Every morning the drive to work was like a slow squeezing into someone else’s skin. I walked around in that skin all day, sometimes holding myself up on the wall when the dizziness and fatigue were at their worst and no one was looking. People who loved me told me to quit. Unfathomable. To quit would mean letting people down, admitting I was not good enough, shirking my duty.
I’d quit a dancing class when I was about four, but that was the last time. At twelve I joined the basketball team and continued to play even after an injury made me limp around school, wanting to exhibit my undying devotion to the 7th grade squad. Finally, a doctor said I had to have an operation on my hip which mercifully ended my basketball career (I never did master a lay-up). During high school I was on the bowling team. Though it seems like a bad ‘80s movie in the making, the coaches and team took it all very seriously—so seriously, in fact, that severe intestinal distress kept me abreast of any changes to the bathroom wall graffiti. Before one tournament I was confined to my favorite stall—the one with band names written in pink marker--while everyone waited for me. As a junior I mysteriously lost my bowling abilities. The coaches yelled at me and moved me to JV. I stayed on the team for all four years, certain that it was vital for me to continue to wear my wrist guard at all costs. Then in college, like many young adults, I contracted mono. With a temperature of 102 degrees, I tried to keep up with my homework. I was supposed to write a paper about pedagogical philosophy, but, in my fever-haze, wrote long passages about YMCA camp. My professor said she would refuse any other work from me until I was well.
Also, like many young women, I was date raped. Instead of listening to my body and my instincts, I convinced myself it hadn’t happened and continued the relationship for months afterward. More than anything I wanted to be seen as “good,” as accomplished and able. Over and over I paid any price to avoid giving up, the ultimate failure.
Of course, this sense of duty applied to my career as well. I fully believed that I would teach for 30 years, no matter what. After seven years of pushing myself and denying everything but duty, my body started to wave red flags. I ignored them until they flared up into an emergency. I’d see a doctor who would prescribe something or other. When they calmed down enough to function, I went back to business as usual.
Seven years into my teaching career, I was offered a position at my old high school. Though it was strange, it was also a poetic homecoming. I could walk astride with former teachers in the hallways, commiserating about common ground. The pressure to be seen as “good” was immense, and the workload was more intense. I pushed myself to grade stacks of papers more quickly, to be even more creative, to get my Master’s degree. All the while, mysterious physical symptoms that had haunted me for years intensified—fainting, migraines, joint pain, fatigue. But I had seen doctors before. There was no point in pursuing it. Then the department head decided to retire and she encouraged me to apply for the job. I really thought about it, but only in terms of what was “best” for my career, the department, my family. All the pieces seemed to fit, so when they offered me the job, I took it.
Suddenly, the pressure was overwhelming. How could everyone believe I was “good” if I had to make decisions that made them unhappy? How could I be “good” in the eyes of both the upper administrators and the other teachers? I was already stretched to my limit, but so how could I do even better?
One Friday evening I stayed to watch the student theater production. Afterward, I went out to the parking lot and had trouble finding my car. Unsettled, I walked up and down the rows, trying to look calm and purposeful. I finally found it and began to drive. I was disoriented, light-headed, talking to myself to focus. I began to cry and could not stop. When I got home, I managed to exit the car and then collapsed on the lawn. After that night I knew something had to change.
I began to see doctors again who diagnosed me with lupus, then fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. The diagnosis was very important to me at the time, because I needed something concrete to blame for my failure. Now I know the truth: my disease is real and biological, but it was only a catalyst—part of a bigger picture.
All my life I had been fighting, struggling, pulling myself along like a marionette, not because I wanted to be better than others, but because I wanted to be better than myself. Constant striving was my only hope to be “good” enough. Doing meant I was worth something. Then my body forced me to stop doing. My only choice was to be, and that had to be enough.
The shame I felt when I quit was enormous, but there was relief as well. Finally, I was taking off the gloves. The fight was over. It was easy to feel like I had lost, and, indeed, there was much to grieve: I could no longer teach full-time, which is all I had done up to that point. I felt weak, defeated. Being broken open, however, allowed something to grow. I realized that I could do many things, in many places. In fact, I suddenly could see that I did not have to live where I grew up. It was like I could see the whole sky instead of just one patch, and the sky was very big indeed.
I am a quitter. I left a good, secure job and my home. My partner and I moved to San Francisco where I have continued to work in education part-time and to write. Instead of fighting, I flow. That used to mean “failure” to me, but now I believe it can mean a conscious letting-go in order to move forward. This idea crystallized for me one day while watching a show about surviving in the wilderness: a man immersed himself in quicksand and began to struggle. The harder he fought, the faster he sank. “To survive,” he said, “you must be still.” And he was. Slowly, calmly, he moved his arms. I could feel the squeezing, oppressive clamp of the mud. I understood the instinct to fight. But instead of forcing and pushing up and up, fighting gravity and forces of nature, “Reach out,” he said. “Just reach out, and you’ll be free.”