Last night, my husband spoke the three most terrifying words in the English language.
"Take a break."
I was horrified. My blood ran cold.
"Let the dishes stack up. No laundry. And don't you dare touch that vacuum," he insisted.
"No buts about it. Take the day off. Why don't you have some fun?" he suggested, smiling.
Fun? Fun!? I drew a blank. And that's when I knew I had a problem.
Did you do worksheets in elementary school? I must've done a thousand in first grade alone. Apparently, I did 'em well because they landed me on the A Honour Roll, or "A On-A-Roll" as I called it. Mom praised me and taped my papers to the 'fridge. Dad showed off his little Exhibit A (me) to the relatives.
From that day on, I was an addict. A big, red A+ on my schoolwork became my crack. By third grade, my self-esteem and GPA were hopelessly enmeshed. I was my grades; my grades were me.
Dad may have been chronically dissatisfied with who I was, but he heartily approved of my grades. I didn't give a rat's ass about knowledge. Grades. That's what mattered!
And I wasn't the only one. When I met my Waterloo on fractions, Dad corrected my math worksheets before I turned them in for grading. When I refused to cheat on my eight grade science project, he punched me in the face. While I struggled with my tenth grade science project, he flew into a rage and threw a bar stool the length of the basement. There, but for the grace of God, flies me!
As long as I got A's, Mom glowed. Dad praised. My grandparents bragged. I felt like James Cagney in White Heat standing atop a gas storage tank screaming, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" just before it explodes. Kablewey!
My "kablewey" was failing my first driver's training test. My first failure... ever. It was devastating. Daddy had to lay down in a darkened room to recover from it. Terrified, I waited for the explosion that thankfully never came. I guess he'd exhausted his stock of screams while teaching this nervous wreck how to drive.
My work addiction segued seamlessly from schoolwork to "work work." As far as I could tell, there was no difference. I was still doing "worksheets," but now, they paid me! A co-worker need only utter the three magic words ("You're the best.") and I'd do all my work... and theirs, as well! Mom praised. My grandparents glowed. Dad forbade moving out and instated rent.
When I wasn't driving him to chemo appointments or running his errands, he insisted on long jam sessions twice a week. It seems when I started playing fiddle, he simultaneously rediscovered his musical talent. Between my workloads at home and work, plus insomnia, it didn't leave much time nor energy for fun... whatever that is. I quit fiddling.
"Perfectionism is probably the most common and also one of the most damaging characteristics of dysfunctional families."
Strangely, the proverbial crapola didn't hit the fan 'til 2012 when I traded my IT Software Implementation Analyst career for the wife/homemaker role I'd always dreamed of. For the first time in my life, I didn't have a 4.0 GPA. No job. No worksheets. No praise. Nothin' but 20 oak trees surrounding our "new" home... a 1912 cottage laced with cobwebs, dead ladybugs and 1970s wallpaper.
Failure! For only the second time in my life, I felt like a failure. This time, I was the one curled up in the fetal position in a darkened room.
But I'm a firm believer in "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." And that's exactly what I did. Instead of testing software, I planted a garden. Instead of providing technical support, I painted our cottage. And instead of writing technical guides, I study psychology and adore writing feature stories, Delly's Doodles and this Huffington Post blog. The more work I take on, the better I feel.
Do we see a theme here? Yep, I'm back to "worksheets."
Dang it! Could it be that I'm a workaholic and a perfectionist!?! In An Adult Child's Guide to What's "Normal," I was fascinated to read that, "Perfectionism is probably the most common and also one of the most damaging characteristics of dysfunctional families... We get more and more addicted to 'doing' and trying to please by doing more and more, better and better because in a perfectionistic family enough is never enough."
No kidding, Sherlock!
Which brings us full circle back to my husband's hope that I'll take a break and have some fun. Yikes! Freaks me out! It requires extricating my self-esteem from my performance. Hanging up my quill and parchment for the day. Letting the dishes pile up and not taking it personally. Being convinced of my innate worth, regardless of my crunchy carpets. And trying to figure out what's fun. (HINT: It's not cooking.)
And that's why my sole New Year's resolution is to learn how to live, really live. Sure, work's gotta' get done and it will get done. But I'm not my work. It's just what I do... not who I am.
As Henry David Thoreau said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." I've got the woods. Now, I need life!
In the meantime, consider yourself sworn to secrecy because I'm writing this on the day I was supposed to take off. Don't tell my husband! Pinky swear?
You're the best!
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