A Birthday, Allelopathy, and an Epiphany

canstockphoto8352036This 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.

canstockphoto1830736Over 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.

canstockphoto10740080It 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.

canstockphoto9946409Insomnia 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.

canstockphoto10644936In 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.

49 Comments on “A Birthday, Allelopathy, and an Epiphany

  1. “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.”
    This says it all. This is the root cause of my own “child rage.” I had a bout of it this morning, while attempting “clean eating” I dropped an entire container of spinach onto my very unclean kitchen floor. So much for green smoothie Thursday! F! So, I had coffee and a handful of ginger snaps instead. Rules! I screamed inside. But I forgot to use my inside voice, and the sound of my worst critic reverberated through the empty house. Then I read your post. And I am a bit relieved to know that I may actually be normal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have cringed at some of my behavior and conversation this summer. I’m so angry and it’s this weird, unspecified, everything-leaking-out-all-at-once kind of anger. I really hope it leads to something more, because I’d hate to be stuck in this stage.

      Being rule-followers and peacemakers and uber-volunteers, either it’s altruistic and part of our nature or it’s in response to feeling like we’re lacking. That’s got to bite us in the ass eventually.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. That is most definitely “an epiphany.” Actually it’s more than that. You’ve yanked a few branches off that big old tree. And for the record, after years of saying “yes”, regardless of the reasons, I think it’s perfectly normal to reach a point of resentment at continuously being asked and starting to say “no” automatically. As my mother’s health declined in the last few years of her life I spent countless days and nights in emergency with her, going to see her every day in hospitals and rehab facilities and, eventually, bringing her to live with me. All while I worked full time, running an ad agency where 16-hour days are the norm. I did it willingly and lovingly and would do it all over again if I could have her back. But days after she died, when my cousin asked me to go to the hospital where her mother was, because she was languishing in the hallway for days on end waiting to be seen by a doctor and I’d been through those situations before I snapped. I cannot tell you how angry it made me, how thoughtless I thought she was. A very good friend was with me, at the time, and she intervened on my behalf, telling my cousin I’d had enough and it was unfair of her to ask me. In the last year that same friend had very serious surgery. I went to all her medical appointments with her, sat in the hospital for 10 hours the day she had surgery waiting for news from the doctor so I could let her family know because they all live out of town and spent every day in the hospital with her. Her sister and brother-in-law came to take care of her at home but only stayed 10 days. She still needed some help and I was called upon. I did it, but wasn’t too happy about it and I realized that I’d had it as a caregiver. Selfish as it may sound, I had been a dutiful daughter and paid my dues and I don’t have it in me to do it again and again. Selfish? Probably. But I also think it’s all right to want to have a life, especially when you’ve devoted much of your life to others — whether it’s family, friends or even your job — which I’ve done. It’s my turn and I’ve decided I shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting it to be my turn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what has surprised me is that as I’ve started doing less and less, the world hasn’t fallen apart. This belief that one is responsible for so much also gives one a false sense of importance and power. It’s a child’s illusion from boundaries of responsibility being blurred when young. There are things that I do out of genuine love and kindness, but sometimes those things are indistinguishable from pursuit of trying to be “good”. The only way I sort it, is when I reach a point of burnout. I’m fed up with hitting that point over and over, not catching myself before going into overkill mode.

      Being a caregiver is not for the fainthearted, of children, the ill or the elderly. And the resentment can be a real soul-killer, even if it’s a perfectly human response. I don’t regret the comfort, aid or care I’ve offered, but enough is enough. It is my time, a damned late time to build a writing career, but time is slipping away and all this anger and depression is a big damned sign post “GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!” Sometimes I really do need to be conked over the head to get the message!

      Liked by 3 people

      • That is such a insightful observation — that nothing bad happens when we don’t jump in and say “of course I’ll do it.” It really is our own, self-inflicted guilt that is responsible for us doing what we really don’t want to do at those times when we’d really rather not or we’re just burned out. And I’m the same — I have to be hit over the head too. What weird and complicated creatures humans are. On the good news front, once you’ve said “no” a couple of times it gets much easier and completely guilt-free. And no one thinks any the worse of you either.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I think, what if I stopped doing it all? Would anyone even notice? Bit by bit, as I do less, no one really has.

