by Anna Wieder
I choose the booth by the window because it seems like the first sunny day in forever. I feel a surge of relief and a welcomed lift in sadness, as a I gaze out at the blue sky.
In the background, I find the noise of many conversations comforting. It keeps my feelings muted and calm.
You see, this is a common Sunday spot, Panera. Part of my routine. With a book and a laptop and some work for the week. I like how I can be alone, blend in, but still be surrounded by humans. I have a plan for the next few hours in a long day.
I can breathe more easily.
Routine and busyness are the strongest coping mechanisms in life. They help me keep my emotions regulated. This is a big job.
I have to plan my life much more thoroughly than most people. I have to stay moving, or at least thinking, constantly. Without routine, anxiety and depression can wreak havoc surprisingly fast. Spiraling into suicidal thinking can come on very quickly, too.
Things I don’t want to think about can blare into my brain without warning. Winter is generally a harder time, but some of my lowest moments have been in the summer. Oh, and probably during the fall and sometimes spring, too. Okay, so all seasons: hard.
People in my life know this, even though we don’t really discuss it. Loved ones who have observed first-hand my struggle during non-routine times, often reach out to me when they know my schedule is altered or slow. They text me. Call me. Accept me. Give me suggestions of what to do, remind me to be kind to myself.
I’m a teacher. I chose a career that is incredibly scheduled and busy. I have the same schedule Monday through Friday. I do love my job for what I do. But its consistency does allow me to keep myself together; I won’t deny this is a necessity in a career for me. My brain is incredibly focused during school hours, leaving little time to think about myself or how I feel. At night I am tired, ready to prepare for the next day, and then sleep.
I am not good at weekends. Friday nights bring anxiety. Don’t get me wrong – I need my weekend, but any time in my life that is not heavily scheduled is risky.
And being this way brings on a lot of self-loathing and sometimes, feelings of hopelessness. Is this how I am going to exist, forever?
I feel like I am missing out on life. Keeping my mind constantly busy is exhausting. It can sometimes be torturous. Keeping my emotions regulated is a daily challenge.
I’d love to be the person that can lie on the sofa for several hours and watch a movie without being filled with a sense of creeping anxiety. I am envious of those who embrace spontaneity and change. I want to love the surprise of snow days, like my students and colleagues. I want to live a life I can slow down to enjoy.
But I have to have hope. Like we all have to hope. Hope that this life-ing will continue to change and maybe, get easier, or at least different.
Self-kindness is something that I have been challenged to practice in more recent months. Acceptance that life can be hard and being kind to myself when it is. When a day’s schedule pauses, reassuring myself if I feel a wave of pain or sadness, “It is okay, it is okay, it is really okay,” instead of criticizing myself cruelly for not maintaining a perfect equilibrium of emotion.
Maybe one day I will have spontaneous moments. Maybe I won’t feel like I always need to be busy and plan. I hope so.
Maybe I will have a day when a snow day phone call fills me with glee instead of dread.
Hopefully, I will look forward to weekends that are not fully scheduled. Maybe, one day, I’ll be really wild and take a vacation that doesn’t evoke anxiety and fear because of the prospect of unstructured time.
So, if you are reading this and can identify with this need for routine and busyness, be kind to yourself. If you are self-critical because you need routine and busyness to keep your emotions regulated, be kind to yourself, too. Have hope. I believe we can find rest.
And most importantly, know you are not alone in life-ing. I try to remind myself of that too. And maybe that is why sitting in this booth at Panera, listening to the cacophony of conversation and living, helps me feel more hopeful about the future.