I sit in my brown swivel chair in the kitchen, with a headache, day 3 in a row after a couple of busy, people-intensive days earlier in the week. I feel listless and blank as I finally give in to the overwhelming desire to take a serious break.
What I also feel is guilt and shame that I'm not being productive. An invisible imp riding on my shoulder mutters in my ear, admonishing me for being a slacker. My husband, Jack, is in his office working, filling a book order. My brother-in-law is outside digging post holes for a new fence across our front yard. My pal Sally is prepping for her evening class at the community college where I too used to teach. By this time in the morning, my friend Alice is working at her computer, doing medical transcription. Lynn is already downtown pouring over new bike-route plans in her city office. Doug is either cleaning roofs and gutters or pecking away on the rough draft of his next geology book.
I can't compete, much as I want to. Yet I can't seem to let it go and realize it's a mugs game, this perpetual hamster wheel of measuring myself against everyone else. I've already chosen the winners and, coming up short, designated myself the looser.
Neither my family nor my friends pressure me to work or play, but I do. I often feel I'm not doing my share, not making a big enough contribution. The list goes on to include not only work but play. I'm not traveling as much as Maria or doing as much art as Janey. I'm not busy enough, and in our culture being busy is a sign of status and worth. Pain rendering me unable to be busy, I am humiliated by my regrettable weakness.
Like many who are ill or afflicted, I am plagued by the sense that my headaches are somehow my fault. I am dogged by the notion that my constant pain, fatigue and anxiety are my own doing, my karma, that there is something, at the core, fundamentally wrong with me - and it's not just migraines. The difficulty is that I have no idea what transgression I have committed to deserve this punishment.
Now, I'm aware that this is magical thinking gone badly awry. When this theme begins to play its discordant tune, I call on four friends of mine for assistance: Karen, Jill, Robin and Carol. All fantastic women, they are sadly deceased, three from cancer, one from suicide. They did nothing wrong, possessed no fatal moral or ethical flaws. In fact, they took good care of their families and their community, and all were involved in important work. It's not fair, nor was it deserved, but they all suffered and died fairly young. When I begin to drag myself down, I remember my friends and send out a little plea for support. They always answer.
I'm tired. Exhausted really. Some days, some weeks I am able to keep going in spite of daily pain, but then I hit a wall. I can no longer deny my body the rest it is crying for, and I surrender.
Jack leaves, and the house turns quiet. The clock above the kitchen window ticks softly and there's the faint sound of Kathy's radio downstairs. I hear the refrigerator kick in as I sit before a fire in the wood stove. It's November. We're well into the fall season, and the days and nights have turned chilly. Suddenly I'm relieved. It's just me, and for the moment, unobserved, I can do and be any way I want to. A sense of calm and relief washes over me.
I began to have greater insight into my struggle with guilt and shame on a solo trip to Zihuatanejo, Mexico three or four years ago.
The night I arrive, I awake from sleep at 3:00 am to rain thundering on roof tiles and cascading down onto my balcony. Rainy season. The next morning clouds pile up on the horizon out at sea, and it rains intermittently throughout the day. It is hot and muggy, so I am inclined to spend more time than usual in my air conditioned room with a view. With no one around to observe me, I fall into a soothing routine. Tea and breakfast on the balcony of my room. A second cup of tea as I watch the fishing fleet navigate out of the bay, gather around the rocks at the mouth and then steer their pangas out into the open ocean. I watch, mesmerized, as the spring swell moves in endless waves across the bay, crashing on the beach below my hotel. My feeling is relief, peace, gratitude and total acceptance of the slow rhythm of my day.
It is a revelation. Removed from my home, friends, family and routine, I am able to leave guilt and shame behind. Untethered from my usual ties and responsibilities, I need only consult myself. Headaches and all, I become a free woman.