Especially for you! Let's just get that outta the way upfront.
Every year to celebrate Thanksgiving, my family gathers together, inevitably with too much food and too much wine and too tight pants. As my mother wails at us to come eat, we surround the giant dining room table and at my dad’s insistence, join hands. In his typical long-winded way, he prays over the food and over us, expressing his gratitude at the year’s abundance. Often, the story of the First Thanksgiving makes an obligatory appearance, as if it will somehow feel new. Often, we roll our collective eyes at what a preposterous human being he is. Then, on cue, he “invites” us to go around the table and express our own thanks, publicly and in what is obviously the least cultish way imaginable. On my long, dreary, drizzled drives into work, I’ve been considering what I’ll say.
If November were a theme party, this year’s theme would be “floundering.” I cannot make my brain behave today—or any day lately for that matter. It seems that someone stuffed my head to bursting with steel wool and maybe also actual wool, and the scratchy pressure has constantly pushed up against the back of my eyeballs, like sandpaper every time I blink. It seems this life for which I’ve worked is trying to smother me to death with pillow stuffing.
To be honest, I had big plans for this post. You’ve been so patiently waiting, and I didn’t want to disappoint you, to make you feel like you’ve been waiting for nothing. But plans must sometimes change, and today my body said NO. No poignancy for you, no exploration of your emotional intricacies, no spoonful of jokes to make the dysfunction go down. Today, my body is just being a real fuckin’ dick, and I would tell it so to its face. Which I guess would be my face. This is starting to feel complicated.
Since I’ve started this new job, every emotion has been a little off-kilter. Every commitment feels slightly half assed. Time has sped up and slowed down, and the world feels wet and foggy. Literally. The weather outside has been gross. Each week that’s come and gone, I’ve meant to write and post something new, to let you know that I’m alive and still doing this work on myself. But my time has been limited, and the words haven’t come. My broken brain is unbalanced, my axis tilted once more. I am overwhelmed. Overwhelmed at trying to plan every minute of every day. Overwhelmed by an exhausting commute. Overwhelmed at organizing time for myself and my husband and my dogs and my family and my friends. Overwhelmed by how much my life has changed in just a few short weeks.
There are things I want to say, emotions I want to work through. But they jumble together in my woolly brain, unable to sift through the chaos out onto the page. I could tell you that lately I’m not getting the time with my husband for which I’ve (we’ve?) desperately longed, that to which we’ve become so accustomed. For this little while, our marriage has become nearly clinical, and I’m almost too tired to care. Almost. I could tell you that I wish I *were* too tired to care because then I wouldn’t feel quite so guilty. I wouldn’t belittle my time management skills nearly so much. I wouldn’t feel like such a marital failure, like a burden he must bear. As if these feelings are somehow new to me—they are not—but they’ve marched in with renewed vigor, charging little soldiers ready to do battle for my emotional stronghold.
I could tell you that I love my job and that I’m excelling. But with that comes hard feelings too. Because there will come one day when I won’t excel, and I know how bruisedly I’ll beat myself for it. I could tell you that I’m terrified of my boss or my colleagues or my clients discovering my anxiety because it will diminish my competence and my authority. Suddenly, I will not be the person I’ve represented myself to be. I will be someone different. I will be crazy. I could tell you that, sometimes, every interaction at work is exhausting. Did I reveal too much about myself? Or not enough? Am I approachable? Or too eager? Am I too dry or too condescending or too bored or too quirky? Where is the balance between being myself and being employable? Is there one at all?
I could tell you that instead of doing my job on Friday, I spent an hour Googling “swollen ankles from sitting” and trying to convince myself I did NOT have late stage heart failure as the internet suggested. Because I know I’m not pregnant. THANK YOU FOR NOTHING, WEBMD. You are useless, panic-inducing garbage.
This is what my everyday life with anxiety is like. It is small things—insignificant—that become big. So big that my heart beats through my chest and my nervous system vibrates and my lungs seem to paralyze. More than once, my cubicle neighbor has asked, muffled behind our partition, if I’m okay. He’s heard big sighs coming from inside my box. How do I tell him that, “Yes, I’m just fine. But my heart rate’s skyrocketed because my boss shifted in his chair a little too loudly, and I’m trying hard not to have a panic attack.” How do I tell him that my panic response is different from his—more aggressive, angrier? Is this my actual new role, the weird girl in the office who sighs deeply and startles easily? Should I change my email signature? Because uhnnoooo thank yyoouu.
So this is the balancing act, the high wire I’ve been walking. Some days I am so functional, it’s absurd. I am a powerhouse portioned into a pint-sized package. Side Note: all. the. alliteration. And some days, I am so dysfunctional, it’s absurd. I barely wake up. My brain doesn’t behave. I don’t have an in-between yet. But I’m working on it, still working on myself. I’m still trying. And like, kinda failing. And beating myself up JUST A LITTLE. Because I’m not doing any of it phenomenally. For now, my whole ass is otherwise engaged.
Honestly, all of this must just seem like relentless complaining. I mean, it kinda is. But change is hard. Even very great, very exciting change. And I’m struggling to adjust to this new life, to take care of myself and my husband and my job and my brain. With all of my burners alight, it feels inevitable that my house will catch on fire. The burn is slow, controlled. But only for so long. When will I wake up surrounded by ashes?
Listen—this is getting really morose. Stop it, Ashlyn. Just stop it. But I began this project as a way to connect, to air our hard feelings and hard lives and hard questions. And in this season of transition, it feels heavy to make space for gratitude when I’m buzzing inside, all the time. I am not thankful for my anxiety. I am not thankful for constant chest pain or stomachaches or obsessive thoughts. I am not thankful for WebMD or compulsions I can’t resist. I am not thankful for idiopathic swollen ankles.
So here’s what I would say when I take my place at the table this week (But will not actually say because that would uncomfortable for everyone. We are *not* that kind of family.)
I am thankful for red wine and black coffee and cold beer and fuzzy socks. I’m thankful that donuts are a thing and so is mac ‘n cheese. I’m thankful for a patient husband and supportive friends. I am thankful that my office has a gym and that my boss is kind and my coworkers are friendly and my work is flexible. I am thankful for therapy. And even on days I hate every part of it, I’m thankful for my body, how it’s held me and grown with me for three decades, how it propels me forward when I want to stand still.
I am thankful that my willingness to talk about my hard things has made it a little easier for even one other person and that I have people to share these burdens with—people who know, who understand. It takes a village, and I am so very proud of this village. I am thankful for those who love me, those who carry my shit when I’m collapsing under its weight, who still bear their own with such grace. I am thankful for the kindness of strangers, when I have done so little to deserve it. And I am thankful that you haven’t given up on me because there are so many days when I want to give up on myself.
So I could tell you that life has been hard, and I am floundering while I adapt. But I have built this hard life through hard work, and it’s gorgeous. And also sometimes, it’s a steaming pile of shit. Even on those long, dreary, drizzled mornings, I am thankful for it.