When I was a kid, there was a rule in my house: when I came home from school, before I could play or call my friends on the phone to chat, I needed to get my homework done first.
A total rule-follower, this never bothered me. In fact, over time, I grew to quite like it. I’m sure this had something to do with my obsession with routines and knowing what to expect — which was then only a budding infatuation, and is now a full-blown personality trait (flaw?!) that I’ve been working for years to tame. I digress.
In the years that followed, the notion of “work first, play later” became my mantra… even when the work never seemed to be finished. I had a hard time taking breaks — especially if I was on a roll, or really into a paper I was writing — because I was terrified I’d lose my train of thought, and never get it back.
This fear was — and is — deep, and very, very real.
I remember telling my parents during my senior year of high school that some people I knew were planning to take a gap year between high school and college. A few friends wanted to work to earn money and gain real world experience before heading off to higher learning. Others wanted to travel abroad — to experience the world before committing to four more years of school.
I recall my mom and dad’s response to this vividly: “I would never allow you to do that,” they said. “Once you get off the train, it’s so much harder to get back on. You’ve gotta stay on the train.”
My parents valued a good education, and so did I. College was always something I wanted for myself — it was never an “if I go to college someday,” but rather a “when I go to college…”. I heard the urgency and alarm in their voices as they told me never to get off the train, and I nodded in agreement, tucking away this nugget so deeply in my psyche, it became ingrained in my own mindset… as though I’d created it, or thought it up myself.
Throughout the years, “never got off the train,” has been a very real and very powerful driving force in all my decisions and actions. For years, I viewed this as a good thing — it pushed me to keep going, work harder, get sh*t done, stay organized, accountable and responsible. It helped me succeed, and keep striving towards the next ladder on the rung — to keep reaching, accomplishing, and doing. (In my mind doing = living; not doing = death).
But, as I’ve recently come to learn, this mentality is a also is a driving force in my anxiety. For some, the opposite of “keep going” is “quit” — well quitting was never even an option in my mind, but “taking a break” was. But to me, “taking a break” meant “getting off the train,” and I simply couldn’t afford to do that.
Breaks were out of the question, and so was spontaneity, and essentially doing anything that wasn’t “on the list”. (You know the one — the big list of to-do’s that miraculously grows in size by the day, and never gets completely accomplished… like a dog endlessly chasing its own tail… yep, that’s me, with my list… ).
I’ve reflected often about my postpartum experiences, both after the birth of my oldest, and then after the birth of my twins. I’ve recently come to understand how dramatically this need for “doing”, “accomplishing”, “being perfect at”, and “never getting off the train” contributed (among several other factors, of course) to my two-time postpartum anxiety and depression.
Never getting off the train meant sticking to a scheduled routine (read: inflexibility) no matter how hard my babies protested. We were going to follow the “eat, play, sleep routine”, and that was that. If I let them just sleep all day, or eat whenever the heck they wanted, surely complete chaos would ensue (OMG – my nightmare… ). This was the train, and we were on it. There was no getting off — not even for a special occasion — because doing so would make it so much tougher to get back on track again.
But tougher for who? My babies, or me?
As more time went on, and through therapy and a whole hell of a lot of introspection, I began to see that staunchly staying on my train wasn’t really benefiting me (or my family) much anymore; I was inflexible, rigid, terrified of surprises and the unknown, and unable to stop planning for every second and simply enjoy the moment.
In many ways I still appreciate this part of me in the same way I appreciate a part of my anxiety — it helps me stay focused and get stuff done. BUT — it’s only helpful when it’s kept in check; as in, once it starts inhibiting my life, or the lives of others, it’s no longer beneficial. In fact, it’s harmful.
My dad always used to say that “life is for the living.” I imagine he didn’t realize that in telling me to “stay on the train”, I’d use that as a reason NOT to live. He would have hated that. In fact, when he was still alive, he begged me to let go and let loose a little bit.
Once, on a father-daughter trip to Europe in which I was having a terribly hard time relaxing, enjoying and letting go of the notion that I needed to exercise and complete at least one task on my to-do every day, he said, “Marissa, what noise does an instrument make when its strings are pulled too tightly?”
“An ugly ping,” I said.
“Exactly,” he responded. “Your strings are strung way too tightly. But if you loosen them up a bit, I bet you’ll find you can enjoy life more and make much more beautiful music.”
He was always saying unbelievably profound things like that — things that become ingrained within you, and you remember days, months, years… an entire lifetime later.
Obviously, I couldn’t just loosen my strings. If I could have, believe me, I would have. But I didn’t know how. I was terrified to let go… what if I became lazy? A failure? I could NOT get off the train!
Except that, what I didn’t realize then, and am only starting to know, is that perhaps you don’t have to always stay on a moving train, or completely jump off it, to live your best life. Trains make several stops along the way — people get on, get off, go out into the world, experience what life – love, pain, healing, relationships, etc. — have to offer, and explore.
I don’t want to stay on a fast-moving train forever. I’ve missed so much… so much life, so much messiness and so many powerful experiences. I wish I could go back to both my postpartum experiences, and just let myself be… let myself sit for hours on end on the couch with my babies and snuggle them, breathe in their newborn baby scent, and feel the fear that comes with delving into an unscheduled life… or, as Elsa would say, into the unknown.
Recently, my husband and I had to make a decision that will impact our family. It’s not a huge decision, but it was one that I was immediately triggered by, because saying “yes” to this particular thing would force us to get off the train for just a bit. My fear answered first: “NO WAY!” I shouted at him. “We can’t do that. If we make that decision, it will be so much harder when it’s time to get back on course.”
But then I did something differently than I’d ever really done before; I let myself step away from having to make the decision “right now”, and I spent a few days letting the answer come to me organically. And when it did, it was the opposite of what I expected it to be. I decided it would be okay for us — good for us, in fact — to step off the train. Not forever, of course, but for just a little bit… to take in the scenery, to breathe, to enjoy, to relax, and to feel so much better about riding to the next destination when the time comes.
Here’s to letting go just a little bit. To taking breaks. To self-care. To stepping off the train and allowing yourself to fully experience the world once in a while. After all, a wise man I knew and deeply loved once said, “Life is for the living”… so I guess I better get out there and live it.*
(*Note: safely, 6 feet apart from other humans and with a mask, of course… after all… we are in the middle of a global health pandemic!)