2021 was a hard year.
John’s working hours were insane. The kids were home on lockdown for the entire month of May (I often didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next 10 minutes, let alone another day). My health was spiraling, and unsuccessful iron infusions were a bitter disappointment.
Also, undeniably, the psychological weight and exhaustion of 2020 (and some very stressful years pre-pandemic) were catching up to me. I felt utterly depleted, both physically and emotionally.
I did the best I could; I adventured with my crew and met deadlines and did laundry and made s’mores on the beach and laughed with friends and family.
But I also cried. A lot.
And here’s the thing about having a mental health crisis in the middle of a global pandemic while struggling with chronic fatigue – it becomes a “chicken-or-egg” conundrum. Am I feeling sad and exhausted because of a mood disorder, or do I have a mood issue because life is currently steamrolling my emotions and energy levels leaving me sad and exhausted?
Either way, it was time to get help.
*I want to acknowledge, once again, that mental health is a multi-faceted topic with so many important, individual considerations. I’m going to share a portion of my story because mental health challenges can be isolating and, personally, it has helped me to have others raise a hand and share their stories. I would encourage everyone to regularly speak with their family doctor and/or a therapist about mental health, even if all seems well. When we exercise regularly, we build muscle and endurance to better cope with physical stressors and to prevent injury; our minds need the same level of nurturing care, ideally as preventative medicine.*
I’ve been what some have described as “melancholy” most of my life. I struggled with depression as a teen and battled postpartum depression (twice), even working with a postpartum specialist at one point. So I’m no stranger to mental health challenges or to seeking help.
This time, I started with my family doctor. She was patient and kind (and, of course, knows the specific issues I’m facing healthwise). The pervasive theme of her diagnosis? Recurring themes of my struggle with perfectionism.
And here’s the irony – the more life seemed to spiral out of my control, the more this idea of perfectionism put its stranglehold on me.
If there is one thing I wish I could tell myself a decade ago it’s that my notion of perfection is flawed.
Take mothering, for instance. My idea of perfection was the following: a natural birth, an immediate bond, a year – at least – of breastfeeding, and a beautifully decorated nursery. You know, the Instagram version of parenting (even though, blessedly, Instagram wasn’t a thing when I became a mother).
Instead, my body was pumped full of drugs that literally made me scratch my eyeballs (gross and horrific, but true), I ended up with an unexpected and unwanted C-section, I was unable to produce milk (despite trying the gamut of herbs and supplements coupled with round the clock pumping), and in lieu of a beautifully appointed nursery, we came home with both children to apartments where we either (Apartment A) put towels along the bottom of the door to prevent cigarette smoke from leaking in or (Apartment B) closed ceiling vents to prevent cigarette smoke from leaking in.
Not exactly what you’d expect anyone to post on their Instagram highlight reel.
Instead of being proud of what my body had accomplished, instead of recognizing that “perfection” is an elusive target and mental mirage, I entered a mental health spiral that, quite honestly, took years to fully recognize and address.
Here’s what I wish.
I wish 2011-Elisabeth wouldn’t feel like a failure when she warmed up a bottle. I wish 2011-Elisabeth wouldn’t hate her body so much and believe that everything would be perfect if she could just have birthed and fed those babies naturally. I wish 2011-Elisabeth would realize that a gorgeous nursery doesn’t make your baby sleep better at night or make life more idyllic. I wish 2011-Elisabeth would sit down, block out all the peripheral anxiety about the many imperfections in life, and just snuggle her perfect, tiny little human.
But I’m slowly learning and re-learning another life-changing truth: there was no way to know then what I know now. I’d love to save 2011-Elisabeth and 2021-Elisabeth and 2035-Elisabeth all sorts of grief, but that’s not the way it works. Life is one long string of lessons; with any luck, we’re open enough to learn and iterate as we go.
Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfection is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.Julia Cameron
I’m not going to lie. Perfection – whatever that happens to look like on any given day – is something I may always battle. And by perfection, I don’t mean aiming to do things well, to the best of my ability. I mean getting stuck, unable to move forward.
I’m trying to avoid these negative cycles by making the simple, everyday joys of life accessible and creating the necessary margin to enjoy them more fully and by letting go of expectations that I have to do it all; I can leave good things undone.
This all sounds lovely and aspirational – but I do still want clean floors and kids that adore me and A+’s from my coworkers and to avoid all conflict in every relationship forever (especially that last one; conflict crushes me). In this case, it’s more about :
- letting go of my expectation that “If I have immaculate floors*, it only stands to reason that I will be fully content, my life will be wonderful in every way and my children will behave like perfect angels.”
- refusing to be disappointed when clean floors don’t magically do any of the aforementioned things (especially regarding angelic children).
- and refusing to pursue clean floors (insert any other activity) to the detriment of my mental or physical health.
*This is a bit of a stretch because my floors, especially around a certain wee lad’s chair, are always in need of sweeping and I’ve largely stopped trying.
Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.Gretchen Rubin
I remember reading about a furniture company known for its craftsmanship. What made their work most intriguing was that somewhere in the design they would purposefully introduce an imperfection. A screw slightly off-center, a virtually imperceptible warp in one of the boards. Their reasoning? Flaws made it obvious that human hands had crafted the item, setting it apart from the “perfect” – and characterless – mass-produced item prepared by robotic arms.
All this to say: I’m human, I’m flawed…and I sometimes still crave the somewhat elusive definition of “perfection” in certain areas of my life. But I crave it a little less than I did yesterday and a lot less than I did back in 2011. And that feels like a step in the right direction.
Case in point: for a post about perfection, I feel like I haven’t gotten the messaging right. On re-reading the draft, my ideas seem scattered and I’m likely trying to fit in too many tangential/incomplete thoughts. But I won’t let “the perfect be the enemy of the done” so I’m posting it as-is and will now head off to enjoy my day. Baby steps, right?