I like being in control.
On Saturday mornings, I sometimes invite friends over for breakfast. I spend my Friday nights madly cleaning my apartment, making sure every bit of clutter is cleared away, all my dishes are washed, and my bathroom is sparkling. I hide my dirty clothes, fold my towels just so and Lysol the crap out of my kitchen. I scrub the floors on my hands and knees. I want it to be perfect for my friends because I love them.
On Saturday morning, I wake up a few hours before my friends are set to arrive and finish getting ready. They bring piles of ingredients to cook breakfast, and descend on my kitchen like a plague of locusts (really pretty and lovely locusts, but still. Locusts.). They pull out pots and pans and start cooking; batter, eggs, maple syrup, and fruit cover what seems like every inch of my spotless kitchen.
I turn into a tiny mouse in the corner, too afraid to move lest I offend anyone, breathing deeply, telling myself that I will be just fine. This is good. These are beautiful friends. I can clean the kitchen later.
“You know this is really hard for me sometimes, right?” They smile and nod.
For the last five years, my life has been in limbo. It feels as though nothing has gone according to plan. I went to university, but I didn’t make those lifelong best friends people talk about making in their good ol’ college days. I didn’t find the man of my dreams and get married the summer after we graduated, the way I assumed I would. We didn’t buy a crappy little house and renovate it. We didn’t start having kids. I didn’t land a full-time teaching job with benefits.
I’ve had a series of short-term teaching positions with no real job security, despite having awesome connections and references. I’ve had a few long-term relationships, none of which ended in the way I planned for them to end.
I’ve spent the last five years “adulting,” and none of the things I dreamed about as a college student — the house, the husband, the kids, the job — have come true. My life is anything but linear. In fact, if you drew out the events of my life, it would look like a scribbled mess.
I hate messes, though! I prefer perfection. Perfection is good. Plans are great. Being in control is fabulous.
One afternoon in the winter of 2013, I cracked. I was sitting in the staff room at my school, surrounded by laughing teachers eating lunch and quoting stand-up comedians. I normally would have been in the thick of the conversation, but that day I was staring at the wall.
“Amanda, are you OK?” Someone noticed me. I shook my head slowly as tears ran down my face. I got up from the table without saying anything and walked down the hall to my quiet classroom. I called my mom on the phone, just to hear a comforting voice. I hung up when one of my bosses came in and sat in the tiny kindergarten-size chair in front of me. His knees didn’t fit under the table.
“You know we love you, right?”
I nodded and started crying.
“You’re going to pack up your stuff and head home now, and you’re going to take tomorrow off, too.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m just glad you’re here this year so we can help you through this.”
A few months earlier, I started having some bizarre symptoms. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with a kidney infection. After two weeks of medication, the infection came back, worse than before. This continued to be my pattern for months.
I was on one round of antibiotics after another, for the better part of the year. I couldn’t eat much because my stomach hurt from the sulfur in the medication. I lost a bunch of weight. I was dizzy and nauseated constantly. My muscles and joints ached. I went to the hospital a few times when it got especially bad, but no one could do anything besides give me more antibiotics.
I still went to work when this was all happening. In the middle of class when I started to feel especially bad, I’d glance over at my teaching partner and motion to the door. Once I got the nod from her, I’d quickly walk down the hall to the bathroom, where I’d promptly sit on the floor and faint.
The feeling of fainting got so familiar that I could say, “I’m going to faint now” seconds before I fainted. My timing was so precise, it was almost funny. After I composed myself, I would look for my friend and tell her I needed to leave, she’d tell my boss, and I’d go home.
One evening in November, I was the emcee at a big multicultural event at our school. The gym was full of parents and relatives. Partway through the program, I introduced the German dance group, then quickly ran out of the gym, fainted in the bathroom, threw up, and returned to the gym sweaty and feverish to introduce the Scottish dancers.
If ever the term “hot mess” was applicable, it was then. I had written out my notes word for word (something this improv junkie rarely does), so I handed my clipboard of notes to my boss.
