Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Jonna Ivin.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.
I could go into a very long story to preface my question, but it feels more like complaining to me, so I am just going to cut to the chase and be as brief as I can.
I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family and had a childhood where I was required to be on my own emotionally much of the time. I had to grow up very quickly, and questioned my worth and validity and had strong abandonment issues as well.
As an adult, life has been challenging… in my relationships with my dysfunctional family, at times even estranged. For years, and still today, my husband and I struggle with financial hardship, and along with that, difficulties in our marriage.
Every day, for most of my life, has been a struggle to survive in some way. I am all too familiar with the “fight or flight” response and an abundance of cortisol pumping through my system, with a constant reminder around my midsection. I’ve always had my head down working to make ends meet, or been waiting for the next shoe to drop, or the next obstacle to fall in my path; so… I have never really gotten to a point where I can make a plan, or set goals, because I have always been struggling just to survive and take care of the immediate needs of our family and juggle our finances. At one point, someone very near and dear to me told me that some people are just meant to work really hard. It crushed me because I always felt like I did my best, but my best wasn’t good enough.
And sometimes I feel like an ass, because I know there are people with much greater challenges, but I have this strong feeling in my gut of wanting to make this world a better place, for everyone, and I can’t even manage to keep my own family secure.
On top of that, around extended family, friends and acquaintances, I am always acting like everything is ok, compensating with a “go with the flow” attitude, but I feel like a liar and a fake, because what I really feel like is a failure—as a mom, a wife, a friend, a daughter.
In addition, after pretty much losing my shit completely just about a year ago, having the worst time getting out of bed, crying every day, getting to work hours late daily, and being completely withdrawn, I finally went to the doctor and went on meds for depression and anxiety. I know, shocking after reading my history, right?
I really want to be truly happy, and to be able to experience life and be present—for myself AND my husband and children. We all deserve that at the very least. I want to be able to do things that make me feel joy and fulfillment and awareness. I want to have my own hobbies and interests, but I don’t have the time or money, and feel guilty investing those things in myself, even though I know it’s absolutely necessary. I have thoughts and ideas that are whirling around my head, but I feel I don’t have the time or ability to sort them all out and make them materialize.
My biggest concern, worry, fear, is that I am just going through the motions and all the stress has desensitized me over the years and I am numb and lacking emotion and passion (and I am a very passionate person when fully involved). When I do have down-time, I sit, I sleep, I hide, I worry, and I feel guilt and shame—that’s the depression that creeps in. I try: I start eating healthy, going to the gym, opening bills—but I don’t maintain. It’s like I am my own worst enemy, that I don’t deserve happiness or success. These are feelings that go back to my childhood and it’s a constant battle.
I read and watch self-help info all the time, have tried using planners, lists, etc. I give friends advice and support that I know I should follow myself. I know, I know, I know… but what I need to do is act, but I’m stuck, scared—scared to death of fucking things up even worse than they are. And even though my husband and I are a “team,” I feel this incredible amount of pressure on myself. I am in my late 40s and I’m tired after a lifetime of struggling and surviving, but I also know that time is passing quickly for me and my loved ones.
I have made several friends and connections over the last year or so, and I have had brief encounters with joy and my passionate side again. These experiences have made me realize:
Surviving is just not enough for me—this much I do know. I need to stop, reset, and start to set goals and plans for myself first, and then for our family (with my husband) and I just have no idea where or how to start.
Dear Survivor Mom,
When I first read your letter, I thought: I know this woman. I’ve been this woman. On certain days I still am this woman. Not only do I hear you, I feel you. I know what it is to be so deep down in your bones tired that it hardly seems worth trying anymore. So as I write to you, know that I am writing to myself as well, and I thank you for the opportunity to work this through. I don’t believe you and I are alone in feeling this way. Actually, I know we are not. So let’s hope that with your letter and my response we can create a space for others to join the conversation and see if maybe we can all make our way down this road together. I’m willing to take that first step if you are.
Let’s go back for a moment and then we’ll move forward.
When I was a child I thought that God was an old man in the sky with a long beard and robe, much like Santa Claus. He watched down on us and doled out rewards to those who were good and punished those who were bad. With this always on my mind, I tried hard to be good and prayed often. I prayed my mother would quit drinking. I prayed we wouldn’t move around so much. I prayed that we wouldn’t always be poor. And as the years passed with all of those prayers going unanswered, I came to the conclusion that God must not like me very much. What other explanation could there be? I was following all the rules and yet I watched as those around me thrived while I stayed stuck in survival mode. Yes, there could be only one conclusion. God played favorites and I wasn’t picked for his team. It was a belief I carried in my heart well into my adult life, and like you I kept my head down, waited for the other shoe to drop, and remained stuck.
Over the years (after lots of therapy, Al-Anon, and spiritual searching), I slowly began to see God in a different light. I started to realize there wasn’t an old man in the sky giving and withholding at random, deciding willy-nilly who was worthy and who wasn’t, and I wondered if maybe God was, in its purest form, simply Life. This opened up a whole new realm of possibilities, because Life doesn’t care if we are good or bad. Life doesn’t care if we are rich or poor. Life doesn’t care what our childhoods were like. It doesn’t care if we are a human, or a tree, or a dog, or even a single microscopic cell. All Life is concerned with is that we live. This is our destiny, our single job. To live. Not merely to exist but to live.
