Back in my “climbing days” (i.e., in my early twenties, sans law school debt, and dating my climbing instructor), I would approach each route with a hell-bent determination to get to the anchors, no matter what the physical or emotional cost. On virtually every climb, I would verbally coach myself through the various cruxes, commanding myself out loud to “make it work” from hold to hold. True story: on one of my first lead climbs (an overhung 5.10c at the Red), I started crying when aforementioned boyfriend suggested I take and hang for a clearly needed rest, some sixty feet off the ground. To admit that I was struggling was commensurate to quitting in my book. Honestly, I can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve approached my life generally — that is, as something to confront head on and muscle/will my way through the difficult stretches. And I believe it’s fair to say that for most of my life, I’ve done so with relative success. So what does it mean when I just can’t “make it work” right now, no matter how hard I try?
The quick and dirty response: a crushing and overwhelming sense of abject failure and total worthlessness. My more nuanced, hopefully constructive answer: I’m not sure, but I know that the first step to any sort of resolution is to acknowledge that it’s impossible for me to be strong all the time and that needing help is not a sign of weakness. Yet it took me breaking down to a total stranger for me to finally admit to myself that I’m not okay. And that is okay. Or something like that.
Stress and the drive to achieve have been, and will continue to be, formative forces in my life. Maybe that’s axiomatic, given my educational and career choices. Being and handling “busy” has been my status quo for as long as I can remember — to the point where I once tried to give up talking about how busy I was for Lent (it was about as successful as the year I gave up red meat and justified eating bacon because it’s the “other white meat”). Truthfully, I’ve maintained an almost perverse sense of pride in my capacity to juggle multiple obligations and effectively channel the attendant stress to productive ends. My ability to manage the rigors of demanding academic, professional, and personal schedules is intrinsic to who I am. Yes, there have been times when I felt overwhelmed in the moment, but my response had always been to freak out briefly, take a step back, usually pour myself some wine, evaluate, and systematically and diligently tackle whatever needed to be done until it was done. Yes, throughout everything, I’ve sensed this constant undercurrent of anxiety and fear of failure, but as long as I kept my head down and kept pressing on, I knew I’d be fine.
Until I wasn’t.
I know that there are extrinsic factors at play, which makes it tricky to untangle what is a reaction to external circumstances from what are the inherent, internal issues I need to address. The thirty-something, single, career-minded woman who “just wants it all” is the fodder for all things terrible rom-com for a reason. Could there be a more laughable prospect? I break this down as follows:
- I turned thirty. Mini existential crisis ensued.
- “But work/life balance exists in Silicon Valley, particularly at a big corporate law firm,” said no one ever. The pay is good, I admire many of my clients, and I adore several of my coworkers. But countless billable hours and round-the-clock client service for the foreseeable future? I genuinely don’t know how people make it to partnership, especially those with families. So there’s a lot of anxiety on the career front as I’m attempting to pinpoint that enviable, elusive intersection between passion, skills, and need while trying to remain cognizant of my prideful desire to do something “meaningful” so I can convince myself I matter.
- Although my family has always been amazingly supportive of my pursuit of education and career, it’s hard to shake the expectation when you grow up in Indiana that life happens by going to college, marrying either your high school sweetheart or someone you met in college, and making babies reasonably soon thereafter. For the past seven years, I’ve been living in the thick of wedding (and baby-making) season, and the ratio of couples (and babies) to singles has rapidly changed. Let me be clear: this is not a rant against marriage. I love celebrating the commitment by and between people I love, with other people I love. Plus, open bars and classic white people dance moves… (please keep inviting me to your weddings). Also, I love your babies and have to fight the urge to kidnap them. And I’m acutely aware that I have plenty of crap to navigate before I can dream of dragging some poor soul into the chaos that is Clee. But that awareness doesn’t always feel great.
- In my mind, part of “it all” is buying a home. The median home price in Palo Alto is $2.4 million. Excuse me while I go throw up. And buy some lotto tix.
All joking aside, while I can appreciate that there is enough going on in my world at present to create an understandably challenging level of pressure and stress, this isn’t the first time I’ve had multiple balls in the air. But it is the first time I’ve felt so powerless and unable to cope for such a protracted period.
For the past few months, I feel like I’ve been floundering through, if not paralyzed by, the prospect and uncertainties of my life. There are moments when I don’t even recognize myself based on what I’m experiencing and thinking. And then there are moments during which I can see my “normal” on the horizon, and I so desperately want to get there and reclaim it, but no matter what I do, I simply cannot. It remains out of reach, despite my best/every effort. I’m not sure which is more frustrating, honestly. Both suck royally. Both have led to minor panic attacks in public places, spontaneous ugly crying at the most inopportune times and locations (e.g., in my office, minutes before a client call; in my car, always; in church, always), rampant insomnia, and other delightful compulsive behaviors. Which all feed into further anxiety and stress and shitty-feelingness. Just your vintage vicious cycle in full force. And yet I still somehow convinced myself that I just had to push through this, that this, too, shall pass.
But at what point does one need to take ownership and realize that sometimes, this does not pass, and sometimes, all the internal (over)analysis and processing with friends and family and reading and praying and crying out for change might not be enough to pull you out from that rabbit hole of sheer hopelessness, of total emptiness, of seemingly endless struggle? For me, it was the “not sleeping for more than a few hours a night for several weeks and pulling out my hair for a month and locking myself out of my apartment and finding my keys in the refrigerator and being incapable of recalling anything and not feeling human anymore” point. As the kind doctor (who was not my actual doctor because I mixed up the dates when scheduling appointment to address said hairpulling and recent insomnia and to whom I completely lost it, having just met her) diplomatically phrased it, I had “discovered my tipping point.”
Quite frankly, I often think I’m being incredibly self-indulgent in characterizing what I’ve undergone as onerous or painful, given the crazy, messy tragedy that is our world today. There is currently some serious suffering happening, and I would never want to diminish those macro-agonies by focusing on my micro-anguish. Moreover, I really do have a lot for which to be grateful in my life, especially by way of wonderfully loving family and friends (if you’re actually still reading this, I’m talking about YOU. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you). However, I’ve realized that dismissing my experience has only reinforced my conviction that I should be able to dust myself off and keep forging ahead, that I should be made of tougher, better stuff, that I should be more secure in my identity as someone beloved by God and trust more in ways that are higher and infinitely better than my own. Which makes it even worse when I simply can’t move forward, because it amplifies my sense of failure, particularly on the faith front. I’ve really struggled with the notion that maybe it’s a matter of just not having enough of it. But even if that’s true, then I have to ask: what about grace? Doesn’t that kick in, always, unconditionally? I have to believe that’s true, certainly when my reality is that I am hurting, I am tired, I am broken, and I need to heal. And I can’t do that alone.
I don’t know what healing will look like, though, and I’m truly terrified. But I know being open and honest with the fact that I need help is a baby step back toward normal. I am finally starting to comprehend what strength perfected in weakness means in the gritty context of real life today, with bright hope for tomorrow. And if anyone else can relate to any of this, please know you’re not alone, you matter so much, and you are enough. I love you.*
*If I tell you that in a few weeks, that might be the meds speaking, but right now, it’s 100% candid and chemical-free**
**Minus the cabernet