At the height of my most successful period as a young writer in my twenties, I was also at my most miserable. I hosted a weekly literary reading series in the red-hued walls of Zebulon’s jazz lounge in Petaluma, and a bi-monthly radio show interviewing authors; freelanced as a journalist for regional and national magazines; flew to Bennington College, Vermont, twice a year for my MFA residency in Creative Writing; and rose at 5:30am daily to write fiction, all while carrying a 30-hour a week job.
This work by AnnieAnniePancake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
“I don’t know how you do it all,” friends would say with admiration. I’d smile and nod, feeling impressed with myself and a little bit superior at how well I could outrun a lifetime of anxiety by staying so busy, so important.
I was doing fantastic if you discounted that even on the blandest of yogurts and breads, stomach cramps often doubled me over for no reason. And aggravating sinus congestion, my mucous turning dangerous colors, became lingering bronchial infections. When not engaged in an activity I was overcome by an almost pathological fatigue, a desire to melt into the surface upon which I might have momentarily collapsed (nothing immense amounts of coffee couldn’t “fix.”)
Did I mention I also had a husband? A smart, sweet, busy but neglected husband who had courted me in the bookstore where we worked together seven years earlier, and now had to compete with my literary ambitions. Close to midnight I’d hear him call out, “Are you coming to bed?” as I typed a last thought. On the weekend, he’d set his lips in a frown of frustration saying, “I thought we were just going to spend time together,” when I told him of my agenda, which often included social visits, literary events, and work for freelance assignments.
You are likely familiar with the clichés of addiction: red-eyed, sloppy, intoxicated people stumbling through life. But I am also an addict—an “over-doer.” Over-doers fly under the radar because we’re just so darn helpful, and productive and frankly you’d have to catch us first before you’d notice we have a problem. I was, after all, raised by a mother whose alcoholism didn’t stop her from rising early, putting on a face worthy of silent-screen beauties and holding down a full-time job as an executive manager, working eighty hour weeks.
I lived for the constant high of approval and the electricity of new connections. On the outside, I was eating up the compliments of being “a dynamo” and “a powerhouse,” while my body ate itself alive. Yet I lived with a terrifying anticipation that my façade would crack, revealing the uncertain fraud who lived inside, my childhood anxieties chewing at the edges of my mental health. I had tons of acquaintances but when despair caught up with me, I could never think who to call. And, oh yeah, that wonderful man I married? If he hadn’t have been in graduate school himself, I wonder if he’d have put up with me.
When my husband finished the long slog to his doctorate, he received a good job offer in a town two hours away. Not such a vast distance, it nonetheless meant pulling up stakes in our time-woven community. While on one hand it meant kissing goodbye labors-of-love, friends and certain status in my community, the “over-doing” addict in me couldn’t help herself; new territory meant new opportunities to create, network, arrange. A chance at reinvention, virgin territory to conquer, new projects to conjure.
So, we picked up and moved. Away from everyone we knew. Away from the familiar landscape of my entire life. Away from all that I did.
Can you hear the thud of my Big Plans? Nobody prepared me for the ache and despair of moving to a place where I had no friends, no history, no map. A place that had a much slower beating literary pulse. Add to that my work-at-home status and you have a recipe for depression.
By now, I had a book under contract, but no support system. I had freelance assignments coming out of my ears, but no colleagues to share woes.
Where before the over-doing had kept anxiety at bay, now I worked twelve hours a day to stave off loneliness. I was no less busy, only now, with no adoring fans or nerve center, no friends to have coffee with, I felt like a child’s balloon let go too soon.
Out of this emptiness, I was forced to tend to my body, finally heeding advice about food allergies, changing my diet and admitting that my habits often drove me toward illness. I began coaxing my body back toward health, swimming at the local pool and enjoying a newfound health.
It was into this new landscape that a thought, long suppressed by our graduate school schedules, and accompanying pauperhood, emerged; what about a baby? I was now 32, my husband 39. Of course we should have a child! I was the quintessential multi-tasker: a bastion of productivity, ready-made for motherhood.
The moment my son entered the world (ten days late) after two days of intense labor, in a 106 degree heat wave, I knew I was in for a whole new level of danger.
Children un-do; they do not sleep or eat or poop when you expect them to. My best efforts to soothe, to let him cry, to cluster-feed, to withhold feeding, to cloth diaper were like gauntlets thrown down by a cruel overlord. By the time he was three months old, I’d begun to fail even my most basic functions; though exhausted I could not sleep; though ostensibly hungry, I could not eat. Hormones and sleep deprivation, and a lack of all those routines I’d set for myself, were un-doing me.
There are a lot of platitudes about motherhood: it deepens you, makes you more patient, gives you someone beyond yourself to focus on—all of it true. But in the life of an over-doer, parenthood is a kind of torture therapy: you get over yourself by having no time for yourself.
And that was the first best thing to happen to me, because suddenly I stopped caring about a long to-do list and an impressive resume. I hardly knew anyone, so there were no big collaborations in the works. I spent my days reading for pleasure while my son nursed. I took lots of long, meditative walks around town to stop his crying.
Yes, I grappled with loss of identity. I cried more in my son’s first year than perhaps any other time in my life. But I picked up the novel I’d started writing before he was conceived, and re-learned the meaning of “quality time.”
For two years motherhood unraveled me. And though the “other” me—that busy, important self—still beat against my new shape, I felt relief at having only one task: mothering.
I made new friends—friends I wasn’t afraid to call in a pinch or a crisis (of which there were many). These new friends didn’t know me as a many-tentacled achiever. They knew me as a first-time, sloppy mom just trying to get by. As Jordan who tells dirty jokes. As the woman who worked part-time at the local bookstore. And to my surprise, this new identity, or lack thereof, felt pretty good.
My son is now five. And though I can’t say I’m 100% reformed—the addict in me is still lured by the siren song of projects and collaboration—he reminds me to stop and breathe, play and be silly, to do a lot less, and be a lot more.