So how do you do that?
You start at the beginning and you plant the seed.
Find something that brings you joy and do it. It’s the joy of doing that ignites the spark of Life within us. It can be anything. Whatever it is you love to do—gardening, painting, solving complex math problems, walking dogs, jogging. Whatever that thing is for you, do it. Do it every day even if it’s only for an hour. You deserve at least one hour a day to focus on yourself. Everyone deserves at least that.
If you don’t know what brings you joy, then take the time to discover it. You don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money or buy a bunch of stuff. Start small. Go slow. Read about the thing that interests you. Talk about it with others who share your interest. Get books from the library or go online. All that matters is that you start to feed your inner life. Do it selfishly for no other purpose than it makes you feel more alive. If you keep doing this thing you love a little every day, something amazing starts to happen. Life begins to recognize itself within you. It becomes drawn to you. And then it expands, bringing with it more Life.
But. But. But…
Ah, the dreaded but. I want to start a business, but I don’t have any money. I love to bake, but I don’t have any time. I want to switch jobs, but I’m scared. I want to join a writing group, but I’m nervous, anxious, depressed. With each but we add another layer of quicksand. We announce our dream and then immediately crush any possibility of bringing it to fruition with but. Nothing we’ve stated before the but holds up. It’s washed away with a single word. I say, get rid of the word and replace it with and. I want to start a business, and I don’t have any money. I love to bake, and I don’t have any time. I want to switch jobs, and I’m scared. I want to join a writing group, and I’m nervous, anxious, depressed.
Now we have something to work with! We humans have a marvelous capacity to do two things at once. We can join a writers group and be nervous. We can take the steps to start a business and work on our finances at the same time. One doesn’t have to preclude the other. By replacing but with and, we separate the two issues, and neither has power over the other. Start noticing every time you use the word but and replace it with and. Wanting to find your passion is no longer tied to the struggles of your life.
When I decided I wanted to write a book (this was my seed), I had no idea where to begin, so of course the ego part of my brain—the part that strings random thoughts into a continuous loop twenty-four hours a day—took over. It told me all the reasons I could never write a book. I wasn’t educated. I barely graduated high school. I didn’t have contacts in the publishing world. If I even finished the book, what would I do with it? Who would even want to read it? Who was I to even think my story was interesting? I was a nobody, and nobodies don’t get to write books.
And just like that I was done before I wrote a single word. No one stopped me. I did that all by myself. Life didn’t stop me. A pile of unpaid bills sitting on a dusty desk didn’t stop me. My friends, my family, they didn’t stop me. I stopped me
Luckily for me, the seed had been planted, and it kept itching at the far corners of my being, so I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if I read a few books like the one I want to write. You know, just to see.” Nothing in my life had changed. I was still poor. I was still keeping my head down and waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I went to the library to check out some books anyway. I read a few and I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if I jotted down a couple of ideas. I won’t show them to anybody.” Again, nothing in my life had changed. I was still poor and I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I jotted down a few ideas anyway. Some of those ideas expanded into a few paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs turned into a few pages… I’m sure you can see where I am going with this.
As those pages turned into chapters, something interesting started to happen. I was spending more time thinking about my book and less time thinking about my crappy life. I was still working two jobs. I still didn’t have a pot to piss in, but that was no longer my first concern. I sought out others who were interested in writing and joined a writing group. I came across a non-profit organization that trained people to facilitate writing groups, and I joined. I went through their training process, and was given my own group to facilitate. Life began to recognize itself within me and it was expanding. Opportunities I didn’t even know existed were showing up—not because I felt compelled to chase them down, but because I had found something I was interested it, something that was bringing me joy. I didn’t have to do anything. I wanted to do things because they held interest for me. This nobody had finally found her voice.
What I’m telling you has nothing to do with setting goals, making plans or, as you said, “making the world a better place.” It’s not your responsibility to make the world a better place. That’s too big! No one person can do that. It’s your job to live. It’s your job to seek out joy and then follow where Life leads you. My book didn’t make the world a better place, but when letters from readers started coming in, I saw that by sharing my story I had made a difference for some. That’s our job. Find what brings you joy, what expands your Life, and then share that Life with others.
It all begins with you. You have to be the one to tell Life what you want to pursue. How else will it know how to support you? Think of that friend who is often upset, but when you ask what’s wrong they shrug and say, “Nothing.” You’d like to help but you can’t because you don’t know what they need. Now imagine Life tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “What do you love to do? What is your passion? How can I help you live a richer, fuller life?” What will your answer be? Will you shrug Life off or will you plant the seed?
One thing. One hour. Each day.
And then watch as your Life expands.
Jonna Ivin is the founder of STIR Journal. She is the author of the memoir Will Love For Crumbs, the humorous coming-of-age novel, Sister Girl and the crime thriller 8th Amendment. A passion for helping others find their unique voice led her to volunteer as a workshop facilitator for Write Around Portland. Jonna is currently working on a new online memoir writing workshop that will be available in the spring. Jonna can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/