Tonight I walked the kids to my mom’s to have dinner. She was in a muddle of what her current state often is: stress / drinking to relax or relieve stress / over-giving / enjoying herself. The part that was enjoying herself was the part that invited us for dinner, made a lovely stew, and had rented some family movies. The part that was over-giving was the part that tried to make the stew “perfect” for us then (and this was the part that was stressed and used drink to manage it so inhibitions were dropped but not the underlying stress) used an angry tone on my children for preferring their cornbread and eating it first. My dad took some special medicine and seemed to be feeling better than he had over the last few days (something tipped this week and he has now become someone “dying”, no longer someone coping with illness. I’d like to feel differently on that one if I could) but this meant he retreated for our viewing of Harry Potter and I didn’t get to see him much. It was a nice dinner and I really did enormously appreciate the night out and the homecooked meal. But I can’t get away from the the strain and bad feelings that my life’s dinnerplate seems to hold when I look down at what I’m eating.
I’m getting that really paranoid, really perfectionist sense of angst. If anything goes wrong I am a wreck (internal, so as not to inconvenience anyone). Sometimes I get a vision of who I might be when age and senility set in. And it feels small, like tiny wheels turning in my head, mucked up and in semi-darkness and doubt, unsure of myself unless someone tells me they love me or not just that they love me, but they promise not to be mean to me. Today I missed two appointments I had. One I was able to recover OK; the other I just completely missed. This is rare for me. And when I screw up like that on a commitment I make to others, or something I told myself I’d do, or whatever, I really just hate myself and it eats away at me for an indeterminate amount of time.
I don’t think but two or three people close to me realize what a perfectionist I am. I laugh at the term “perfectionist” a bit because no one who knows me would think my life looked perfect. Yet that drive, that insatiable unsettledness, has a strong a grip on every aspect of my waking hours. I hold myself to ridiculous standards and then feel bad, like pit-of-the-stomach bad, when I inevitably screw up. I have to have a clean house or if I don’t, a plan to get it clean. I can’t relax until housework is taken care of; then I’d better relax correctly. I hate myself if I have something to drink, or if my husband and I aren’t getting along for the evening, or if somehow during the day I was amiss in my parenting. I have to take care of my kids properly which means clothing and grooming and brushing and flossing and if they miss a night of this I have to demand my husband help but if he doesn’t do it I feel like a failure that we don’t provide this to them. I have to meet my commitments on the three volunteer leadership positions I’m in. If I don’t meet them I feel I can’t get over it or make amends to those I might have (usually only minorly) inconvenienced. No, for me if I mess up, it means people hate me and they have a right to hate me. It takes me a lot of internal thought and sometimes discussion with a friend (Ralph, my mom, or Cyn mostly) to “talk me down” from the ledge of I-Suck.
For a half year I wouldn’t allow myself to buy the family clothes but had to scrump, sew or thrift them. This was a fun and interesting project, sure – but it also became a burden at some point. I hold myself to the standard of preparing nutritious meals without taking culinary shortcuts. I feel bad if I buy anything “extravagant” or even buy anything without having it on a list first – or else I eschew cooking altogether and go out to eat (which, for some reason, feels like a tremendous ease on my daily cooking burdens). I choose to, for God’s sake, plan, write, edit, layout, and design for a zine which I then have to publish on our shoestring budget. I have to balance my marriage such that I support my husband and manage my own needs without asking for his emotional help when I’m fragile – which I am all the time these days, whether it’s apparent to others or not.
Some reading here may think these confessions mean I’m a miserable person all the time. That is precisely the problem; I’m not miserable, I love doing so many of these things. Every effort of mine is born of love and energy. I thrive on creativity, on learning now to do things well, on pushing myself just a little bit because it seems like I can. I do sometimes congratulate myself on the fact that I can “coast” as a housemom on some days and do well at providing for my loved ones. I love every single thing I write, or sew, or every meal I cook or the way my counter looks when I wipe it down. It is precisely the dual love-hate of the work vs. the drive to do the work right, every time, that makes for tricky terrain.
Perfectionism, as far as I can tell, has no easy cure. It isn’t a matter of, “Why don’t you do less?”* That question is like asking, “Why don’t you stop having the Kelly-brain?” or, “Have you thought about leaving your tits at home before you go out in the day?” It’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t follow. My struggle with perfectionism could probably only be helped by – no offense to any reader who thought I was more hip in some way – prayer and discourse with God. My struggle with perfectionism was manageable in PT. It has become at least trebly difficult since moving here. I have my ideas of why this would be; for now it’s enough to recognize it’s happening.
One thing, the walk with the kids over to my parents’ was nice. I’d prepared us for the cold – coats, hats, gloves and good shoes – but the rain started falling intensely and there was nothing to save us from the wet of eight blocks. How to explain a Pacific Northwest winter rain? It is not violent at all but rather like a cold spell that covers us, the air filling with rain that is safe, nourishing, life-giving. You expect rain so you don’t begrudge it except a few weak moments, here and there, in the five solidly soaking months we get per year. You get home and strip off your clothes and put some in the dryer and towel your hair (we don’t generally use umbrellas here) and fix coffee and look outside at our beautiful weather. Tonight I watch my children on the walk. Sophie walks self-protectively. She puts her hat on firmly and zips her coat and steps carefully but purposefully. Nels just barges out into the elements, sure that he will be fine. I start to know he’s cold and wet when his hand creeps into mine and he falls silent. The children act as if they were born for this weather.
* If any well-meaning friend writes or says, “You should relax your housekeeping standards,” or “Why don’t you give up such-and-such?” I will deliver a cock-punch via Airmail.