Staying Afloat In A Sink Or Swim World

As part of the summer activities in this household we participated in swimming lessons. Not your average YMCA class, we put our child in an Infant Swimming Resource Self-Rescue course. These lessons are different than the “Mommy & Me” style relaxed waterplay that happens in a group class. They are individual sessions, one-on-one with the instructor where the infant is taught how to relax into a back float in order to self-rescue instead of drowning.

While it’s a pretty scary thing to put your baby into the water with (what amounts to) a stranger while they struggle to learn the techniques, I felt like for our family, having a pool in the backyard, I would feel less panicky about unlikely scenarios if we prepare for handling them. I forced the dog into the pool last summer so that I knew he’d be able to find his way out if he fell in, why do things differently with my child?
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Failure Is A Big Deal

The following is the script I wrote myself for a speech given to a group of 5th-8th grade girls at the culmination of their time at Camp Infinity coding camp, put on my the Michigan Council for Women in Technology. I can say the actual talk was only about 70% on script, but these are the points I raised. After the presentation I led an activity databending and creating art through hexcode manipulation, using trial and error.

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24 Month Marathon

This post is kind of similar to my New Year’s Eve post, in that a lot of the low points of 2016 are also covered in what made the last two years so rough. While my repetition of the subject feels a bit like complaining, sympathy is not my goal.

I don’t generally like to share how I’m feeling with people around me. If I’m upset about something, I’m more likely to be found hiding than running to someone for comfort. My emotions show on my face a lot more easily than I want them to. I’d rather stuff my feelings down until I can deal with them alone. Instead, I wind up brooding about what’s going on in my life instead of facing it and recognizing that it is OK to not be OK.

Today I am claiming my pain. I’ve survived through it all and become stronger because of it.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I don’t want to play the comparison game, my struggles are just as valid as anyone else’s, and they don’t make me any more or less important than anyone else. I just want to share all the “stuff” that got to me in the past two years. Maybe as an explanation for my behavior. Maybe as a way to put it fully behind me and move on to a place where I can actually have peace.

Two years ago, at Easter time, I lost my first grandparent. That really started me down the rough path that followed. Being very far away from my family while they were suffering was difficult, to say the least.

It wasn’t much later that my grandma moved back to be near my parents and spent the summer in and out of the hospital herself. I wasn’t the one who spent those days with her at the hospital, but being unable to even visit hurt.

Work was stressful, we had some big projects that were not staying on track and some personality clashes that added to the strain. I’m very team oriented, so having all of us on edge and sometimes at each other’s throats was unsettling. At one point I was given a lead role on a project in the absence of some of the more senior employees, but even that trust and responsibility made me more on edge.

I remember at the end of that summer I was nearing the end of my patience with everything. I escaped. I took a trip to a campground at a state park with a beach. I unplugged and had no choice but to ignore all the stuff at work clamoring for my attention. I didn’t even talk to my family. I came back with enough peace to continue on. I credit that trip with stalling my tailspin.

Stress was its toll on my whole family. My sisters had some of the worst semesters of their lives. At times I didn’t even recognize them. When I finally got the time to go see my family it was to say good-bye to my grandma. I’m glad I was able to see her, but she had changed so much in the months since Grandpa’s funeral.

While I was home my mom was in the middle of finally getting her diagnosis. Through all of this I had my husband by my side. Through a blessing in disguise, he was laid off from his job a few weeks before this perfect storm of crazy hit its craziest. That’s not to say that him being without a job was easy. In fact that heightened the panic for a while. Being downsized is never a good feeling, but it gave him the opportunity to take off as much time as needed to be with me and my family. It also meant he could be home to pick up the slack while I was reeling from Grandma’s death and Mom’s diagnosis.

Another way I ended up benefiting from the job change situation was that when he was eventually hired into the department I work in, he could be there for me at the office when I got bad news phone calls, like the one for the death of my other grandmother in the early spring.

My husband lost his first grandparent a few short months after that. I hated how I knew what the pain felt like and how I knew there was nothing I could do to make a difference. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I believe everyone should be left to do so in the way they want to. By this point almost every one of my group of college friends had had a grandparent die that year. I wasn’t always able to be there for them because of my own struggle to stay afloat in the throes of grief and fear. I was deadly afraid I would soon be attending my own mother’s funeral.

My Mom’s surgery was in the summer, and my youngest sister came today stay with me while Mom recovered. Being with both of my sisters during the most nerve-racking part of the whole treatment plan helped, but also made me feel responsible for how my emotions were reflected in my behavior. I tried to keep my crying to behind closed doors. For the more than six months leading up to the surgery I couldn’t go even a week without a good cry, but I still tried to hide it when I did.