    That is my reality, too. I declared that this year would be my year of the recluse. It’s been fascinating to observe who has immediately written me off, who has tried to guilt me into doing things– and who hasn’t even noticed.

    Despite bad feelings about the above, I’ve found that, for the first time in decades, I feel free, more like me– a woman with a good heart, but with secure boundaries. Now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You nailed it with “secure boundaries”. I feel like I have to stop everything until I get myself sorted. Boundaries have always been an issue for me and over the years, I’ve become more adept at exercising them. However, volunteer work is this soft fuzzy thing that you feel like a jerk stomping on, so I alternate between feeling empowered and feeling like a complete miser.

      Time is a big issue with me. It’s common sense. I can’t do everything and if everything I do is just something I think I should do, well it explains why I’m this heaping pile of unhappiness right now. But, it’s fixable. Now.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I have been saying no for a couple of years now, received the gift of being able to say no together with a (for me) very hard start as a mother and family who only pretended to care. I’ve felt so incredibly alone that I don’t help out of guilt anymore. I’ll help if I can where I see need, people I really care about usually don’t even have to ask. But the ones who hurt me the most back then still try to guilt me into doing way more than is good for me. Their comments still hurt, but now it makes me angry more often than sad. I’m a work in progress…

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the point I’d like to reach – when being kind and helpful isn’t just some weird, dysfunctional compulsion, but something that arises out of my sense of joy and purpose. Not to say that I won’t still try to help, but I definitely have to step back to get a clearer picture. And we all are really works-in-progress. In some ways, this is a wonderful thing and a journey of discovery. Some days, it’s a tough burden to bear. Here’s to finding our way!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “The rest of me thinks they’re either extremely healthy or sociopaths.”
    Maybe in between. Your issues are complex and I don’t propose a solution, but I suspect more people feel the way you do than you think. We all suspect ourselves and our motives. We’re never as good as we want or think we should be. Such is the human condition — we’re a selfish bunch just trying to get along with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most of us are definitely in-between. I don’t imagine my issues to be any more complex than those of anyone else. I just blab about them! And I think my solution might be a chainsaw and a valium. In exactly that order, just to be safe.

      I’ve met people who are so serene and calm and put-together that it freaks me out. But it’s hard to differentiate those people from the ones who put up a good front. My frontage is cracking and I rationalize this to be a good thing. No more energy towards trying to appear good and more towards actually feeling good. As ever, we’re all works-in-progress.

      Like

      • Re chainsaw: joking aside, do you have a physical outlet? Working out, running, chopping wood, punching things? Sometimes it helps. (He said, sitting on his butt.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re right about that. Being physical is a key component for me, so I’ve gotten back to weight training, practicing Taekwondo (all that punching and kicking is VERY useful!) and I’ve been running in preparation for a 5K next month.

          The bigger point, of course, is about self-care. It tends to slide when caregiving takes priority and depression moves in. I think of exercise as being my own safety net.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. My circumstances were different but the effects were the same – the trying to please everyone, to be good enough. Perhaps I was not as good as you at suppressing my anger – I doubt I’d have survived basic training without losing it. I was nice nice nice and then I’d explode like a volcano. Being in touch with your anger is a major leap ahead, an epiphany in itself. I think you’re doing just fine! I agree with fransi – you’ve ripped a few branches off that tree. What a great inner movement is happening for you. It may not always be comfortable, but it’s definitely progress. WTG!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was 17 when I went into the Army. I’d never make it today without getting court-martialed. Anger can be a pretty scary emotion, especially if you have a deep-seated need to be seen as “good” or in control. It feels very raw and ugly, but I’ve gotten to the point that I can really look at it and see it for what it is – pain and sadness and frustration. Much easier to deal with.

