You’d think my “aha” moment — the moment I knew my life choices had led me horribly, dangerously off-track — might be the Friday night I texted Crisis Services and told them I didn’t want to die, per se, I just didn’t want to live anymore.
Or the following Monday morning, when I couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to get my body into the bathroom to shower for work.
Or the hour or so after that, when I sat on the couch across from my crazy doctor and heard the words, “I’m writing you a note for work. You should be on short-term disability.”
But those were just the final tolls of warning bells I should have recognized much earlier.
Like the time I made a mad dash to Kohl’s to charge a brand-new wardrobe for my brand-new 9-to-5, thinking a shinier, corporate-r outside would help me feel more like I belonged in the shinier, corporate-r world I was trying to convince myself I belonged in. (There’s a difference between natural self-doubt/Imposter Syndrome and the gut suspicion you’re a round peg trying to force yourself into square-hole-dom.)
Or the times I went to a friend’s for a quiet one-cocktail catch-up on a weeknight and drank so much so fast trying to keep the next morning from coming I got violently ill each time. (Cocktails and crazy pills don’t mix, and the extra dose of antidepressants I was on should also have told me something.)
But if I had to pinpoint “it” — that time when things got so ridiculously out of whack with anything I’d ever imagined myself doing or being I should have known something was awry– it was the time I found myself at the dollar store debating just the right mix of bite-size candy for the new candy dish I was putting on my desk in the private office I’d thought would be the thing that finally made the screaming in my soul die down (so far it hadn’t).
Let Me Explain…
I know there’s nothing inherently unnerving about this scenario, but few things in life are as simple as they seem, and this particular unspectacular moment had behind it the weight of dozens of unspoken and unacknowledged red flags that made my stomach go squidgy even as I was trying to convince myself it was unspectacular.
- In the past, I’ve considered few elements of the 9-to-5 more cliched and sad than someone putting a candy dish on their desk to attempt to lure people they don’t really care to chat with over to chat with them. Not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it; it’s just one of those things about cubeland that always gave me that fingernails-on-chalkboard feeling.
I don’t do the 9-to-5 very well to begin with, as has been well-established.
The fact that I’d deteriorated to this particular Hail Mary should have told me something. I ignored this.
- The impetus behind my attempting this charade was that, after weeks of working my ass off while carefully navigating the lay of my new land and forming what I thought were some promising initial friendships, a douchey attorney who rarely spoke to me breezed into my office to give me “his two cents” that I should “get out and shoot the shit” more with my coworkers.
I immediately translated this to mean that a) everyone secretly hated me and thought I was snobbish and b) keeping my nose to the grindstone had somehow done the opposite of what I intended and convinced the entire office I was a horrible fit for this position. I desperately needed to convince others I was the right fit so that I might in turn calm my own suspicions the position wasn’t right for me. (I also had flashbacks to middle-school-pariah Cordelia, the PTSD from which is at the root of most my social anxiety issues.)
This instantaneous unravelling of all self-confidence based on a few careless words from someone I considered douchey should have told me something. I ignored this.
- I spent a good half-hour in the tiny candy aisle at the dollar store agonizing over which candies to put in my coworker lure. The blue-and-silver wrappers on the cookies-n-creme Hershey’s Kisses matched my new office decor, but would enough people be interested in white chocolate to make this design choice worthwhile? A variety pack of mini candy bars would be the most universally appealing, but the wrapper colors were all wrong and it just felt like a complementary candy-and-decor scheme would somehow convey my creativity as a person and my mastery as a personal injury paralegal.
It was dollar store candy I was putting in a canister I’d found in the back of my spare Tupperware drawer, and if candy is around, people will eat it and think no more of the matter.
The fact that I thought this decision meant anything — let alone, as it felt at the time, everything — should have set off so many alarms in my mind the fire department was called in to see if the store was ablaze.
I ignored this.
I stayed in that aisle picking up bag after bag of candy from the limited selection, evaluating them side by side like they were precious metals, pacing back and forth with them, and putting them back down again until even I couldn’t ignore the fact I must look like an absolute lunatic. Finally, after half an hour of this nonsense, I grabbed the two bags I’d picked up the most often and checked out shamefacedly with them, feeling for all the world like I’d somehow failed a monumental life test.
Then, a few weeks later, I unravelled for good.
If I’d been paying any attention at all to my gut over the months leading up to this moment, I’d have seen this coming from miles away. In the movie of my life, that scene in the dollar store would be the one that makes the entire audience shout at the screen, “You fool, get out! Danger, danger!” as if I were a hot girl entering a basement in a horror movie. In other words…
This Is Not About a Candy Dish
For me, that’s what “it” was — my “aha” moment that arrived not with an Eat, Pray, Love-like bang but with a whimper that had been whimpering in the back of my mind for months. It was the latest in a series of signs that could have been turning points if I’d had the insight and nerve to listen to them.
For you, it could be something else seemingly unspectacular that actually holds a world of personal warning.
When you spot your new boyfriend at the grocery store and your initial instinct is to turn sharply down the next available aisle before he sees you.
When your best friend gives you a gorgeous green scarf even though you’ve mentioned a zillion times that green isn’t really your thing.
Or, hell, even the inability to throw a waffle (see below).
I don’t know what your “aha” moments look like.
But you do.
You know it in your gut, in that moment, when something in the back of your mind, in the pit of your stomach, in the depths of your soul shouts: This doesn’t feel right. Something’s off here. This is bothering me way too much.
Mundane but meaning-packed moments like this are easy to overlook and even easier to brush aside, because to the outside world — and even to ourselves, with enough denial — they don’t seem like much at all. But self-awareness often comes not in a part-the-clouds revelation but in quiet, nagging suspicions that on the surface seem silly.
If something about a moment feels capital-W wrong, no matter how much you try to dismiss it, chances are it’s the kind of moment you should pay some attention to.
Pretty Girls and Waffles
There’s an episode in the highly underrated TV show Ed that always stuck with me when I was searching for my “Mr. Right.” In it, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen of Modern Family fame) is making breakfast for her boyfriend Nick and has a momentary urge to playfully throw the waffle she’s made at him. She checks that urge for some reason, then spends the rest of the episode struggling over whether this means something more.
Why did she feel like she needed to censor her goofiness? Why wasn’t she comfortable enough to act spontaneously? Is this the latest in a series of signs this relationship isn’t meant to be?
Her friends think she’s overreacting. She keeps feeling there’s something to it. She eventually breaks up with Nick, only to be surprised later in the episode to find wannabe-suitor Ed (her real Mr. Right) on her front lawn throwing waffles at her house in the most endearingly silly gesture this side of 10 Things I Hate About You.
(Personal aside: I later told this story to my now-husband as I lamented the fact that Ed has never been released on DVD. He spent the better part of last Christmas finding and burning a digital copy of the entire first season onto DVDs for us to watch together — yet one of the many signs he is, in fact, my Mr. Right.)
The moral of this story?
More importantly, how we feel about these moments matters.
Your mind has a way of getting caught up on the small things when you’re heading in the wrong direction altogether.
Your gut knows when you’re on the second-to-last step heading into a basement that, as melodramatic as it sounds, feels like it’s harboring something bad.
Learn to listen to this, take the time to analyze it, respect what it’s trying to tell you. Because you know when you know something just ain’t right. (Tweet!) The next step is to trust that feeling and decide what you need to do in response to it.
What “aha” moments have you been ignoring lately? What might they be trying to tell you?
Image: Marek Piepers / Flickr
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