Friday, June 24, 2011

Retiring the Duct Tape

I've been meeting on Wednesday night's with a group of women as we work through the book "Me, Myself and Lies."  In a nutshell, it's about the lies we tell ourselves ABOUT ourselves--how we tear ourselves down and become our own worst enemy.  This is most definitely something that I struggle with on a daily basis.  I'm willing to say that a good 85-90% of my problems stem from my own insecurities, hangups and unrealistic expectations.  I convince myself that I have to do it ALL--and then turn right around and tell myself that I lack the ability to do anything right.  I run (and often crawl) in an endless circle of of guilt, anxiety and self-loathing.  A peek inside my head on any given day might look like this:

1% of my brain:  "Wow, the kitchen and living room floors are clean, the laundry is folded and dinner is cooking! Go me!"
Remaining 99% of my brain:  "You didn't clean the toilet, you loser.  You're a shitty wife and mom."

Now, I am the first to admit that when I look at that in writing, I think I should smack myself.  That's crazy-people talk, right?  Right?  But the truth is that I give myself the "SWAM" trophy over and over each day.  My emotional mantle is full of these ugly little awards. 

This way of thinking seems to be the rut into which I've fallen and wallowed for about ten years now.  I've always struggled with that nagging feeling that I'm "not good enough," but once I got married and started teaching (within a two-week span!), that nagging feeling turned into a dead, rotting slab of  hopelessness that I dragged around behind me wherever I went. 

For some reason, I've never been able to find balance in my life.   I want to be good at everything I do.  No, scratch that, I want to be great.   I am in a constant state of attempting to be perfect in everything I do.  So when I throw myself into something I love or am passionate about, I end up neglecting other parts of my life. Trying to balance being a newlywed and a first year high-school teacher was one of the biggest challenges of my life.    In order to get my papers graded, I didn't do the grocery shopping.  In order to get my grades averages and submitted, I didn't do the laundry.  In order to plan my lessons for three different preps, I didn't clean the house.  I was always tired and stressed and frustrated.   Every time I'd try to keep up with the housework and my "wifely" duties, I would fall further behind at work.  Every time I'd get to a point at work that I felt I had it under control, my house would literally be falling down around my ears.  I always felt like a failure in at least one area of my life--most of the time both since I could always find some area in which I could improve.  Unfortunately, it didn't really get much easier as the years went on.  As we moved into the era of NCLB, it seemed like my responsibilities at work gradually increased--as did the amount of information we were required to teach. 

"Here you go!  Teach ALL of this to ALL of your students.  It doesn't matter that half of them aren't reading on grade level and some of them can't write a complete sentence.  There's no time to  reteach what they should have learned years ago!  Now, you're going to have 30 kids in each class.  You'll see them 50 minutes a day for ten months (or 90 for five), not counting holidays, breaks, snow days, etc.   Some of them will have IEPs.  Some of them will NEED an IEP.  Some of them will need medication or a kick in the ass (but don't even JOKE about doing that!)  Don't forget to throw in as many stupid little games and activities as possible because we have to trick them into thinking they're having fun.  When it's all said and done, they'll take a multiple choice test that we'll use to decide if you're a good teacher or a total failure.  Uh-oh, there's the first bell!  It will ring again soon.  It will dictate when you start teaching and stop teaching, as well as when you eat and pee.  Don't forget there will be a two-hour faculty meeting this afternoon during which we'll give you a massive stack of papers to fill out.  These papers won't be used in any way that benefits you or your students, but dammit they'll look good sitting in that file!"

How can anyone be successful when you're set up to fail from the start?  Any sane person would hear that and say, "You're just going to have to accept what I am able to do.  I'm not a miracle worker."  My mind hears that and says, "Work harder, loser!  Stop whining and do what they say!"

As the years passed and I gained more experience in teaching, I learned to juggle the responsibilities of school, though they didn't become any less stressful.  Meanwhile, my home life, my marriage and my mental health were a mess.   Remember that little 1% of my brain I told you about?  At some point the other 99% smothered it while it slept.  There was no little voice saying, "Way to go, Amber!"  I somehow lost all ability to truly embrace my accomplishments or successes because projecting onto the back wall of my mind was a constant reel-to-reel of all the things I had neglected to do.  Every victory was cloaked in a dirty robe of all the things I had to ignore in my life to get there:  my husband, my family, my friends, my home, myself. 

It wasn't until last May, as I packed up my classroom and moved everything home, that I realized just how polluted my attitude toward myself had become.  I remember thinking, This is a new start for me.  I don't have to juggle anymore.  I can be a mom and wife now. I can focus on my home and my family.   Don't get me wrong, it's not that I thought it would be easy; I just thought it would be more manageable. 

Yet here I am again.  It's been a little over a year and I find myself back in that proverbial rut, peeking over the edge.  I look around and think, How did I get back here?  

It's because I duct tape my life together.

