Last week I wrote about how hard it is for me to have an illness now, how impatient I am. As if to illustrate this point, I’m feeling pretty terrible again this week. Monday had to get a sub for the class I usually teach. Teaching my two morning classes yesterday left me out of breath and in need of a nap. I even thought I’d been resting, but then I jumped back into teaching for several days in a row and over did it.
Resting, really resting is hard for me. I’ve spent most of my life in a state of hyper-vigilance, a common response to developmental trauma, so my body doesn’t fully relax easily. I also fight the cognitive dissonance of knowing that rest is good and required, but feeling like I should be ashamed for my laziness.
Of the many toxic messages I absorbed from my abusive Mother is that I was careless and lazy. Chores were constantly needing to be redone to her exact specifications. When I didn’t do things “right” she would retaliate through physical abuse, when I was small, or restricting me to my room for periods of time, as a teen I’d spend a week or two “grounded” pretty regularly. The punishment always in addition to making me do the work over again.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t make the kinds of effort she expected from me, “Do as I say, not as I do.”, was a common saying. Do more around the house, do more to listen to her fears, do more to show her l loved her. Do more to take care of her. Stay up to play cards with her or go our for secret, late-night ice cream after my step-dad had gone to early bed after a couple of strong drinks.
When I did all I could to keep my Mother happy, things were easier for me. When she was in a happy mood there would be shopping trips, playing hooky from school to go to the beach, lunches out, and secret indulgences just for us. She would behave more like a friend than a parent during those times. When she wasn’t up, or when I didn’t live up to the constant demands to fix her, her depression and narcissistic rage would take over.
I wasn’t allowed personal autonomy until I left home. Not over my own body or my personal space. When she wanted me to clean my room she’d come in to inspect that my room was how she thought it would be, when it wasn’t she would go through throwing things around. She’d make a huge mess by clearing off surfaces onto the floor, emptying the closet onto my bed, once even leaving the drawers pulled out and on the bed. She’d then close the door on me in my destroyed room, telling me I wasn’t allowed to do anything else but to fix it, how she wanted it.
Add to all of that my Mother’s habit of embellishing every story to make it a little more dramatic, a little funnier. I would listen to her exaggerate my accomplishments feeling mortified, but unable to correct her out of concern for how she’d retaliate. Nothing ever seemed like it was good enough without some little touch to make a story, a place, an outfit, her own. Even as an adult I’d catch her embellishing a promotion I’d received, and when I’d correct her she’d just feign innocent ignorance, “Well, same difference. It doesn’t matter. Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”
Over and over I heard the message from my Mother, from my family, that the truth either needed embellishing or was irrelevant. Along with this were repeated reminders that I was too sensitive, couldn’t take a joke, and was constantly over-reacting. Time after time my family of origin demonstrated to me that I was on my own, no one in my family thought my Mother was doing anything wrong and agreed that it was my duty to care for her, even as a small child.
Decades of that and I am left with a nagging compulsion to do more, try harder, give more of my energy and myself. No amount of effort I make towards a project ever feels like enough. I’m always left feeling like I’m shirking responsibility or, even if I am trying really hard, it won’t be good enough. Trying to reflect upon my accomplishments is challenging for me because it often veers quickly from appreciation of what I’ve already done to an internal take-down by my Inner Critic over everything I didn’t get to in a timely manner.
In the technology industry and community there’s a tendency to celebrate being stressed out and pushed by deadlines. People make a show of comparing exhaustion. It isn’t unusual for people to work well in excess of 40 hours a week. A culture of community around technology means that socializing while hacking becomes the norm and you never really take a break from working. I was on call for every job I had in my 20 years in technology, often having my sleep, holidays, and vacations interrupted by “Mission Critical” work.
Working in technology was the perfect environment for me to get caught up in a culture that prizes exhaustion as a kind of status symbol. Having been raised to tie my sense of self-worth to how good I was at making my Mother happy, it was second nature to constantly go the extra mile, work the extra hour after dinner, to make a client happier. Regularly getting bonuses for going “above and beyond” went further to reinforce this behavior.
In 2013 a dear friend took his own life. His health had deteriorated due to overworking, hustling to prove his self worth through his productivity. He was never able to believe he was valued just for who he was, not for what he did for the technology community. When he felt unproductive, he felt worthless and ultimately felt it would be easier for everyone if he were gone. I’m sure it never occurred to him in the depths of that depression how terrible his loss would be and how it would continue to affect his friends.
Less than 8 months after my friend’s memorial service I found myself at a doctor’s appointment being told I was in a dangerous state, on the verge of hospitalization for exhaustion. I was told to leave my high stress, high paying, high tech career. I was told to move up my retirement plan of teaching yoga. I had reached the end of the line on being able to just push myself harder and harder and harder. My therapist and my mental health nurse practitioner all echoed my doctor’s sentiments. I’d spend the next several months alternating between sleeping and crying.
It will take a while to unlearn the habit of hustling for my worthiness (as Brené Brown would say), as I’m being reminded this week after jumping back in to teaching too quickly. I’m committed to doing this work and learning how to better rest, how to ask for help. Most of all, working on believing that I am worthy of help and rest.