A Birthday, Allelopathy, and an Epiphany
This summer has been one of my worst summers since that year I had to go to church camp and make macrame owls, alongside girls who wanted to try on my glasses and giggle hysterically about how bad my eyesight was. Haha, dumbasses, you can’t Lasik stupid away.
When they say someone has snapped, I always think that must be a relative term. One person’s breakage is a trip to the grocery store for another. My trip to the grocery store involved me being angry for weeks on end. I’m still feeling pretty hostile.
It’s a child’s rage and it took me completely off guard. I turned 48 last week and for the months prior, I felt this anger build. We’re told that women tend to turn their anger inwards, but my depression was not a big enough vessel to contain it this time.
As hard as I try, I think I’m kind of a shitty human being. Some people go through life effortlessly, with little introspection or regret. Part of me wonders what that would be like. The rest of me thinks they’re either extremely healthy or sociopaths.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with the do-gooder me. Like a cheesy answer to a job interview question about weaknesses, I feel overly responsible for others. Leading the parent-teacher group, taking care of my mother-in-law, stepping up when volunteers are asked for, donating money, goods, time. I’ve done a lot of organized volunteer work in my life, as well as the informal saying “yes” when someone asks for help. I was a problem solver, reliable, responsible and generous.
Something has changed. I’ve become so angry and resentful that I’m blurting “NO!” even before someone finishes the question. The pendulum has swung. My motivation for doing good often lay with my sense that I was not good enough. And that no longer seems a good enough reason.
It starts young, this goodness of the heart that really isn’t. It starts with the oldest child in a family of alcoholics. It starts with words. Lowbrow versions of not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not outgoing enough. Thoughtless words tossed off by adults who were never enough, either.
It starts the first time you believe that a fundamentalist God will strike you dead because you lied about sneaking food at night. Dear god, please don’t kill me. I’ll be ever so good. It starts when adults praise and fawn over you because you are such a good, polite little girl, but you know that it’s an act. Theirs and yours.
It starts when you’re 11 and your stepfather passes out while driving and you desperately tug at the steering wheel and push your foot on the brake to steer to the shoulder. It starts when you quickly gather your brothers and sister, herding them out of the house before the punching starts. You are 13 and responsible for their lives. From that point on, you feel responsible for everything.
It continues when you have trouble making friends, because you’re an introvert. So you do favors. You give rides and money, make them laugh, drink enough to be outgoing. They seem to like you. You try to be agreeable, even though you think their latest perm makes them look like Carrot Top and that their boyfriends are numb-nuts. You keep your sharper opinions to yourself, smile when you don’t feel like it and drive them to the movie theater to see a movie you don’t want to see.
It continues when your boyfriend calls you a whore for not being a virgin and you think he is right, because they all are. You thrive at Army basic training because being screamed at that you’re too slow or fat or stupid or woman is nothing new. It doesn’t phase you. You think you’ve got it under control. The rules are laid out for you to follow and you follow them.
It continues for decades. You are a good employee, loving spouse, decent parent, reliable friend. Your anger is this vague, pulpy mess that you sort of, kind of, blame on others’ expectations and exhaustion. And that works for awhile. Until it doesn’t. Until one day, you wake up and realize that it’s all you. Your expectations and demands of yourself are holding you hostage.
Insomnia has become my new thing. I lay wide awake at 3am, my witching hour. I think, what if I stopped doing it all? Would anyone even notice? Bit by bit, as I do less, no one really has. For a moment, I mourn the wasted time and feel a little sorry for myself. And then there’s the anger that smells like childhood. How could you be so stupid, so misdirected, so delusional?
No, no, that’s not right. I’m confused. I thought I was less than, so I worked to be good, but now I’m angry about the fact that I was “good” for all the wrong reasons and because of that, I’m less than. Dysfunctional math at its finest.
They call it a midlife crisis, as if it’s a one-time event solved by a racy car, a gym membership, a young lover, airline miles. Maybe for some, it is. For me, it’s a slow burn in place, growing more intense by the moment. It’s not a lifetime of regret, it’s the thought oh no, I want to do so much more. Time has taken on a physical quality. Every activity is weighed and measured and found wanting.
There will be a contingent of people who tell me none of it matters as long as good was done. It reminds me of a term in nature called allelopathy. The word allelopathy comes from the Greek, meaning “mutual harm” and defines the biochemical effect plants can have, both positive and negative, on the organisms and plants around them.
In my case, I have this old, scraggly tree that grew from those childhood years, overshadowing the ground around it. But there is a seedling, borne of the love I’ve given and received, of those moments of happiness and creativity, of contented solitude. It has grown as high as it will be allowed to while that old tree shades it. And that, my friends, is an epiphany.