I generally find that when I feel defensiveness welling up inside me in response to something someone has written or said – defensiveness in particular – it says way more about me and where I am at that moment than anything the writer/speaker actually intended. I’m sure that is true of an article I just read in the Atlantic entitled, “What My Son’s Disabilities Have Taught Me About ‘Having It All.’” I know this article is part of a larger discussion at the Atlantic, which I have not read at all, about women “having it all,” or trying to and failing, or whatever. I haven’t participated in that whole conversation because, really, I so gave up on “having it all” (whatever that means) a long time ago. I only read this article because I saw it on Facebook.
But it made me feel awful. And I feel certain that the writer did not intend to make me feel awful. But somehow this article was like a perfect storm – if someone wanted to push every one of my buttons right at this moment, this would pretty much be the way to do it.
Of course, this writer is totally entitled to pat herself on the back for facing her considerable challenges with such grace and equanimity. I’m full of admiration, for real. That I have faced my own challenges with far less calm is about me, not her.
But still, these last lines sort of pushed me over the edge:
“For all the people who are puzzled by my seeming happiness, I’ll be glad to let them know my ‘secret.’ I’m not in denial, I’m not on antidepressants, and I don’t live in a fantasy world. I have a wonderful husband and I am pursuing a career I’ve dreamed of since I was nine years old. I have a beautiful son, friends, and a working stove. I am not paraplegic. I have parents who, through luck and fate, had me here in the United States, and not in North Korea. I live in a time where my awful vision can be corrected with glasses. I am a college graduate. I am never hungry unless I choose to be.
Do I have enough? Resoundingly: yes. And I ask you to take a moment: I suspect you might, too.”
Here’s the thing: I do have enough, absolutely I do. And I know it; I revel in it. My whole life philosophy is about living out of a place of abundance, not scarcity. Everyone who knows me well knows that. I live in a small row house that was supposed to be our “starter home,” in a just-barely middle-class neighborhood which we fully intended to leave — until we realized that we love it here, we love our community, and this little house is enough. In this house we live without debt – without any debt at all – because we’ve made really good choices and because we have very generous families, and our lifestyle of relative simplicity means we can live abundantly: we have our summers off, I can be home with our kids and write, we can garden and travel. It is a good life; certainly it is enough. I too am very happy (and I’m sure if I were a paraplegic I would be no less capable of being happy….ahem….).
And yet: I have struggled so much. With my own anxiety. With the challenges of raising a child – a beautiful, brilliant, perfect child – who has ADHD and learning disabilities. With finding a vocation – not a “have it all” sort of career (I left that behind at the law firm), but just one that fulfills me in some basic ways and still accommodates all those challenges. It has not been easy. I have not always been full of grace about it (ask my kids!).
But the problem has not been that I “want it all.” The problem has been that my somewhat fragile mental health has made all those things – a career, a challenging child, even little stuff like making phone calls and getting basic day-to-day stuff done – just plain hard.
And while I am most certainly not in denial, and I don’t live in a fantasy world, I AM on an SSRI for anxiety, and I am so not ashamed of that. I tell anyone and everyone, precisely because I wish there were not so much stigma around mental illness and its pharmaceutical treatments. Lexapro has changed my life for the better, no question.
But in the past few weeks I have found myself slipping a little. I am about to take a huge step in that whole vocation/career quest and am applying to low-residency MFA programs in creative writing, a process that has triggered the most debilitating self-doubt I have experienced since I decided to take myself seriously as a writer almost three years ago. I have had a recurrence of anxiety, which I experience as a sort of time warp where I can’t decide what to do next and what’s the point anyway because everything will take too much time and effort and I’m just so tired so I should probably just check Facebook again.
I will be fine, I know I will. For precisely all the reasons this writer mentioned: I have a beautiful family, terrific friends, a supportive community, financial resources — even, though it’s hard to see it right now, some talent as a writer. Certainly tons of passion for this crazy writer’s life.
And I’ve heard from lots of folks I respect (on Facebook) who have said this article was helpful and made them feel supported — and I don’t doubt it. AS I said, I know my response is all about me, not this writer.
But still: ouch!