My counselor asked a question yesterday that stumped me. “If you had a magic wand, what you would want your life to be like?” Those sorts of questions have always been a challenge for me. I can imagine, even vividly imagine, all sorts of alternatives. In fact, I did that as a child, picking a point in the past and then focusing my mind on the idea that everything since that point had been a dream. But such questions always have a sense of unreality to them for me, especially the older I’ve gotten.
This is the life I have. A ‘me’ who had a different life wouldn’t actually be me. It’s a version of the disconnect I’ve felt when I’ve heard other adults who were teen parents say they regretted it, missed the life they could have had, and wished they had done something else. Was it hard being a teen parent? Sure. Sometimes it was incredibly hard. But saying I regret it or I wish it hadn’t happened feels to me like saying I wish my oldest daughter had never been born. In fact, if you follow the thread of my life, it’s basically saying I regret all my children. While I might have still had children, those hypothetical other children wouldn’t be the ones I actually have today. I deeply love all my children, and no matter how hard things have gotten, there has never been a day I’ve regretted their birth.
And the same is true of the rest of life. There’s good and bad. Some things are hard. There have been and continue to be struggles, but I don’t want a different life, per se, though I do want to live this one better. The bad things are just as much a part of who I am today as the good.
I was reminded of my blank-faced stare when my wife has asked me what I dream of doing now that the kids are grown. I enjoy discussing possible future trips with her. I enjoy doing things like the arts and food scene. But I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ or some similar set of dreams I need to achieve to make my life complete. And I have a hard time understanding the point, even though everyone around me seems to intuitively grasp it. If there’s something you want to do, start making a plan and then execute the plan. Until you’re ready to do that, what’s the point in creating a list? (Now lists that you actually plan to complete I totally understand, but that doesn’t seem to be what most people mean when asking about future dreams.)
Still, I stopped and gave the question serious consideration and, haltingly, honed in on one of my underlying struggles. I’m not really dissatisfied with my life. I want to improve my relationships with my older children. I need to work out how to relate better with my wife. I’m not a super social person, but I know I’ve been happier in the past when I’ve had at least one pretty close friend. That’s true even though it hasn’t happened very frequently and all such friendships have tended to fade for reasons I still don’t really understand. And my friendships have faded even when I’ve actually tried as hard as I could to keep them going. While aspects of my job are extremely wearing, I enjoy the technical challenges it presents. I love learning and my job basically demands constant learning.
There aren’t really any drastic changes I would make to my life, magic wand or not. For the most part, this life fits me. That is, it would if I could actually live it. And it’s with that realization, I understood one aspect of my struggle.
It’s taking all the energy I have, and on some days more than I have, just to survive. Everything seems to require more effort. It’s hard to focus my attention without getting distracted. It’s hard to keep everything organized. And it’s harder than ever to limit the pull of things that aren’t part of what I need to do in that moment. Dealing with change and interruptions to routine are more difficult to manage now. It takes more effort to maintain an appropriate physical presentation and not do things that appear ‘odd’ to most people. I struggle more and more to process things I hear. The delays in my response are almost always noticeable now. Light is increasingly painful. Bright sun is barely tolerable even with my sunglasses and hats. Night driving makes it feel like headlights are stabbing into my eyes. And even in one on one social interactions, I find I often can’t keep up. Trying to catch all the social cues and provide the right responses has become incredibly draining.
Moreover, it’s been getting worse for a long time now, even though I had no idea what was happening. A decade ago I discovered I had sleep apnea, so I blamed my struggles on that. And I’m sure it was a factor, but it was exacerbating the problem, not causing it. Moreover, once it was controlled, things started sliding downhill again. Then I thought it was the damage I suffered as an undiagnosed celiac. And again, I’m sure that was a factor. Being sick and chronically malnourished will drain your energy and make life difficult. But it’s been seven years, I’m pretty much healed, and celiac disease is no longer a significant factor.
Yet I’m still hanging on by my fingernails. By the time I do the things I have to do each day, I’m so exhausted I’m asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. (Staying asleep is another matter, altogether, but that’s not the point of this post.) I’m hardly managing anything more than the minimum I need to do to get by and even that’s a struggle most days. I’m so deeply tired down to my bones that even the thought of that next thing I need to do often fills me with dread.
Objectively, while crises still arise as they do for all of us, my life is actually calmer now than it ever has been in the past. It’s not like things have gotten harder and it’s taxing my ability to cope. Things have gotten easier. I’ve gotten healthier. And simply living life has gotten harder for me. Each day is a hill and the hills keep getting steeper with no respite and no end in sight.
I don’t know why simply being has gotten so much harder than it once was. But if I had a magic wand, that’s where I would apply it. Unfortunately, no such wand exists, so I’m left looking for more mundane responses. My tendency, of course, is to simply push through. I have a relentless will and I can and have pushed myself when I thought I had nothing left. The problem, of course, is that the well is finite. At a certain point, I can’t just bull through anymore. And I feel like I’m reaching a place where something has to give.
I have no answers, but I did come up with a response to the question and, I think, a revealing response. I pretty much have the life I want if I could actually live it rather than just survive it.