The most recent chapter of the book we are studying on Wednesday nights deals with "labels"--both the labels we give ourselves and the ones that are given to us (mother, widowed, cancer).  As I try to nail down my own labels so that I can assess them, I keep coming back to the word "fixer." 

Though I can't sew a button on correctly or use any type of tool without nearly maiming myself, I'm a fixer.  I want to fix people's problems.  Hell, I want to fix people.  And in my own life, I want to fix everything.  And.  I.  Don't.  Want.  Any.  Help.  I struggle with asking for help.  Often it is because I don't want to burden anyone.  Often it is because I'm too proud to admit I need help.  But most of the time, it's because I have this jacked up idea that everything is my responsibility and that asking for help is admitting that I can't handle my responsibilities.

There's no way I can do everything, so I'm constantly screwing up which means I'm constantly fixing, doing whatever I can to make the problem better.  The problem is I use duct tape.  I get to a problem and I say, "I can fix that!"  I grab my big roll of industrial duct tape and I go to work.  Pretty soon, the problem is patched up.  But that's just it--it's only a patch.  I haven't fixed the problem, I've only managed to patch up the result of the real problem.  I'm so intent on a solution and on moving forward, that I never stop, look back and say, "How did this happen?"

Which brings me back to the rut.
Here I am, sitting in my rut playing McGyver with my duct tape, trying to figure out how to make a ladder or a catapult or something to get me out of here again. 

If I just keep the house cleaner...
If I just do more laundry...
If I just stop and count to ten...
If I just sleep less...
If I just manage my time better...
I... I... I...

It's time I put down the duct tape. 

It's time to admit that I just can't do all of these things I tell myself I have to do. 

It's time I ask for help. 

It's time that filled in this rut so that I can't fall back into it again and again. 

I'm so tired of being tired all the time, of spending every waking moment making lists in my head and chastising myself over all the things I didn't get done.   I'm sick of criticizing everything I do to the point that I don't feel anything I do is ever enough.  I'm through with feeling I have to juggle everything at once so that nothing in my life ever gets my full attention.

See, this is the part where I'd normally make some declaration about how I'm going to change.  But I feel to do so just sets me up to fail.  The first time I criticize myself, I'll remind myself about my "declaration."  Instead of stopping and correcting myself, though, it will just reinforce my feelings of inadequacy.  One of my biggest problems is that I have unrealistic expectations.  I set the bar so high that the best I can hope for is to limbo underneath it. 

I'm going to start small and work my way up.  Instead of a patch or quick fix, I'm going to address the real problem.  To get me started, I'm giving myself a few (doable) challenges, and I'm sharing them with all of you so that you can hold me accountable.  I may not do them all at once, but I want to work toward it.

1.  I'm going to keep a journal of the things I've DONE each day, both large and small.  Whether I swept the floors or read a book to Amelia, if it's something constructive I did or finished, I'm going to acknowledge it in writing.

2.  I can't always control what pops in my head, but I will not criticize or "bash" myself out loud, especially to anyone else.

3.  I will ask for help, even if it means relinquishing a responsibility to someone else. 

4.  If I have more than one task in front of me, I'll choose the one that's more important and save the other one for when I have time.  I won't try to do both at once and make a mess out of them. 

I so desperately want to be happy and healthy, for my sake and the sake of my family.  I don't want Amelia to grow up like me, constantly criticizing herself and pushing herself to the point of mental and physical exhaustion.  I don't want her to ever be too proud to ask me for help.  And I never want her to perceive me as too busy or too stressed to help her when she needs me.  There is no test that will determine if I'm a success or failure--only how well my daughter turns out.   I want my husband to have a happy wife and for our marraige to be a source of strength and joy, not stress or contention.  How can I be there for him when I'm not there for him--if I'm constantly "doing" or my mind is focused on my neverending list of tasks?  Why will he look forward to coming home in the evening if I'm anxious and angry all the time? 

I must slow down.  Our lives are not dictated by bells.  I am in a perpetual rush for no reason besides it makes me feel more productive.  How many precious moments and opportunities am I missing while I run back and forth?

So I'm using the duct tape one more time:  I'm slapping a piece over that little voice that keeps telling me that nothing I do is enough. I'm getting out of this rut... and I need a hand. 


Anonymous said...

The thought that comes to mind, "I can all things through Christ, who strengthens me." Amber you can only do what you can do in a day. Laughing with a child, talking to your husband, and helping a friend come first .. .behind those things, everything will come together as it will. Don't stress over the small stuff. I use "100 years from now" for my personal guide. . .if it won't matter to anyone in 100 years .. . it shouldn't matter now! Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

Oh boy! My "baby" is nine...and I still struggle with my inability to do it all.
I want to be a great wife, mom, career woman, housekeeper, gardener...etc...Everyday I end up running toward a fantasy, instead of walking with reality. In the end...nothing gets done well. Hooo Hummm.

Anonymous said...

Also...I love the "100 years from now" thought!