Recently I was visited by a really creepy friend. She’s familiar. I know her well. She hasn’t been around in a little while, so I was unprepared when she arrived.
Her arrival, as almost always, was so carefully executed I only really noticed her when she was lying beside me in bed last night. I hadn’t recognized her earlier, when she had shown up at my door step with an overnight bag, stuffed with her usual variety of disguises and roles. I tossed and turned about, unsure of why I couldn’t sleep; suddenly I noticed her there, sharing my pillow and chatting away.
This unwelcome friend is perhaps moreso a foe, although I could not call her an enemy and I don’t totally dislike her. I try to see her for what she is; insecure and afraid. And who can fault someone like that?
So, since she would not stop talking, I decided I would wake up early and hear her out.
This year I am not heading back to the classroom as a student, but I still feel the significance of the page turning, collectively, from summer to fall. It’s a new year: a time to set goals for the next ten months, to get back into a routine, to fold up the lazy lawn chairs and instead roll up our sleeves and focus.
Now I understood why my friend decided to pop in for a visit—there is nothing she likes more than a plan.
It was five o’clock in the morning when I gave up trying to sleep, and decided to roll from my bed and do some chores. As I put laundry together, cleaned up the kitchen and organized the fridge, she brought out itineraries and lists, in a Martin-Luther-like style; she even nailed a document to my cork board which included weekly commandments and promises of routine. I decided to make a smoothie and listened as she followed me around, telling me her list of “shoulds” and expressing her concerns.
She started very dramatically: comparing me to other people, asking why I had not accomplished certain things they had, had not obtained certain possessions, been unable to tick off what she considered essential boxes, saved more, earned more, acquired more.
She yakked away about my worth, my path, my knowledge; my lack of deserving, of perception, of ability, and my inability. She dismissed things I considered achievements and downplayed the last year as an indulgent foray into selfishness and uselessness.
She got down right mean when she didn’t think I was paying attention, started name-calling and telling me scary stories, saying my teeth were going to fall out, that I was going to end up alone and poor and diseased if I didn’t “buckle down” and get serious, get in line. She told me no one would look after my sickly self if I didn’t get married soon and decide about kids.
She painted the most awful picture of my future self, alone in a wheelchair on Christmas morning, looking out a window with a Charlie Brown tree and of course, no teeth—since writers don’t have dental insurance.
I tried to soothe her worries with the strawberry banana smoothie, but she was so intent on playing the menacing fortune teller there was little I could do but allow her to ramble on, waiting until she tired of her words.
And so we were—sitting across from each other at the kitchen table— when I decided to focus on what a nice addition it was to use cocoa powder in this smoothie. I started to forget she was even there.
She moved onto guilt and anxiety, telling me there was not enough time, I was getting old, I was getting ugly. Life was catching up to me and eventually it would pass me by; everyone else would be happy. Everyone, she said, would be pain free, worry free; everyone would be satisfied and I would be left behind.
I suggested to her that perhaps everyone didn’t really give two cents about me and my life. That maybe, everyone was concerned with their own business and interested in their own lives—that maybe there was something to this so-called “selfishness” as she had earlier referred to it.
At about six o’clock she started to fade. I could tell from across the table that she was losing the panic, that she was tiring herself out with her cyclone of comparison.
I asked her politely if she would like to take off her coat and hang it on the back of the door, if I could help unpack her bags and sort through some items—maybe we could use some, some we could toss or donate—sort through the things that were not essential or enjoyable in our current place. I relieved the weight from her hands, and asked her to trust me.
She was hesitant at first. For such a worrier and planner, she often neglects to notice the significance of healthy present actions. No, we don’t have every ingredient in the cupboard to be the Suzy-homemaker-Ayurvedic-baking-gluten-free-nutritious-household we would like. No, we don’t have the clothes she thinks will make other people like us. No, we don’t have the make-up or the latest or greatest of anything—but we have enough. I think my friend’s biggest fault is not something in her past, not a few unhealthy habits like Friday night drinks or pizza night; instead it’s her tendency to believe in the myth of “all or nothing.” She too often sacrifices in some areas to shoot ahead in others, and inevitably fails. Always.
But I am teaching her how to live, teaching her how to be okay with indulging, making mistakes and healthy boundaries, with accepting and with letting people in. I am teaching her how to feel safe being in the world.
I take her by her hands and ask her to sit.
We began to breathe together and I witness a release, a softening.
A few times she would open her mouth with an idea, an anxiety, a plan or a solution and I simply returned her to the sensation of oxygen entering through her nose and out through her mouth. Slowly she started to move from a panicked pulsing between the folds and layers of my brain into a soft, strong heart beat. She would be okay.
And so we stayed, a breath and a heart beat so compatible that even a lonely toothless old lady would be at peace.
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Assistant Ed: Katharine Spano / Ed: Cat Beekmans