“I just threw up. All you need to do is read this. I’m going to be away tomorrow. Bye.”
From September to June of that year, 13 people connected to me passed away. I lost a grandfather figure, and a few close friends lost a parent. A co-worker lost his toddler, our school community lost a former student, one of the kids in my class lost his mom to suicide, another student of mine lost her newborn cousin.
What I called “secondhand grief” was overwhelming and never ceasing. During that period of time, my dad had a serious eye condition that caused some temporary blindness, and he had three separate cancer scares. My brothers had some health issues and were in and out of the hospital as well.
Everyone surrounding me was grieving or in some kind of pain, physical or otherwise. I spent my days managing the often-violent outbursts of the hurting kids in my class and soothing tiny people who just needed to have a good cry. I can’t even begin to describe how heartbreaking it is to hold a sweet little boy who is sobbing and asking to see his dead mama. I wouldn’t wish that kind of experience on anyone.
My family needed me, my kids needed me, so despite how I was feeling physically, I held myself together. I have this. I’m in control. Nothing can stop me, especially not a little health issue.
The following September, the health issues worsened. I was in constant pain. I was exceptionally dizzy and weak. I shook uncontrollably. I drove to work amid anxiety attacks because I was fearful someone would notice my poor performance if I took too many sick days. I went to work in a kindergarten classroom with migraines. I ended a relationship. I was dreadfully lonely in this mess.
I don’t think I ever hit my breaking point. I was already well beyond it, just barely existing from day to day. Sometimes in frustration I would say, “I want to quit!” but I knew that wasn’t really an option. I had to keep going.
I intended on finishing my school year, but I got so sick that the next time I said, “I want to quit,” my friends and family encouraged me to do so. No job is worth sacrificing your emotional and physical health. It was time. I went to my boss who was very understanding and she helped me sort out my sick leave. I was done with work the next day.
Everything I was holding together for so long fell apart. I had to move in to my parents’ basement. I had to quit driving. I suddenly became a one activity-per-day person. I turned down stand-up gigs and theater opportunities, and I didn’t write very much. I couldn’t go out with friends, but instead spent many nights exhausted and alone in front of the TV. I gave up. I waved the white flag. I couldn’t do it. I was so far from perfection that it was far better to quit than to keep going. I totally and completely failed miserably. My plans and my life crumbled around me.
The last three months have been spent waiting. I’ve been waiting on doctor referrals, test results, and specialist appointments. I’ve spent a good chunk of my days in some medical waiting room or another. I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out what’s wrong with me. I’ve been lying on exam tables and in treatment rooms, in MRI tubes, under X-ray machines and ultrasound wands. I spent a few sleepless nights in the emergency room with my pounding head buried in a family member’s shoulder, begging for some sort of relief. First we thought I had thyroid issues or rheumatoid arthritis. For a while we thought I was hypoglycemic. Then we thought my skull and spine were compressing my brain and I might have to have serious spinal surgery and be in a halo for months afterward. Then we thought it was severe vertigo, or a hormonal deficiency in my pituitary gland. I didn’t get much sleep and my brain rarely stopped fretting. It’s been nothing short of a medical roller coaster.
I think God is the best and most patient teacher. This phase of my life has confirmed that over and over. I desperately crave control, so he did the one thing I feared the most: He took away any ability I possibly had to control my life. He totally stripped me of the illusion of control, and then threw me into circumstances where the only thing I could do was take a deep breath and do a lot of things I wasn’t comfortable doing.
I was a burden to my family and friends. I wince as I write that, but it’s the truth. I had no other choice than to rely on people other than myself. My parents had a child to take care of again. My mother brought me juice in bed when I was too weak to get up in the morning. She drove me to appointments and sat with me in the waiting rooms. My friends picked me up and drove me places. They took over my Sunday school teaching responsibilities for the rest of the year. They sent me cards and messages and prayed for me. There was nothing I could possibly offer in this situation. I had to just let them help me. I had to depend on everyone around me. It was humbling and I’m forever grateful for my people.
