You know all those self-help memes and articles and books that tell you that you can’t fix your life by changing the external circumstances of it? The ones that insist you won’t be happier if you have a different job or house or partner or friends, if you live in a different city or state or country? Because whatever ails you is something inside of you, and wherever you go, you’ll take it with you? Well…
Not entirely, I know, but I spent so many painful years believing that those messages were entirely true, trying desperately to find just the right way to exist within my marriage and job and community. I strove to find and embrace the good things about where and with whom I lived and worked, and to feel gratitude for all of my blessings (because I had lots of them). I went to 12-step programs and learned about the impacts addictions have had on my family. I did therapy. I joined gyms, cut out gluten, learned how to set boundaries, stopped being co-dependent, etc. ad nauseam. When my children were in kindergarten and I was teaching full-time, I got up at 4:00 in the morning to write because I believed the people who told me that saying I didn’t have time to write was just an excuse.
I pulled so hard on my bootstraps I’m surprised I didn’t break them. (Maybe I did?)
A lot of those things helped, and I’m glad I did them, but none of them solved my essential problem. I just wanted to be OK, and no matter what I did, I wasn’t. Not really. I had lots of wonderful moments (and all those blessings I was truly grateful for), but it was a constant struggle to be OK in any consistent or general way. Anxiety, depression, and a growing list of chronic medical conditions were ever-present obstacles that I couldn’t seem to think or work or do my way around.
And then, over the past half-dozen years, I learned about the structural and systemic barriers that many of us live within and the real limits they put on well-being. I learned about gaslighting. I learned about neurodiversity and ableism and chronic illness and myriad ways in which the source of the difficulties I seemed to have was, perhaps, not all within me.
But I didn’t believe that those things explained my inability to be OK. Not really. Sure, I am a female living in a misogynistic patriarchy, and that’s not nothing. But I am also white, cis-het, raised Christian, and a middle-class, older Gen-Xer, which means I was the beneficiary of mid-20th century social supports that allowed me to dream of and then have a kind of life it will be much more difficult (perhaps impossible) for many Gen Z folks to have. My working-class parents were able to pay for my college tuition at a good public university without taking out loans, I was able to buy a home in my early 20’s through a federal loan program, and I got into a public pension program before cuts in the 90s seriously eroded its benefits, grandfathering me in to the promise of retirement. I was aware that I had the kind of good fortune that increasing numbers of Americans do not–so why couldn’t I just be OK, dammit?
Seriously: Why was OK an elusive dream I couldn’t realize? It had to be me. Because if I couldn’t be OK, how could anyone?
Well, as has often been the case in my life, I was wrong.
Because I am finally OK. I am more than OK: I am happy. And it feels weird to be happy, but damn if that’s not what I’ve been realizing this week that I am. (Happy feels weird, if you’re not used to it.) And, for the first time, I understand and believe and fucking know that I WASN’T WHAT NEEDED FIXING. (Yes, I’m shouting. I feel a little shouty these days.)
Happiness is not the absence of struggle. I still have my challenges and frustrations and griefs. I still grapple with health issues. I worry about our kids and what the dumpster-fires raging in our world are doing and are going to do to them. I live in a part of my city where many people are struggling to survive, and I feel angry every single day at the disparity between the parts of town that are like my neighborhood and those in which there are no tent collectives, no mothers and kids standing in traffic with cardboard signs asking for money, and no people who are walking illustrations of the havoc poverty and untreated mental illness wreaks on humans. I am all-the-time looking around and wondering why/how so many people don’t seem to really see what’s happening and are carrying on as if we’re still living in the world of 2010. But still, I’m OK now, and often more than OK.
I’m now in a healthy marriage with few stressors on it, and my survival needs (food, safe shelter, reasonable health care, drinkable water) are met, and all those problems I could never seem to solve–insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc.–are low-level on my worst days. I do meaningful work (mostly non-paid) every day, and I have time to rest, tend to important relationships, and be creative. I have the resources I need to care for myself and those in my communities (big and small). When I had to work for a paycheck to survive, I didn’t have enough of anything above the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now I do, and I haven’t begun to figure out the words to tell you how OK I’ve become.
In the beginning stages of finally admitting that I wasn’t OK, I was in a sick marriage and a deeply under-resourced job (made more difficult by my invisible disabilities) that made it impossible for me to meet many of my needs. I was struggling to work full-time (in a job that demanded more than full-time work), raise children well, and take care of myself. Oh, and write, too, because it wasn’t enough just to be a good teacher. I had to fulfill some higher destiny, as well, the thing I was created to do.
What I know now, having escaped the toxic relationship and untenable career is that I didn’t need to work harder, change my attitude, have more self-discipline, or stay where I was and count my blessings. What I needed was to get out.
I finally fully have, and I wish more than anything I could share some way for everyone else to get away from whatever is making them not-OK, but the truth I’m seeing now is that there isn’t always a way. I made the moves I was able to make (leaving that marriage, changing to a different job within my industry), and I searched constantly for better alternatives. But I couldn’t leave everything that was damaging AND take care of my people the way I wanted and needed to care for them. I am not looking back and thinking that I should have made different choices. (I don’t regret them, given my givens.) I am looking back and wishing only that our culture had been more honest about the scarcity of good choices for many of us to make.
Think of what I might have done to actually improve my life if I hadn’t wasted energy on blaming myself, on attempting to fix what I didn’t have the ability to fix, or on “solutions” that were never going to address the source of the problem.
I wish I could change the world so that everyone could have what I now do. I wish there was some formula I could share for how to get it in the world as it is. For myself, it has required some compromise, some luck, some risk, and a lot of years of living in poor health and doing what I had to do to get here. (The promise of that pension kept me in the world of K-12 education, and without it the life I have now would not be possible.) I can’t tell you how to do it, and I want to acknowledge that not everyone can do it, no matter how hard they work, but I’m writing this because if nothing else, I can give an assurance that I wish others had given me. If you’ve worked to heal from and deal with your childhood traumas and have a clear sense of your strengths and challenges and are working hard within the systems you have to live within and are still struggling to be OK, I want you to hear (especially if you’re of my generation and grew up drinking a lot of Kool-Aid) that it’s not just you, no matter the privileges you have. Keep doing what you can for yourself, for sure, but be as clear-eyed as you can about what’s yours to own/do and what is not.
Think of what a different world we might live in if our goal was that everyone in it could be OK.
(Giving credit where it’s due: These ideas are not new, even to me. Gen Z is not the first to have them (see, for one small example, this), but the younguns are all over these lines of thinking, and I’m grateful for the ways in which they have helped me see my life experience through different lenses. Even though I’ve encountered these ideas in the past, I’m knowing their truth in new ways, now that I am able to live in a different way. I’m sharing in case and with hope that my understanding might help others still struggling to be OK.)