A bipolar, body-positive bread enthusiast with a fucked-up pretty much healed ankle and a history of disordered eating chronicles health, weight-loss, and gardening. No diets allowed.
Have you ever done one of those “goal planning” sessions where you write down where you want to be in 5/10/15/20 years? I don’t know if this process is supposed to help you manifest your destiny, or just plan for it, but I’ve never done one.
Want to see me panic? Ask me what I’m going to be doing in 10 years.
I’m 42 years-old, and I have yet to complete any “goal planning” past the length of a pregnancy or a kitchen remodel (which was two months of torture).
In my second month of fifth grade, my mom married her fourth husband. Sometime in that same month, she came to collect me from school in the middle of the day. The office called me up, a thing a ten-year-old might either be terrified of or thrilled about (depending), and my mother was there. This was a thing that didn’t happen.
I said goodbye to the school secretary, not yet sure if I was terrified or thrilled, and we left. She drove me away from the school, my third one in as many years, in our burgundy Cutlass Supreme, vinyl seats searing my thighs with the heat of a California Indian Summer. We drove toward the country, which is a place no ten-year-old wants to go. Back at the school, my desk was full of Hello Kitty stationery and pencils, and when I realized we weren’t going back, I cried. I hadn’t been there long enough to make many friends, but I had a lot of Hello Kitty pencils — those I would miss.
I can’t remember my principal's name, male or female, I can’t remember much from that year, or the four after, or the five prior, but I do remember this — on that fall day, my mother picked me up from school, my third in three years. She drove me to the country where we’d live with my two younger step-brothers and my older step-sister and my newest step-father, Steve, in a two-bedroom raised-foundation ranch house that was missing an exterior wall. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I did have a desk full of Hello Kitty pencils I’d never see again.
I don’t like change.
I like new dishes and winter turning to spring. I like a fresh haircut or a new nail polish. I love the way the garden goes from dirt to nutrition in a couple of months time, the way an English rose will fade from dusty pink to pale yellow, and then, just before death, to white.
But I don’t like change. At least not the change that isn’t in my control — which is, of course, most of life’s changes, and especially whatever thing might happen in 5/10/15/20 years that I’m supposed to be planning now.
It’s not that I don’t have plans. I have plans, goals. I want to write a book. I want to live in Portland (in a totally Non-Hipster-But-I-Really-Love-Powell’s-And-Food-Trucks way). I want to be happily married until I die. I want to send all five of my kids to college. I want to have an IRA and a Roth and a 401K, and I want to know what all of those are.
I have goals.
I also have a debilitating fear of the unknown.
Whenever I consider the way things could change in my life, even good change, I panic. The panic prevents me from planning; it starts arguments between my totally sane and forward-thinking partner and me. It paralyzes me, renders me ineffectual.
This panic seems irrational when I describe it.
This panic traces right back to my childhood, the fear of never knowing what a day might hold. Resting atop the uncertainty of sobriety or sanity, leaving me vulnerable to the whims of my mother, this panic is founded on, borne of, the instability of my childhood. It's the suffocating cigarette smoke of a house filled with the strange smell of beer mixed with tequila and lime laced with vomit, the sickeningly sappy notes of Air Supply, the deafening moans of late night Cinemax, the parade of men — short and tall, kind and cruel, scented with gasoline or lumber, sweat and Michelob.
This panic, derived of my history, is at my very my core, preventing me from speculating about the future. This panic is why I never answer “Where do you want to be in 5/10/15/20 years?”
In a year, we will be faced with the prospect of a job relocation. This relocation could take us to a new and exciting city, open us to a variety of new experiences, turn our lives all around in the most productive and perfect way.
But all I can feel is panic.
“How can I leave my older kids behind?”
“What if we can’t find a house?”
“We can’t possibly BUY a $700,000 house. We’d have to have $140,000 DOWN. WHO HAS $140,000 IN THE BANK?”
“Do we rent out our current house? Try to sell it? OMG SELLING A HOUSE IS SO LABOR INTENSIVE. WHO IS GOING TO GET IT READY?”
“Can we even fit all of our stuff in a moving truck?”
“Will Ella even GO to any other school?”
“Will being away from the place I’ve spent most of my life send me into a depression?”
“Will I be able to find a good psychiatrist to treat the depression this move is going to spawn?”
I budget and re-budget and stalk Zillow and try to visualize our family, smaller without my older kids, living happily in a new city far from this one. But all I see in that future is a vast expanse of unknown. All I see is uncertainty. All I see is a dining table for four, a garden without roses. All I hear is the creaking of an unfamiliar house, the silence of a meal shared by four instead of nine. All I feel is panic.
The thing about the panic is, it’s never productive.
The thing about the panic is I can’t reason my way out of it.
I can read every book about being Zen, living in the now. I can listen to Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, extolling the virtue of a life lived fully present. I can meditate, 108 prayers on the sandalwood of my mala.
I can talk to my psychiatrist and my therapist. I can use the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy they’ve taught me, but still, at times, the anxiety becomes overwhelming. Still, I am a ten-year-old girl with a desk full of Hello Kitty pencils and a step-family that she didn’t ask for in a three-walled house in the middle of nowhere.
There is a brokenness that comes with the kind of fear that only a young child with a mentally ill addict mother is acquainted. This kind of brokenness is the kind you may not see until it’s snuck its way into every facet of every decision of every day — until it’s cut its mark so deeply into the child that it’s woven itself into every experience.
And then the brokenness becomes the conversation of every therapy appointment, the start of every argument you have with your spouse. It’s the reason that every Thursday is the day you eat spaghetti. It’s the reason you can’t think about five years from now; sometimes it’s the reason you can’t think about tomorrow.