A number of bloggers have chosen words that represent what they want the year to bring.
Here’s my word: Permission.
Yesterday I skimmed some old journal entries. March 21, 2005 was an anxiety attack frosted with hypervigilance. That day I did chores that didn’t need doing, checked compulsively on food stores in cupboards and freezer, reviewed my bankbook and my bills. I was pacing around my apartment, nervous as a cat in a cage, yet couldn’t seem to leave.
Finally I forced myself to walk to a nearby market to buy on-sale cereal for my daughter, Abby. I drove to a rummage sale in search of bargain books. I exercised. I went to Abby’s place and watched a movie.
And I was afraid the whole time. Just terrified. I had no idea why. The answer came to me only after I quit wondering, after I stopped fussing and sat down to read. A few minutes into the book, I suddenly blurted out one sentence: “I’m afraid of disappearing.”
I didn’t know how to think about the future
An odd thing to say, but apt. I had disappeared during my marriage, losing a little more of myself each year to an emotionally abusive spouse. When I filed for divorce in March 2004 I figured it was a chance, finally, to create a life for myself. Yet a year had gone with no discernible progress.
I was spending far too much time worrying about my daughter’s future and far too little on my own. But I didn’t know how to define my own needs, let alone think about them. Ever since age 16, when my parents separated and I took over running the house for my dad and brother, I had structured my days around other people. For three decades I helped, supported and nurtured everyone except me.
Understand: I took pleasure in helping others. (I still do.) But I didn’t know how to help others without neglecting myself.
On that spring day in 2005 I knew I had stalled. I wasn’t moving forward. I wasn’t moving at all, unless you count crouching as movement – I had hunched over, emotionally speaking.
I was still disappearing – just in a different way.
A little confining, but reliable
Therapy helped me understand that I had lived my life in fear. Trying to craft a new way of living produced its own terrors, however.
There’s something to be said about a cell. You know its dimensions, you’ve got the place organized the best way you can, and there’s a handy bell to wake you up and a schedule to keep you in lockstep all of your days. A little confining, maybe, but predictable and therefore reliable.
So there I was, blinking in the unaccustomed sunshine of life outside the prison walls, and scared to death of the decisions I needed to learn to make. I’d been programmed to crave routine and servitude. Now I had to do what the therapist called “the serious work” of finding new ways to live.
The fact that I’d left my apartment that day indicated I was tired of living under the lash of my anxieties and wanted to do something about it. I had to make the decision not just to step outside, but to keep moving.
Regret is not an option
I did keep moving, although that often felt like running as fast as I could just to stay in place. That fall I enrolled at North Seattle Community College. The next year I won a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington.
I began writing for MSN Money. I finished my divorce and in time paid off my legal debt. I kept living frugally to build up my emergency and retirement funds. After graduating I quit my apartment-management job and began to travel (eight trips in 2010). Last May I started my own website.
The past five years were a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. Even when I didn’t know what I was moving toward, I felt compelled to stay in motion.
People ask how I did it. Honestly? I was flying by the seat of my pants. At times I’d lose my nerve and think, “I can’t do this.” Then another part of my mind would answer: “You are doing this.” And I’d continue.
That’s why my word this year will be “permission.” In 2011 I am giving myself permission to try new things rather than hope that they will happen to me. I am giving myself permission to laugh, to write, to travel, to raise hell as needed. Most of all I am giving myself permission to meet change halfway instead of to wait passively for progress.
Scary? Oh, hell, yes. Moving forward and staying put are both scary. The difference is that you will probably regret the latter. Regret is one thing I won’t permit, this year or any other.