We got through the holidays and it was time to take the Disney Cruise that the girls and I had been planning for the last year. It would be the first true vacation for us as a divided family. Hubby was up early that morning to say goodbye to the girls and helped us load the suitcases into the car. He was being gallant and I suppose, a bit melancholy about the fact that we were embarking on such a fanciful adventure without him. I started the car as he buckled Emily’s seatbelt and I heard him pronounce, “I love you all” while he shut the door firmly.
I shook my head because it was a frequent comment and yet, I didn’t relate to being ‘loved’ in the ways that he demonstrated. There were still a number of discussions about whether I really ‘wanted’ a divorce, if I ‘wanted’ to split up our family, or if I really ‘wanted’ to throw away all that we had built. Each conversation left me a little drained and sometimes questioning my decisions but when it came down to the end – every.single.time. – I knew that I had spent too many years living in a relationship that was not respectful. I knew that I was different, stronger, more aware and convicted about the direction I wanted to grow now.
The girls and I flew to Orlando, took a bus to Cape Canaveral, and boarded one of the Disney Cruise ships. None of us had ‘cruised’ before so we were all equally enamored with the glitz and grandeur of the ship, the view from the upper decks, and our stateroom with towels folded into swans. There’s something truly spectacular about the way Disney does things and we didn’t know what to do first. It was a week of ‘marveling’. We marveled at our meals, at the shows, at the activities, at the Caribbean port calls, and at the fireworks display over an open ocean as the light lit an infinite expanse of waves. The girls had each joined the Disney clubhouse for their appropriate age group and so I had a fair amount of quiet time, reflecting time. I used much of it to fortify myself as I meditated and wrote some of my thoughts. I was certain that my life was moving in the right direction and knew that I needed to organize a plan. I work better when I have a blueprint – an idea of what’s next. I like to think that I am flexible enough to allow for change but after everything I’d been through, controlling for emotional discourse was my new ‘normal’ and so I set out to consider what it was ‘exactly’ that I wanted my life to look like.
The cruise came to an end far too soon but we were refreshed and ready to go back to school. I had missed the first week of classes which I didn’t think would make much of a difference but when I walked into my French II class and tried to introduce myself to the professor, I knew I was in trouble. He spoke about as much English as I did French and told me I had an assignment due in the morning. Oh boy. It was the first and last time that I cheated. I had to write a paragraph – in French – about what foods I needed to buy at a grocery store for a recipe that I had chosen. I hadn’t yet learned the ‘food’ vocabulary that was needed for this assignment and so I typed it out in English and used a translator to convert it to French. I turned it in on time but when it came back, there was a distinct, English F at the top of the paper. I immediately knew it was going to be a long semester.
Learning French became my new passion; I had never received a failing grade before and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. It was during this time that I became acutely aware of my propensity for perfection. It was something that others had commented on in the past and of course, the intellectual side of me knew there was no such thing as ‘perfect’ but… that never stopped me from attempting to achieve perfection. It was a personal challenge.
And then I discovered the term ‘unrelenting standards’ – a schema of maladaptive coping styles proposed by psychologist Jeffery Young… essentially validating the existence of perfectionism within me. I never cared whether someone else was ‘perfect’ but I can admit to believing that there was ‘a’ way that things ‘should’ be done which established an expectation. Most often, that expectation was applied only to myself and yet – when someone like me is part of your environment, there is often a perception that my ‘standard’ is required by everyone in the circle…
I had a friend who gently and kindly reminded me constantly that perfect didn’t exist and that I may have to be “ok” with an A- or B+, or to give myself a break if I was frustrated with the lack of time to be all things to all people. In addition, through one of my psychology classes, I understood finally that ‘should’s’ were not all that healthy… we often don’t stop to think where our should’s come from and frequently, they are handed down from old family customs that don’t apply because of newer technologies; from society and social constructs that no longer exist; or from dysfunctional learning patterns we adapted to survive as children. Louise Hay, the author of You Can Heal Your Life, aptly suggests replacing the word ‘could’ with any should that is in your vocabulary. In doing so, you are empowering yourself with action instead of moving in a direction that may be dictated by some external – uninformed – place. I share this advice with clients on a regular basis and there is always an ‘ah ha’ moment as they consider where should’s exist in their life that may not need to be there.
I wasn’t sure why I thought I ‘should’ get all A’s… Undoubtedly, I wanted to set an example for my daughters who were students and had several years yet in front of them. In addition, I knew that for people to take me seriously as a middle-aged woman, it would be helpful if there was some ‘evidence’ substantiating my efforts, but mostly… I wanted to know that I could do it. I was proving something to myself as much as anyone else. I wasn’t always convinced that I was smart or capable. I did things that had required intelligence but, I never had a good measure of how strong it was. As a college student, I was under the impression that my grades were a good indicator.
To further impress upon me that total excellence was essentially unachievable, I questioned one of my professors who continued to give me a 99% on the weekly reflections we were required to do. “What do I need to do to get 100%”, I would ask “there are no markups to tell me what was missing”. “That’s as good as it gets” he replied. “Perfect doesn’t exist.” He went on to tell me that if I wanted to be a good therapist, I needed to adjust to the idea that I would never get there – and “get comfortable with imperfection” he encouraged. It wasn’t a concept that I easily adapted.
Most days, if I was busy with schoolwork or taxiing the girls from one place to another, life was good. As long as Hubby and/or Abee weren’t front and center, my life and emotions were manageable. I was getting through the days and weeks with less and less discord as time went by. One evening in early March, the phone rang and my Aunt was on the other end regretting to inform me that Grandmom had passed away. She was eighty-seven and had congestive heart failure so it had only been a matter of time but… she had been unable to reach mom – who… was in Cabo San Lucas visiting a cousin. It was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime as that cousin had mega bucks and was treating mom to yachts and mansions.
Life was about to get serious again.