Even after it seemed Mom was out of immediate danger I kept making trouble for myself. I managed to stress myself out at work again with coworkers who both quit and got fired, both of whom I was feeling partially responsible for. I put a lot of energy into worrying over friends’ job situations as well as my own family’s.

We bought our house while Mom was still in the hospital, and the associated responsibilities did not make the already busy summer any easier. Towards the end of crunch time on the house we weren’t getting the right amount of sleep anymore, putting in 8 hours at work then another 8 on the house before turning in for the night, and I do not do well emotionally with lack of sleep.

The middle of no sleep brought me to some difficult positions with respect to people I care deeply about. A place where I had to step back from the relationships for the sake of their maintenance. I struggled a lot with guilt over severing ties, but my own self-preservation won out. This is one of the lessons I learned in the middle of all the pain. I have to make sure I’m OK before I can worry about what my perceived attitude is doing to others around me. Otherwise I’ll be in no position to do anything for either of us.

Another camping trip to my happy place put me right again for a while. I smiled the most that I had in a year, and finally felt my jaw unlock after being clenched for over a month. I wanted to keep wandering down the beach forever, but had to return to normal life again.

The months since have been a blur, they’re filled with moving ourselves and then my mother and sister into the new house, to say nothing of the craziness the puppy brought with him. Even with Christmas and a vacation I still don’t feel like I’ve had time to breathe in a long time. I managed to say “no” to a lot this winter, but even so, I was only home maybe one night out of the week. Now that most of my extracurriculars are wrapped up for the school year, I’m trying my hardest not to get overwhelmed at all the things I’ve put off in the meantime.

I’m starting to learn that it’s OK to feel feelings and let others know about them. How else can we grow other than through vulnerability? I’ve been feeling run down, put out, and just plain upset. I don’t want to be, but that’s the truth.

It’s been a long time in coming, but I think I’m due for a break. I’m calling it now: I’m ready to stop running and I’m ready to stop hiding.

Preparing To Move

Change is hard. Some people like change, some are even addicted to change, but for me it’s hard.

I tend to avoid change for that reason, along with my inherent laziness and procrastination. Small changes aren’t immune to my avoidance either. I would rather spend an extra five minutes every morning instead of going to get my hair cut, because the change isn’t worth the effort. These types of mental compromises happen more subconsciously than intentionally. I’m really not against change, but something about the unknown factor freaks me out on a primal level.

My discomfort, however, is nothing compared to my husband’s. We’ve recently purchased a house and have been getting it ready to move in while we finish out our lease at our apartment and his nerves are getting the best of him, even though we know what we’re getting into.

Thankfully, the way moving has worked out for us so far has been for us to work on fixing up the house for a few months, instead of paying to break our lease and rush out of the apartment. There have been plenty of projects to keep us busy and delay the date of actually changing residences. My list of things to procrastinate on do is ten pages long, but I continue to be surprised by just how much we can accomplish when we prioritize and motivate.

I feel like this time of transition and adjustment being so long is both helpful and a little bit more stressful, just because of the anticipation. The best approach I have found so far, in the middle of change, has been to hold onto things that are constant. I’ve noticed how much time I have spent with my friends, even while my life feels consumed with packing and planning for the move.

A lot of my friends are also in the midst of periods of intense change and we have been drawing together and finding stability and consistency in each other’s company. I love that I can count on our bi-weekly breakfasts and bonfires. Routine is so important during change. It gives back a measure of control in situations where there is so little we can predict.

As I approach the final stages of a big life change, I can’t say that I’m going to be ready for it. I just know that whatever happens, life will not be the same again, and that’s OK.

Returning To The Outside World

Over the course of the past 12 months, I’ve felt very insular. I’ve been sequestered in my apartment and made a plethora of excuses to avoid going out. Some valid, some just excuses. It’s been a long year, and as a person who thrives on time to think, I’ve spent a lot of that time in introspection.

I’m starting to learn though, that I still need people. I need community. I need to be surrounded sometimes, by others who can carry me up and out of a funk. As much as I claim to be an introvert, being buoyed by people around me is what is starting to bring me back to a healthy mental state.

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How To Say No

People Pleasers unite! Sometimes I feel like I can do anything and everything that I am asked to do, and volunteer for even more. It’s part of what I need to work on when I invest in others to my own detriment, I just want to help, and so if someone asks, it is really hard to say “no” to a well-meaning request. This is especially true if I am signing myself up for something I know I can do better or more easily than the person who asked me to do it.

