Take a good look at the woman in the picture above. She looks happy, doesn’t she? I mean, who wouldn’t be happy in their own private pool, in the sun, with the person they love most in the world, in a tropical paradise?
What if I told you that photo was taken during one of the most stressful times of my life?
Behind that smile is a scream—of fear, of frustration. I am an expert at the painted on smile. I could teach courses in repressing anxiety. Sometimes these skills have served me well. In fact, I think the ability to push stress to the far corners of my mind is a critical survival tool. There is no possible way I could live the kind of life I have without the words “Everything is fine” playing in a constant loop in my psyche.
That photo was taken in Jaco, Costa Rica. Our dream jobs in the Bahamas had been blown out of the water. Our life savings had dwindled to almost nothing thanks to some unfortunate investments. Our last shot at finding a business in the tropics had run into brick wall after brick wall. I was in almost constant pain from yet-to-be-diagnosed endometriosis. I had no clue what we were going to do or where we would go—our house in Canada was gone, our possessions sold. We were making the best of our “vacation” but every day brought another piece of disappointing news and I was scared.
We were in Panama when the façade cracked. A promising piece of affordable beach front property turned out to be miles of mosquito infested swampland. The “quaint” little town where we were staying was surrounded by dismal, non-quaint poverty. Everything was wrong.
I remember reaching into Fred’s toiletry bag to get something and slicing my finger open on a razor blade. Then, I was walking the streets of Bocas del Toro, crying, falling apart. Fred came and found me, talked me down, assured me everything would be okay.
Eventually, everything was okay. Well, okay-er. But I have never forgotten that feeling of complete and utter defeat, the feeling of all the carefully built walls crumbling, crashing down. I didn’t feel naked, I felt as if I had been stripped of skin and all my nerves were now on the surface.
Stress is sneaky.
You can go for weeks, months, even years believing that you are coping. “Everything is fine.” You feel tough. You feel as if you wake up every day, grab those boot straps and give a mighty tug. “Everything is fine”. Then, one day, a tiny razor slices open a millimeter of flesh and a drop of blood might as well be the Hoover Dam bursting.
If you’re like me, when the dam bursts, the worst part is that look of shock and horror on the faces of those you love. What’s wrong? I thought everything was fine?
I am living with stress right now. This will not be one of those helpful posts where I give you a list of coping tips because I have none. I know, or at least I hope, that eventually everything will be okay-er, but right now I’m playing it day-by-day. Some days, hour-by-hour.
This is the toll you pay on the road less traveled.
I am hunting for a job, which is no easy task when your resume reads like a Venn diagram drawn by Hunter S Thompson on a binge. I have also become acutely aware of my age—will this employer think I am past my prime? I know that my history of self-employment means potential employers will take my credentials less seriously. I know this means I will have to start farther down the ladder and work my way up. Oh, and being female, I know that my skills are considered inherently less valuable and this will be reflected in my starting wage at whatever job for which I am qualified.
On its own, the job hunt would perhaps be a minor anxiety. Add in my husband’s latest business venture, which is on the verge of officially launching, and, hey, stress squared! As wonderful as this idea of his is, and as much as I support it and try to cheer him on, a new business means lots of start up costs and no income. From either of us.
Ah, there’s my 7pm stomach-ache coming on.
There’s the novel manuscript months behind schedule and the fact that I will have to rely on my writing partner for the production bucks on this one.
There’s the stupid peri-menopause that has come back with a vengeance.
There’s the lack of hours in the day and me sacrificing physical fitness right now because triage.
There’s the ongoing grief and its lovely sucker punches that keep coming.
There’s starting over in a new city. Yes, I’ve done this many times before. Yes, it gets easier. Yes, we have amazing friends here who have done everything but build us a house to make us feel at home. No, it’s still not “easy”.
Blah, blah, blah.
I’m barely coping. I wake up almost every night with stones in my stomach, paralyzed by anxiety. I’m short tempered with my husband and I take things too personally. I cry more than I want to. I desperately want to smash something on a regular basis.
You know what keeps me from cracking? You.
I know that at least one of you is reading this right now and nodding your head. Maybe you’re getting that tight feeling in your throat and your eyes are hot because GODDAMNIT LIFE IS HARD! And here is someone, maybe someone you’ve never met, telling you that she’s a wreck too. It is not just you. You’re not a baby, you’re not a whiner, you’re a human-fucking-being stretched to the breaking point. And maybe it’s your own fault, maybe you made some crappy decisions that put you in this stressful spot, but who cares? Taking the blame doesn’t make it easier, does it?
I can feel you out there. There’s an invisible thread connecting us in our frustration and anxiety. Honestly, I know there’s more than just the two of us. I know there are armies of unhappy people, suffering silently, wondering where they went wrong and why is the “dream” so difficult to attain? Some of them are stuck in traffic heading to or from the job they hate, some of them are wondering how they will pay the credit card bills this month, some are kissing their children goodnight and feeling like the worst parent in the world because everyone else is doing it so much better, some are scrolling through Facebook and seeing post after post of happy smiling faces and hating their lonely life, some are sitting across the table from a spouse they barely know anymore. There is no shortage of stress. Unlike almost everything else in life, there is always enough stress to go around.
But I think of you. I think, we’re all painting on smiles and telling ourselves “Everything is fine”. When I want to scream and call it quits, I take your hand, I say, “Hang on to me. We can do this.”
Everything is not fine but I’ve got you. And you have me. Hang onto me.
We can do this.