      I think I’ve said this before, but I’m always surprised that when I think I have my life figured out, I get gobsmacked with something else. I feel, at my core, that this is progress and that I’m on the right path. But it IS damned uncomfortable!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I first drove cab, I loved it that no one particularly expected me to be nice to them. I was a cab driver; who expects cab drivers to be nice? It was a great counterbalance to what I’d experienced as a waitress, as a woman, as a girl. And you know what? I wasn’t a jerk all the time, only when it was called for–which it was sometimes. I swear, it cleared the system. So say no. Say no until you’re ready to say yes for good reasons, from your heart. Because that will happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Fascinating essay. The lady says no, with chainsaw in hand……..
    I think it makes a whole lot of sense. I notice that as I get older I have less desire to get involved with things, especially when I don’t have time for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Time is a huge factor. As much as I value caring for others, there are still things that I want to accomplish personally. While one can try to do it all, it’s simply not possible to do it all at once. Getting to this point of recognizing that has been a long haul, but I’m getting there.

      Like

  8. 1. When we should all over ourselves, it can cause a mess; we are good at _____ but we are not the only movers and shakers around. 2. I had to practice this often until it came naturally: “Let me get back to you on that/give you my answer in the morning (evening — any time but now.)” 3. Sometimes, should is all there is. 4. We need a rescuing friend to at least laugh with…to be a simple soul with. Sometimes there is no such friend, so our self has to be that. I hope God will bless and fortify you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The “shoulds” are getting peeled back, one layer at a time. The waiting to respond to a request is a good idea – I’m too quick in trying to offer solutions, many of which involve sacrifice on my part. I am very fortunate to have some good friends, people who “get me” and make me laugh. I can’t imagine how unmoored I’d become without them!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I hope you can stop thinking of yourself as a “shitty human being”. You’re actually a beautiful human and a wonderful being. I have seen it here. You are also gifted in many ways. I hope you can connect more fully to the seedling that is seeking light – you’ve already started that journey. Keep on sawing those branches off. I think your best chainsaw will look like acceptance and forgiveness. That seedling believes in you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m with Tiny. That “shitty human being” thing is still the voice in your head telling you to be nice. Anything else is shitty. The trick is learning to recognize that voice as a lying bastard.

    Anger is scary. But for me it’s how I know my boundaries have been breached. It takes the power and energy of my anger to pound in new posts and string the barbed wire.

    You go, girl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always surprised at how much anger I do feel at times, when it emerges under duress and/or anxiety. Just when I think I’ve Dr. Phil’ed it all out, there’s still more.

      In a classic “all or nothing” move, I’m going with nothing for awhile to see what emerges and what I choose to add back in. I wish I could find a middle road, but I invariably end up in a ditch.

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  11. I volunteer when it seems like a fun thing to do. There is nothing as pure as charity for completely selfish reasons, it takes all the pressure off.

    As for anger, I spent years with a full head of steam. All it gets you is high blood pressure. After a while, your heart literally needs anger to keep your vascular system pressurized.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your approach. I think, too, one has to pick work that plays to strengths. I find talking to people or working in a crowd to be exhausting. Stocking the shelves at a food donation site? I can do that.

      Ironically, I have low blood pressure, which I ascribe to genetics and exercise. I feel like these flare-ups of anger are healthier than earlier in my life when it they took a self-destructive form. Still, I’d sure like to get it out of my system. Maybe this post was it.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. That’s a load of anger to carry around! I know I carry around a lot of anger, too, but this kind of scared me because it’s all out there and I don’t want to put mine out there. Does that make sense? I wish I had some smart and wise words for you, Michelle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think writing about this is not just about catharsis for me, but it helps me to process and, in some ways, manage it. Likely, too, much anger is the result of my expectations for a break this summer that never materialized, because of this issue of feeling responsible. All signs point to change!

      Liked by 1 person

      • My immediate response was to envision (sp?) a lot of signs of different shapes and sizes all point at you with arrows and proclaiming CHANGE. But they could just as easily have been pointing at me.

        Liked by 2 people

  13. Wow – what a read, Michelle. My words won’t do your article justice right now. All I can say is I want to read this again and again… and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. About as real a post as I’ve read. So well done. I respect your voice and honesty. Peace, John

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow!!!

