I haven’t been sleeping. It’s been weeks, in fact, that I haven’t either woken up several times in the middle of the night, or taken until the earliest hours of the morning to actually fall asleep. And this isn’t new — I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices for insomnia and anxiety-related sleep issues, I’ve been on and off of everything from melatonin to Ambien, and nothing has really worked. Short-term, sure, I can get myself to sleep if I take enough Unisom and read something mindless enough to shut out my thoughts for an hour or so. But long-term, nothing results in the kind of basic relief, the basic sense of calm, that most people rely on at night to comfortably shut their eyes. I don’t get more than two hours of REM sleep a night for days, weeks, on end, and my days as a result constantly feel half-lived, half-awake.
And I know that this problem has gotten worse of late because my worst habit has been augmented and intensified: when left to my own devices, I will attempt to do everything myself, and it does nothing short of erode my sanity. And I do this because it is in my nature, but I also do it because it’s what I am supposed to do — my worth is, in so many ways, measured in how much I can handle, and how much I can check off on my to-do list. If I fail on one side, I am almost by definition failing at all, because I’m not being a #boss. But managing it feels like holding onto various threads of a quickly-unraveling blanket.
TFD is humming along at a pleasant-but-intense clip. Marc and I are moving at the end of the month, into an apartment we intend to buy later this year. We are newly engaged, and organizing something resembling all the adherent celebrations transatlantically. We are experiencing some unforeseen and deeply frustrating logistical issues with leaving our current apartment (more on that later, when it’s settled or certain enough to actually discuss). Various large projects I’ve taken on have turned out to be more of a quagmire than expected, and in the meantime, the tedium and logistics of packing, selling furniture, and getting quotes for movers looms large. At any given moment, there is an endless list of things I could be attempting to resolve, emails I could be answering, people I could be getting back to. And it’s maddening.
And yes, my situation would likely be maddening for most people — having such a high level of volatility in every part of one’s life, from personal to professional, is not easy to deal with — but I am lucid enough to know that I exacerbate these problems for myself, often without realizing it. The truth is that I have a really, really hard time ceding control of anything, whether at work or at home. (Being engaged alone has proven to be an endless wellspring of stress on this issue — my mother surprising me with some mild table decor at a small engagement dinner nearly sent me into a tailspin.) Often, I will delegate a task, only to take it out of the person’s hands after a short flirtation with patience, insisting I can do it better myself. I want to know every detail, leave nothing to chance or surprise, and be present for every minute decision. This isn’t healthy, or productive. It often has tangible negative effects on my work, and my quality of life. But as the unfortunate (or fortunate-but-stressful) situations pile up like cars rubbernecking at an accident, I find myself even more tightly-wound over how much control I have.
For example, I spent nearly all of yesterday in an alternating panic: phone calls with city officials, lawyers, and knowledgeable loved ones, then bursts of work done badly in the spaces in-between. I was running on about three hours of sleep, smoked a cigarette while trembling at my kitchen window to (barely) calm myself down, and didn’t feel fully relaxed until I had sufficiently cried on my couch with a succession of loved ones whose message was all the same: you have to let some stuff go. There were tasks I should have left to Marc, should have given to someone else on the team, should have loosened my grip on just a bit — I have only myself to blame for allowing everything to reach a fever pitch, let alone to stay there for hours on end. Only I choose to listen to the overwhelming narrative that I should be doing it all, but it is deafening.
There is a certain amount of social validation we get from taking things on entirely ourselves, particularly as women. The gendered language of #success is cloying. We’re #girlbosses if we can balance an ever-expanding list of tasks and obligations. We’re supposed to aspire to #havingitall, and if we aren’t there yet, we are always supposed to be actively reaching for it. Our measure of greatness is often how much we’re capable of saying it’s #handled. And if we define ourselves even partially by our careers and professional or academic accomplishments, this sense of rising to every occasion in an #effortless way is only intensified by the assumptions we’re working against: women are often perceived as fragile, lazy, or fundamentally uninterested in hard work. As a business owner and the leader of a team, my need to micromanage things has only grown like weeds throughout my life: I must live up to a specific gauntlet of entrepreneur that has been thrown. If I fail, it will be perceived as at least in part because of my gender — and that would be my greatest failure of all.
But taking everything on because of an external idea of leadership or professionalism will never make you happy, and if you already have a control-freak personality, will drive your mental health to fray almost without exception. I know that my cuticle-decimating level of pervasive and sustained anxiety is anything but rare — I can only imagine how this relentless drive to manage everything manifests when coupled with being a parent. I can’t imagine the cocktail of pharmaceuticals I would need to keep functioning, and getting a few unsatisfying hours of sleep a night. I know that my “girlboss spiral” is still relatively mild because I am surrounded by a loving and competent support system, and can take time to break down if I need it. But even still, my worst thoughts that come, over and over, when I’m standing, wobbly, in my kitchen at six AM after a fitful night are inescapable. It’s hard not to want to abandon everything, disappointing everyone in one fell swoop instead of in ragged bits and pieces.
And it’s hard not to feel acutely, viscerally resentful of these ridiculous images women are bombarded with of what success looks like and entails — these wealthy, manicured women who recommend the perfect lipstick and pencil skirt to sport while nailing a tense conference call, cooking a perfect and healthy meal, being a perfect spouse, and maintaining Sex and the City photo ops with their girlfriends while out for a #workinggirl happy hour. In my most productive moments, I often look haggard and sickly, because working really fucking hard to deliver results often means working until the wee hours and then starting again for the 9:30 meeting. Maintaining basic friendships, let alone the superficial “let’s get drinks” relationships that every ~networking girlboss~ is supposed to have, can feel like a race where you are constantly falling into last place. And the bigger “personal” moments — buying a home, having a wedding, curating a fabulous “space” — can feel like logistical nightmares if you are not really fucking rich. That’s the key to all of that stuff looking like a Pinteresty, effortless fever dream: these women are wealthy. They don’t have to scrimp and scramble to make a down payment, or choose between having extended relatives at a wedding or making necessary upgrades to their plumbing. They can #doitall because much of their most mind-consuming tasks are outsourced to assistants, or paid to go away. (Many of the problems currently causing me to pull at my skin could be instantly evaporated if I could write a check for a certain number, but I can’t.)
And even then, even for those who seem to have it all together, I’d be shocked if they weren’t on some combination of vices, prescriptions, and exhaustion to maintain it. Nearly every week, there is a new tell-all from some lifestyle blogger or businesswoman about how her life is untenable, and presenting a perfect image of it is driving her to the brink of insanity.
Maybe the solution is to stop presenting a curated, creatively-directed image of what it means to be a successful or entrepreneurial woman. Maybe it means sharing ourselves when we are smoking that trembling cigarette by the kitchen window, crying because of a lack of sleep, unsure of what thread to cut so the impact will be least acute. Maybe it means admitting that “having it all” is a sick joke, and helps no one, least of all the women we’re attempting to #empower. Maybe we should define our “success” by our ability to be a decently-rounded, healthy fucking human being, no matter how imperfect she may be.
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