Recovering perfectionists club

I’ve heard it said that middle age is when you reinvent yourself. As much as I hate to admit it, I pretty much fit the definition of “middle aged” at 44 years old. Even if I live to be 88, which is possible but not probable, I’m at the halfway mark. I’m taking stock of where I’ve come from and what I still want to do.

I have a peaceful marriage to my best friend, amazing kids, and I’ve accomplished a lot of the things I’ve set out to do with my life.

I got a bachelor’s degree and kicked ass in college. I’ve made my living as a published writer, with my byline attached to my work, for many years. I worked in libraries, which I enjoyed and will likely do again part-time at some point. I worked in coffee shops. I’ve taught classes to adults. I actually tried most of the careers and hobbies I was interested in. I even tried roller derby, which I absolutely sucked at, but I can say it was something I wanted to try and pursued. The only thing I didn’t do that I wanted was to become a doctor. And even if I had trained for that job, my illness would definitely make me unable to do it now.

I finally achieved what I always thought was my lifelong dream — being a full-time writer, about medicine, no less — and that came to an abrupt halt because of my health. Now that that’s not my dream anymore, I’m left wondering what will replace it.

I will always continue writing; I can’t imagine not doing it. I remember finding it very odd that my coworker at said full-time writing job said that after a full day of writing (half of which was actually spent in meetings) the last thing she wanted to do at the end of the day was more writing.

To me, that’s not the soul of a writer. Even when I was exhausted from trying to have a full-time job and had virtually no life besides work and sleep, the one thing I tried to make time for was more writing. Whether freelance work or personal blogging, I needed to keep writing. It was my tether to the part of myself that’s most me.

I may not always continue writing for pay — or I might still do a little, who knows — but I will keep writing something for as long as I can put words together. (Though I would love it if I could rediscover the ability I once had to write beautifully and poignantly.)

But now that full-time work isn’t going to be able to happen for me ever again due to my health, what is my new dream? I’m trying to figure it out.

I’m still pretty sick from trying to work full-time and because the heat hasn’t let up yet, so I am having to convince myself first and foremost that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay if I have a day (or several days) in which I can’t point to anything that I achieved.

And that brings me back to the fact that my real goal right now is recovering from my lifelong perfectionism. Multiple sclerosis and perfectionism cannot coexist, simply because the disease is inherently unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable.

I’ve always been hard on myself, which has increased with age as I feel time running out. Sometimes my life feels like a video game, where the music speeds up as you get closer to end of a level to make everything feel more urgent and panicky. But being so hard on myself is only hurting me, and in turn, also hurting the people I love. It’s far past time to work on that.

I think that learning to be gentle with myself and to appreciate myself will likely dovetail nicely with finding a new dream.

Somewhere along the way, I deeply internalized this belief that I had to accomplish certain things to see myself as worthy in the eyes of the world. That’s rather ironic because I am inherently usually pretty liberal and egalitarian. Of course, everyone has some unconscious biases. Mine is a negative bias about weight, especially my own, but for the most part, I think everyone has equal value. So where did I get this idea that I’m only worthy if I’m always busy and always trying to earn money?

It’s time to undo it because now I really have no other choice. I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines of an Ani Difranco song, in which she says

You know they never really owned you

You just carried them around

One day you put them down

And found your hands were free

I have loved those specific lines of that specific song since I first heard it 17 years ago. (Wow, that makes me feel old.) But even back then, it resonated with me so deeply. I knew I was carrying around such heavy things, and I knew that if I could ever figure out what they were and how to put them down, I too would find that I was free.

I’m finally getting an idea of what I have to put down. Realizing it doesn’t make it any easier. But basing my sense of my self-worth solely on what I accomplish has been so unhealthy for me. Even my middle son has seen that tendency in me and called me out on it longer than anyone else has. And even if it didn’t cause my illness, it certainly hasn’t helped it, either.

Instead it’s like I’m holding on to this tight ball of perfectionism, which has grown bigger and more firmly compacted over the years, and I’m just now starting to learn how to loosen my grasp. Not enough to completely let go yet, but feeling the slightest beginning of willingness to do so. I’m figuratively starting to unclench my fists just a little.

Maybe I can let go of this. Maybe the world won’t fall apart. Maybe I won’t fall apart if I just let myself be.

Not accomplishing anything. Not measuring myself by my former gifted-kid standards, running myself into the ground for the world’s approval, saying “look at me look at me look at me!” Not trying to be anything other than what I really am. Just the thought of releasing all that sounds so freeing.

Not being defined by what I produce? That requires me to take a long, deep breath, even as I type the words here. Not measured by how much I do? Not measured by what I can buy? Not measured by how I look? Inconceivable.

Not only is that saying that I lost that game, it’s asking myself if that was ever really the game I wanted to be playing in the first place.

It’s almost like despite the game I was trying to play and losing at — a game almost solely focused on money — I was winning some other game I didn’t consciously know I was playing instead. And it’s no wonder I wasn’t successful at making money when my real interests lay elsewhere. I’ve never really wanted a lot of money for anything other than travel and security anyway.

I’ve always been more impressed by what I could do than how much I could buy. I’ve taught myself how to bake, how to make pickles, how to make soap, how to sew. I’ve learned about a lot of health conditions and which ones need to be seen by a doctor and which ones can be dealt with at home (and how.)

There are so many things that I once didn’t know and just decided to figure out. My most enjoyable and relaxing times are when I’m creating something. I’ve never cared much about finding new things to buy or external things to entertain me.

Having those skills isn’t impressive to too many people anymore. Fifty years ago, they were things most people knew how to do, so they weren’t impressive then, either. But the desire to figure out how to do stuff and be self-sufficient have always been among the traits unique to me — and I haven’t given myself enough credit for that.

I’ve always been generous and I’ve taught my kids to be the same way. When I would talk about what the kids were doing when they were little, sometimes people would think surely I must have been making it up, because nobody’s kids are that helpful or kind to each other or concerned about the world as a whole. And my kids really were, and maybe I should give myself some credit for that. They have a sense of perspective that not a lot of kids their age do. Earlier this week, I apologized to my son about not having more money to give him stuff right now, and he said he was just grateful that we could get him healthy food he likes (especially fresh fruit) and that we can give him a safe home to live in.

Maybe I should start giving myself credit for the things I’ve been doing for the past 20 years. I’ve been beating myself up for not being more successful in the corporate world and for not making more money. But I’ve been very successful in learning how to do stuff for myself, for passing on that self-sufficiency to my kids and for raising them to be less self-centered than the average kids.

So is that my new dream, just to continue doing these little things in service of my family? How will that change once they’re all grown and out of the house? Maybe I will finally get better at pouring the attention into my husband that I’ve been giving the kids. Maybe I’ll just learn to finally relax and enjoy my life, being grateful for how many good things I have.

Or maybe I’ll find a whole new dream to pursue. The only thing I know for sure: it lies on the other side of the perfectionism. The more I can let go of those things I’m holding onto so tightly, the more free I think I’ll be. And that’s something to really look forward to with eagerness and joy.

1 Comment

  1. Holly, I must tell you that I find you incredibly inspiring! I know that living with MS is not easy and anyone who thinks it is, just doesn’t really understand. We have so many struggles in our daily lives and finding “easy” ways to move forward is challenging. I do believe that those of us that have a real passion for writing would be lost without it. I have semi full-time job, really I am only working 6 hour days, but even when I am in pain and exhausted, I still want to write! I have already told you that I want to get into freelance writing and I am slowly working on this. You encourage me every day and please never forget that!!


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