Work is Waiting: The Obnoxious Truth When Life Is Pretty Chill

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Here’s a parable:

A mother stands over a sink of dishes while a father cleans up the remaining toddler droppings from breakfast--egg chunks on the floor, a coating of peanut butter on the table. The toddler enters the kitchen with a mournful refrain--”Ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma” and launches himself at the mother’s legs, begging to be picked up. The mother continues washing the dishes and remarks, “He only ever says ‘mama’ when he’s upset.”

“Hmm,” says the father, considering.

“It’s always mama’s fault when things go wrong.”

“Jesus Nikki,” says the father. “That’s fucking dark! Is that what you think?”

The mother looks at him blankly. “Well, yeah.”

“I was thinking it’s because he knows Mama can fix anything!”

“Oh,” says the mother. “Yeah I guess it could be that too.” And she returns to the dishes, feeling better and worse at the same time.

What The Fuck, Brain?

I’ve been in a weird place, y’all. I haven’t written a blog for TNG in a little over three months, my last essay being about my decision to start seeing a therapist after coming to terms with the fact that my anxiety was ripping me to shreds and playing the fibers like a badly-tuned violin. In actuality, there has been nearly three months between that first therapy visit and the second, which means that I went once, “got busy”, felt a little better, and pronounced myself cured. My fellow therapy-resenters know this charming little fantasy well.

I also threw myself headlong into the most difficult season of the school calendar year: October-December. I gritted my teeth and continued the grueling character work that begins the moment you step into a leadership role and ends...well, probably never, and definitely not half a year in. I threw every tertiary element of my life--my writing workshop, this blog, regular showers--into the backseat of the speeding bullet train known as Get Good At Your Job. Or more accurately since we’re talking about me here: Don’t Fuck This Up.

And somewhere along the way, in the thick of the haze cloud of Fall 2017, I found a kind of stasis. Work felt hard, but manageable. The kids were exhausting, but healthy and happy. Eleanor got almost all A’s on her first report card and Lucas started sleeping through the night and Marc and I were on a steady 3 date night a month average.

So why am I still falling to pieces the moment I get a day behind on laundry? Why am I interpreting my toddler son’s whining as a judgement on my worth as a mother and a human being? Why am I still unable to read a book for longer than five minutes without my heart racing because I feel like I should be doing something more important?

In essence, what the fuck, brain?

This deferment of happiness, the idea that everything will be fine when X, Y, Z happens is a particularly insidious one because it’s a half-truth. When our external circumstances improve, we do feel better. But if that were the end of it, then post-traumatic stress disorder wouldn’t exist. Temporary things can permanently alter our brains. We don’t just moonwalk out of survival mode the moment danger has passed, even if at first it feels that way. The work--the dumb, vital, boring, beautiful, infuriating, transformational work--is waiting for us as soon as the honeymoon is over.

Hall of Mirrors

Are you the same person that you were 5 years ago? 10? 15? Before and after marriage, or divorce? Before and after chronic illness? College? Abuse? Kids? How do you reconcile the serial selves of your life into an identity that feels whole and true?

Asking for a friend.

Until recently, I didn’t think of my anxiety as something hard-wired in me. I thought it was a tendency that I had when times were stressful. On the road trip of life I would pass in and out of anxiety like those obnoxious stretches where there’s nothing but pop country and sermons on the radio.

I’m realizing I’ve done this a lot. The ways that I changed during my twenties are profound and numerous, good, bad, and uncategorizable. But they haven’t felt permanent. In my own head my “real self” is lagging a decade behind, and I’m just acting in these theatrical productions called Mother and Educator and Ex-Evangelical until the curtain closes and I take off my makeup and go back to being a plucky undergrad who reads two novels a week, creates elaborate handmade birthday presents, and desperately seeks validation from a curated cabinet of left-leaning Christian mentors. That Nikki didn’t have chronic anxiety. This Nikki does, and it’s not going to go away when the last kid is out of diapers or when Marc’s work schedule changes. Apparently, it’s going to creep into even the most innocuous of daily events like doing dishes after breakfast and warp my thinking so much that I don’t even recognize it until my partner points it out. So that’ll be fun to talk about in my third therapy session next week.

Because this Nikki also goes to therapy, even when she thinks she doesn’t need it.