Sometime in the midst of this mess, a friend emailed and said a young man who works with her husband read one of my articles and was interested in meeting me. I said thanks, but no thanks. Dating wasn’t part of the plan, especially in this terribly bad season of life. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Apparently saying “My life is messed up and I’m not feeling well” to some guys isn’t a red light, but merely a yellow “proceed with caution” light. I was pursued (and wooed) by a kind, sweet, energetic, and terribly patient man. Our first date felt like a sweet breeze on a humid day, like a little island of safety in the midst of a raging storm. He took me to get blood work done on our second date, and by our fifth or sixth, he was holding my hand in the emergency room at 3 a.m. in the middle of a debilitating migraine. He drove me to the doctor and to the pharmacy and cooked me food when I was too tired to function. Our relationship started in the middle of chaos and uncertainty and our dates were hilariously far from romantic, but it was the very thing I needed at exactly the right time. I never planned on this bit of sunshine.
Hi, my name is Amanda and I struggle with control.
I didn’t know this six months ago, but there are recovery groups for anxious control addicts like myself. It’s true. Every Friday night I sit in a circle in a room at my church and confess how broken and messed up I am. I talk about the ways I failed during the week. I talk about how I don’t measure up to my own unattainable standards. I talk about how I don’t feel like I’m in control of anything, and how that makes me panic. I ugly cry. A lot. I love Jesus with all my heart, yet I’m a hypocrite. I can fully and completely admit to that. I desire perfection and control and I want to do everything right, yet I am the least put-together person I know. I’m broken.
My musician friend Jon Bryant sings a version of one of my favorite old hymns, “Be Still.” The lyrics are simple and repetitive:
Be still and know that I am God,
Be still and know that I am God,
Be still and know that I am God.
I am the Lord that healeth thee,
I am the Lord that healeth thee,
I am the Lord that healeth thee.
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust,
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust,
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.
I listen to or sing this song whenever my brain needs a reminder to stop. Stop trying, stop scheming, stop worrying, just stop. Stop and be still. My God is a God who heals. I can trust in that. Be still. Be healed. Trust.
With the help of my people, the beautiful, brave women in my support group, and the words of my sweet Jesus, I have worked hard (and am still working) to combat the lies I’ve been telling myself for a long time. The world will not end if my kitchen is a disaster. I am not a failure if I had to take time off of work to recover. My value does not come from the things I do, but rather in the kind of person I am becoming.
I had to give up on the illusion of control. I had to admit that I couldn’t plan out each and every step of my life. Even if I have my stuff together, and make all the right choices and work my hardest, sometimes things won’t work out the way I had originally planned, and that’s just fine. I am just fine. I had to accept that my scribbly mess of a life wasn’t ever, and never will be, a straight and tidy timeline.
When I begin to release my white-knuckled grip on things I can’t control, I feel lighter. My anxiety is virtually nonexistent. My health issues have improved significantly. My friends and family have seen me come to life again. I must stress that this hasn’t been an easy fix. I didn’t pray once and was miraculously healed. I didn’t take a magic pill. Recovery of any kind is really hard. It takes intentional work to retrain your brain and to fight to speak truth to yourself. It takes hard work to feel physically well, too. Sometimes progress is painfully slow.
My past year is proof that I can’t do it all on my own. I had to lean heavily on people around me who show me what patience and love and sacrifice look like. I had to give up my stubborn desires to be self-sufficient and in control and to just let people love me the way they want to love me. It’s through them I have learned how much God loves me and cares for me (hint: it’s a whole lot). I’m beginning to recognize how deeply these icky control issues run. I’m so very thankful I have a relationship with Jesus, someone who gently points out my stubbornness, and shows me how to be more like him — more loving, compassionate and patient — and less controlling.
I like tidiness and order and things that make sense, but I am learning to live fully when things are messy and chaotic and uncertain. My name is Amanda and I struggle with control, but I’m working on it.