I’ve been feeling … tired, I guess. I don’t think tired is the right word, actually. It’s more like exhausted, or asocial. I feel like the last shreds of morning fog, clinging to the shadows in the valley in a vain attempt to hide from the encroaching afternoon sun. I feel soul-thin, brittle and too easily overwhelmed.
Thoughts chase round and about in my head. Flaws, mistakes, problems past. Questions circle, self-doubts rise. I trace the sandbox of my history over and over again with a fine-toothed comb, trying to find that one misplaced grain that threw the whole mess out of whack.
I keep to a schedule to keep the mean reds at bay. Bedtime by 11 pm, wake up at 6:30, make breakfast for the boy at 7 a.m., walk the dogs at 9 a.m. Chores and vacuuming, then work on my book. John comes home, I start dinner. Boy comes home, we eat, start on his homework. Rinse and repeat. It’s soothing, the repetitiveness of it. It settles the jitters in my soul, in my mind.
Even the schedule keeps getting thrown out of whack, though. Half days. Cancelled practices. Rescheduled practices. Friends come over.
I feel so hollow.
My husband and my son are my anchor, the only pieces of peace I have. I am so grateful for them. They are unique among all the world because they accept me as I am. In the house where I grew up, there was a framed calligraphy print on the wall of one of my mom’s favorite quotes, from Dinah Maria Craik:
“Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
That’s the safety I feel with John and Kidling, and it’s a rare safe harbor.
Going out right now — whether it’s shopping or to spend time with a close friend — is exhausting and heartbreaking. I find myself catching and tumbling on my words, overthinking each phrase and stumbling to catch up with my own runaway mouth so that I can take back the words already spoken, explain, extrapolate. I lose myself in speech, and overthink each word. My mind kicks into high gear, parsing each expression, each twist of the lip, each curve of the eyebrow. Sneer or smile? Pity or fondness? Amusement or irritation? I become so disoriented in the signals they lose all meaning.
Intellectually, I know that no-one cares. I am another shadow, a forgotten stranger who briefly inhabited the same sphere of their story. These strangers in the store will not remember me or my hair or outfit or lack of makeup. They see me, but they don’t see me. I am an invisible, unnecessary thread in the fabric of their life.
Even my friends and acquaintances are likely not picking up on the multitude of flaws that I am suddenly sure are exposed. They are unaware of the cascade of panicky thoughts tracing like lightning through my mind, sparking off at each little interaction. Intellectually, I know they are more concerned with their lives and issues and problems than with whether or not I am looking or acting like an idiot.
But emotionally … on an emotional and visceral level, it feels as though 5 minutes before show time, I was told the lead and understudy were both in an accident and now I have to play the lead role and I’ve been thrust out of the curtains onto a stage in front of a packed auditorium with no warning, no chance to learn my lines, and a spotlight blinding down on me. I feel panicked and utterly exposed, terrified that I will say or do something, make some mistake that will utterly ruin everything.
* * *
I wonder if that’s why I blog. Why I write. If this is an attempt to lay bare my flaws, so I have no guilt of a hidden self, no sense of misleading people. I am an open book, I joke (I cry, I scream). I have no secrets. My biggest flaw is too much honesty.
I don’t know how to stop. How to be dishonest. How to hide, how to fabricate, how to obfuscate. As a society, we tell one another that we value honesty. As individuals, we promise that we hold traits like integrity and honesty high on the list of desirable qualities. As friends and coworkers and family members we assure one another that we prefer honesty and integrity above all.
But as it turns out, we are all of us lying. Even me, suffering from a surfeit of honesty, and I still shy away and try to put off that inevitable moment when I must choose between honesty and silence. Honesty is terrifying. It’s hurtful. It’s raw and bare and painful. It’s occasionally cruel. Excessive honesty drives people away as surely as excessive dishonesty does.
Integrity means sometimes means choosing between kindness and discomfort, and it’s a line that is surprisingly hard to walk. There are so many things that seem like they should be black and white, but in reality are a checkerboard in shades of gray and silver.
Like, I was raised mormon. As a mormon, if I heard someone make jokes or false claims about mormons, I was encouraged to engage, to address their misconceptions, to educate and make them aware that mormons are just ordinary people. And maybe there was a risk there, a risk of being teased or mocked or whatever, but that was a risk I was supposed to take on for the greater reward of possibly bringing a soul into the church. The rare times I actually did it, when I was younger and more devout, I got positive feedback from almost everyone, often including the person I called out. I was praised for having the integrity to stand up for my beliefs.