    I always felt that I would like to be a robot so I would stop feeling. Hurt, angst, sadness, desperation, depression, anger. But I was told that if I stopped feeling the “bad” ones, I would not be feeling the happiness either. Who cares! When it hurts so much that it is spilling over, all I wanted was for it to stop! So, I feel for you, Michelle. The silver lining is that depression is the sign that you are getting better at being yourself. So, hold on, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the world would be a less rich place without the range of human emotions. But we also have the capacity to recognize, process them and decide what to do with them. For all the negative feelings I might have, I’m fairly optimistic that facing them head on is more productive at this point in my life, but I had many years when I avoided, doused them in booze, and did anything to numb them.

      Here and now is definitely a better place to be!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Good to hear from you, but (there’s always a BUT) too bad you’re feeling this way. You wrote something in a comment on one of my posts recently that resonated with my wife, about people wanting to band-aid you when you try to talk about failures, like depriving you of the necessary act of getting it out and talking about, and wanting to just slap an ointment on it and move on. That’s how I read it, but it resonated. So you go on and spew, and I’ll happily read, for whatever that’s worth. Your writing kind of bubbles over in that volcano way. The ashes do make for healthy gardens.

    Liked by 2 people

    • To your last statement about ashes and healthy gardens, I immediately thought, “so does rotting compost”. I’m a cheerful sort.

      Still, that’s what it’s about for me – writing is processing. Writing is putting order to chaos. Sometimes I forget that about myself and then I write a piece like this, which strikes me as an uncomfortable read for others and I begin to feel loads better.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. One unexpected thing I learned (out of a great many unexpected things) during my two years of “I go to therapy, group therapy, and very little else”: a great number of women with traumatic or abusive childhoods — but nonetheless “normal” or “successful” adulthoods, in some socially-approved way — crash out in our 40s. The good-girl, never-say-no, take-care-of-everyone-else approach that got us this far stops making sense. Stops seeming worth the effort, in the way it did before — or else we simply run out of steam.

    We realize our scraggly trees are deadwood — and we deserve to be and do so much more.

    Congratulations on your epiphany! I wish you strength, courage, and joy with whatever comes next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Alice. You stated a fair assessment of my situation. A lot of things have stopped making sense to me. The challenge, of course, is change in the middle of things and with people who are exactly the same.

      I’m reminded of a book called “The Family Crucible”. It talked about set roles and when one person changes, it’s like a gear in a machine which fouls the whole thing up. Fortunately, I have enough latitude in my life to work through the rough patches without decimating my family of choice.

      But I like the idea of living the life I choose, not just living reflexively on ideas I absorbed long ago. It really makes the possibilities seem endless.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Michelle,

    I love your raw honesty and I so relate to procrastinating about writing. I call myself a writer, a writer who doesn’t write! Up until recently anyway.

    While some people map out their entire following year in the last days of December, I cut straight to the car chase and just give the year a label.

    This year is the year of writing, labelled in a desperate attempt to cajole myself into action. It has worked. Not wonderfully, but in comparison to other wasted years, it’s a ripper!

    I started my blog, a dry run for ‘the real thing’ which will start when I have ‘found my voice’ on this one. It’s going OK. Well, it’s going. Just a few paragraphs can take me a couple of hours to write.

    It is, quite simply, better than not writing at all. And since responding to your blogs, I have trebled my, dare I say, followers. So, thanks Michelle.

    Love your work.

    Susan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan. I’m glad you are enjoying some more readers – that always makes blogging a little more fun.

      I’ve always been a planner – to the extreme of unrealistic expectations. I’m learning to scale back. I make a list of my writing goals and then I force myself to figure out what I need to do today that will move me in the right direction. I applied this to exercise all summer long and now I’m doing it for writing as well. And it helps if I ask myself “Is what I’m doing right now moving me closer to my goals or is it detracting?” Netflix and housework lose every time to that question!

      Best wishes as you continue your year of writing – it sounds like it is working for you!

      Like

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