It was one of those springs where it felt especially cold in the morning, but, reasonably warm at night. I remember the drastic temperature change one morning after sleeping in my car. The sharpness of the freezing dawn grabbed my face tight and pierced deep into my skin half numbing me, half stabbing me. I awoke like I did every morning: lips cracked, dry skin, dehydrated, continual headache, completely tired. I had worked two jobs the night before and didn’t want to miss class.
I had worked so much for so long I perfected ignoring the needs of my body and my spirit. As the expectations piled on, I continually seemed to rise in meeting them on the outside, but on in the inside, my body was breaking down. My eyes looked consistently swollen and tired. I was officially a broken wind up toy. My mechanism and gears seemed to be working but my plastic shell was crumbling. What kept me driving was the insane, overwhelming concern I’d be a failure. I feared if I let go of even one small thing, everything else in my life would fall apart. Could not vacuuming for one week be the linchpin of my demise? I didn’t know and it wasn’t worth risking. Everyday blended together and all I was running on was consistency for energy. It was as though having the same routine each day was some sort of safety or comfort in my life. It felt like a thin, warm blanket of peace covering my diseased, tortured existence, and comforting it enough to keep things in place for just one more day. I wasn’t in agony though, I was was deeply trapped in a cycle. The problem was my exhaustion was keeping me from moving ahead.
I used to think if you worked hard that was enough to succeed. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why others were so much farther ahead when I was practically killing myself. I hated myself for not being more, not being better, not being everything. Sometimes I didn’t know if I could keep going or if anything was even worth while. I was completely empty.
Softly, I would tell myself each day that I was building a better life. It’s easy to be spiritless when you’re exhausted. You forget why you’re going through it all in the first place, how to plan, or even think. What would blow hope into my deflated body, was achieving something better, being self made, and beating the odds. Instead of Vision Boards I would write small achievements to remind myself the luxuries I had currently earned, mainly because I couldn’t afford ink or a printer. I put them, generally on Post-Its, everywhere. Here were some of my achievements: Having health insurance, being able to buy brand named items, affording my own place safe from abuse, comfortably affording my bills, having my own washer and dryer, not having to add water to my shampoo or milk, glasses, air conditioning, owning more than three bras. As I earned more I was able to add more to my bucket like: being able to live in a low crime area, being able to pay off debt, college, getting my hair and nails professionally done, being able to buy luxury items, grocery delivery service, having a 401k, having a job with tuition reimbursement, wireless headphones, being able to afford replacing items like a computer, being able to buy my friends and family things, electric blankets, having a fireplace, being able to work from home, having a savings account with actual savings in it, etc. When times were tough I could go back and appreciate my efforts more. It also helped me plan for the future. It’s easy to live in relative poverty but I didn’t want to live up to a social media exception, rather, I wanted to live up to my own.
That morning I went to class, I remember not having enough change for peanut butter crackers, then realizing I didn’t have enough change for anything that vending machine had to offer. As my breakfast substitute, I filled an old empty water-bottle I had found in my car to tide me over until I went home. Once my body had began to thaw, the numbness was replaced with an aching back and right shoulder. I looked down and saw the bottom of my shoe was coming apart. Hungry and tired, I became immediately frustrated knowing I couldn’t afford replacing them. I felt like such a failure. Here I was, a grown woman, who couldn’t afford vending machine foods or tennis shoes sitting in a classroom of people at least five years younger than me. A wave of shame washed over me replacing the body aches and hunger pangs. I honed in on my professor to distract myself from my own distain. Sadly, we were learning Stereochemistry and drawing Enantiomers while learning the R,S system. Needless to say, I was not very excited about it.
I dug into my $10 EastPort backpack to find my notebook. When I opened to a random page I noticed that I had written a journal entry. It read, “...today I’m so excited I was able to finally start a savings account again and pay towards my medical debt. Last month I got my own place without needing a roommate. Things are slowly starting to look up. I also think my chemo brain is finally going away. I’m able to retain so much more information than before. All those memory building exercises seem to finally be paying off! Today I am hopeful for the future.” I sat there, unnoticed, silently crying into my sleeve as the class was deep into counting chiral carbons. Relieved and grateful, I placed my hand on top of what I wrote, as though I was hugging it or thanking it for reminding me something I deeply needed to see at that moment. I was proud I was able to achieve such milestones completely on my own, starting with nothing. I looked around and realized I was also earning my degree, which was a dream I had since childhood. To most people those things are incredibly unimpressive, but to me, it meant I was making my life worth living.
That small amount of progress gave me tolerance to continue working both jobs for just a few more years as I put myself through college. It also motivated me enough to keep my grades up, care for my health, and want to keep living. I realize that progress was small, but it was mine. As long as I kept building on that progress, I could put up with almost anything. I just needed to keep reminding myself where I started from. Today, while looking through some paperwork I found a baggie with those Post-Its in it. I’m amazed at what I put myself through just to be able to own a car, afford to buy in bulk, own new electronics, survive on just one job, or even being able to get to a place where I could listen to my body’s needs.
As I lay here in bed typing, surrounded by my unexceptional achievement sticky-notes, I am comforted. This large ZipLock baggie is filled with both coping skills and gumption. Today I am in a place where I’m more apt to take advantage of my easier life than I am to live in gratitude so I think I’ll keep these notes within reach for the next time I feel trapped in a cycle or to prepare me for another bitter cold Spring.