Now I am an atheist. As an atheist, if I hear someone make jokes or false claims about atheists, I usually engage in discussion. I try to address their misconceptions, to educate and make them aware that atheists are demons or lost souls, we’re just ordinary people. It feels … unwanted. Futile. Like, I should accept being preached at, but it is the height of rudeness to reject that preaching. I usually feel as though I’ve crossed some incredible social faux pas by holding to the exact same model of integrity I was once praised for — standing up for my beliefs.
Almost exactly the same situation, but one key difference changes the entire game. There are so many areas in life like this! It’s heartbreaking. There are all these places where if you are honest and exhibit integrity in one situation, it’s okay, even laudable. Then in a somewhat parallel situation, it becomes so offensive and such a faux pas that relationships get destroyed over it. I am adrift in the fear of loss.
* * *
My dad says I march to the beat of a different drum. I am his black sheep. He describes me like this with a laugh, always recounting the story of stubborn Laura: the little 5 year old who ordered (yes, ordered!) her big brother to take his feet off the table. And my brother actually obeyed me!
It doesn’t matter how many times he recounts this story, he always sounds surprised and bemused that my older brother (then only 14) actually obeyed the order coming from his bossy 5 year old sister who didn’t know her place.
The thread that weaves under this story is that I am the disobedient one, the one who bucks expectations. I did not just wander off the beaten path or temporarily release the iron rod, I ripped that damn rod out of the ground and used it to beat the vines of the untamed wilderness aside. I am the odd one out, the one who is family but the family no-one quite knows what to do with. The one who is tolerated, but not quite understood or accepted.
It hurts, a little bit.
A sibling once told me that when they were all (except me) at some holiday get-together, they started trying to classify each of the communication styles of the different sibs. Apparently, my brothers and sisters agreed that I am the “outspoken” one, the one unafraid to speak her mind no matter who it ‘hurts’.
I was not actually at this meeting of siblings where I was defined as ‘other.’
I did not know about the gathering beforehand, as I wasn’t invited. There are two of us married, and the other married one, she hosts these things for the single siblings. She’s older, and was married before me, and is an active mormon, and she just sort of naturally took on the mantle of hostess for family gatherings after mom died. I can’t really complain about the result, because I never made a fuss, or thought to, and quite frankly, I hate being a hostess. I wouldn’t want to host regular family gatherings. I also know why I don’t get invited: I’m married, I have my own family to celebrate with.
Plus, our spouses kinda clash, personality-wise (well, tbh, I clash with her spouse– no hiding behind my guy there, I straight up dislike her guy and try to avoid having to interact with him). I mean, when she lived in the same state, I used to occasionally visit/ stay overnight at her place– but those weren’t holiday/ family shindigs. That was like, going through town, decided to say hi. Less “invited,” more, “polite to unexpected guests.” And we were always inviting them to our place, but they never seemed to have time to stop by when they were in town visiting their in-laws. Basically, the married couples in my family of origin aren’t really in the habit of socializing with each other.
So … I don’t get invited to family things, and haven’t for well over a decade, while the other four get together a few times a year. I don’t know if I have the right to be hurt about that. Actually, scratch that– I don’t know if I am hurt about that. I might’ve gone to at least one a year (especially as my son got older and easier to travel with) when it was a 4 hour one-way drive, but now that its a 14 hour one way drive? No.
It is what it is. Even if I somehow found myself single, I wouldn’t start attending the gatherings. Right now, the polite fiction is the spouses/ marital status/ distance. The truth is, the puzzle piece of me doesn’t fit into the life she’s constructed. I don’t know how to be around the estranged family members anymore. I am not a part of that world.
Sometimes I think about contacting one or another, but even the thought is emotionally exhausting, so I never move from thought to action.
* * *
I need to learn to lie, to hide behind false smiles. Sometimes when we’re out shopping, the cashier will say, “How are you doing today?“
And I will smile and respond, “Could be better, could be worse.“
I came up with this response when I was a teenager. I was very proud of it. It seemed, to me, like a compromise. I was not lying and saying, “Fine,” or “good,” when neither were true, but I also wasn’t making strangers uncomfortable by saying something like, “Awful, it’s a really stressful and upsetting day.“
One day after just such an interaction, John snapped at me as we left the store. “Why can’t you just say, ‘fine’ like everyone else,” he asked. I was startled, and asked if something was wrong. He said people always looked uncomfortable and didn’t know how to respond when I gave my non-answer.
I thought I had come up with a go-to phrase that was a jokey compromise between raw, painful honesty and dishonesty, but even the compromise was too discomfiting. For a few weeks afterward, I tried to say “fine,” when asked how I was doing. It felt like a lie on my tongue, a falsehood meant to pacify. Even when I was doing well, it felt dishonest, a distillation of complex emotions. I finally fell back on the truth.
Could be better. Could be worse.