Does this mean I’m a bad delegator? Sometimes. Other times my need for control manifests in telling others what they need to do instead of just doing it for them. I’ve been getting better and better at knowing when I should trust someone else to take care of a project for me, but a lot of times I still want to take on the responsibility, because I believe I’ll enjoy it.

For example, I have this project I’ve been working on for myself, but I’m administrating several other sites as well as favors for different individuals and groups. I also have commitments to teach and lead club meetings for groups I am passionate about and whose members matter a lot to me. I love saying “yes” to these types of things because I enjoy doing them, but it doesn’t always mean I have the time or energy to do them all.

A person’s priorities are revealed in how they spend their time and energy. Whether that means they spend time on work, relaxation, volunteering, family, it is all motivated by what that person values. It’s easy to over simplify this, claiming that a person makes one of these too high of a priority, without realizing that each person has their own motivations and reasoning for why they do things. For example, it might be easy to say a workaholic prioritizes their job or money without reflecting the fact that they spend time at work to maintain job security or sufficient funds for their family. Without knowing the personal perspective of an individual, judging them by what they spend their time on can never give an outsider a clear picture.

By saying “no” to some things, we make conscious decision that we have other commitments that we are treating as more important. It’s OK to make those choices because time and energy are limited resources.

Every once in a while it becomes necessary to reevaluate and reprioritize, and that’s OK too. Just because I have been doing something for a while doesn’t mean there isn’t something I would rather be doing if given the opportunity.

This is where navigating these decisions gets tricky: when you have to tell someone else that you have prioritized out a task that you were counted on to get done. It feels like you are letting people down, and that you are breaking commitments, and I won’t advocate that either of those things are OK in all circumstances, but in most situations there is a gracious way of letting people know that you need to step down from a role. And most mature people will recognize that such a decision is made out of a healthy preservation of self, not out of selfishness.

Be honest, sincere and brave. You know your own life better than anyone else ever could, so you know when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and the best course of action is to avoid overextending yourself, because that will have a negative outcome in the end. Even when others question your choices, you are not obligated to justify yourself to them. It is your life to live, and you choose what to say “yes” to.

Life Is Not A Competition

One again, one of my “strengths” is also one of my fatal flaws. This time it is my competitive drive, to do the best, be the best. And most of the time I can keep that in check and focus on myself without comparing me to others.

During college I took a somewhat lame personality test that was all about finding traits that a person is strong in so that they can cultivate them. I don’t put a lot of stock in personality tests, for a variety of reasons, key amongst them is a distrust of labels. Since that time I’ve learned how labels can be tools for understanding and empathy instead of just alienation, and I can appreciate the use of such analysis to foster conversation about personality by providing vocabulary.

However, before I came to this understanding, I was dead set against taking a test to tell me who I am. My results from my college experience were a set of five traits that included empathy and competitiveness. I’ve already addressed and acknowledged my tenancy towards extreme empathy, but learning to deal with that behavior has been a wholly different animal than learning to balance competition.

In some ways the empathy and competitiveness combine to produce a horrible result: jealousy. My empathic heart lets me feel what others are feeling, but my mind just wants to compare my situation to theirs. I struggle with maintaining a sense of my own contentment when I am pushing for continual improvement in myself.

As the oldest child in my family, there have been a lot of things that I was the first to do: first to learn to drive, first to graduate, first to have a romantic relationship, first to purchase a home. Some of these things are a rite of passage, but others are never a guarantee in life.

I struggle a lot seeing other people get things that I want faster or more easily than I can. It sounds immature, but here’s an example I’m willing to admit: I want a puppy. I have wanted a dog for a long, long time, and it hasn’t ever been possible due to our housing situation. My family even got a dog after I went off to college. Visiting family and friends’ dogs isn’t the same as having my own, and I always leave feeling disappointed that other people can have something I want while I have to wait a long time or work really hard to make it happen.

It’s not just trivial things like wanting a pet, I have spent a lot of energy trying to accept the fact that my life’s path is not the same as anyone else’s, that my version of contentment and success is unique. I don’t have to have the most glamorous job, the most put together home, the most exciting vacations.

I can’t keep living like this. I can’t continue to envy everyone else’s successes. I have to choose not to see someone else’s successes as my failure in comparison. There’s no need for comparison.

If I can stop myself from trying to one-up everyone else…

That doesn’t sound quite right.

My life is nobody else’s and if there is something anyone else has that I want, I either need to use that as motivation to make it happen, or realize that I don’t care enough to make it happen…

Nope.

This one’s hard. I just don’t know. It’s not a healthy way to live, and I’m trying not to, but right now, I don’t think I have the answer.

And maybe that’s OK.