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Mental Health

Approaching Birthdays

Lifting my right leg, I press my shin parallel to the iron railing. I lean forward, going on the toe pad of my left foot, applying pressure. The sky shifts…grey-blue. Morning, midsummer, and my hips silently scream from the stretch.

I switch legs. Eyes searching the sky to the telephone wires to my right shoulder. The skin there has turned bronze, a symptom of the California environment. Close to where my chin touches, there is a collection of scars. The healing white tissue stark against the tan—a constellation at dusk. I think about my right shoulder—has it always been? Or more recently become the place my fingers wander to diffuse time, to stall the process of doing something. Searching for any blackhead, ingrown hair, or blemish that I can push out of my skin, only to return to that same spot again. Obliterate it. I’ve always been a picker. It used to be my mother who would scold me, “Don’t pick! You’ll leave ugly scars.” Now, it is my husband’s turn, reminding me on a daily basis, to stop picking. “It makes me anxious,” he says.

But there they are. White stars studding the very round of my shoulder, and on this morning—July 22nd, I think of what they mean to me, Gianna. The person I am and the person I will always be.

It is exactly 30 days until my birthday.

Birthdays are like spiritual ceremonies. I see them as a marker of change and transition. And it is my job to prepare myself for this big, cosmic event. Every year the same thing happens—a month or so before my birthday, I have a momentary panic. A pit falls in my stomach, my chest becomes tight—and I scramble to create some sort of effective plan for the big day. Pulling out my bag of markers and stock paper, I write down goals, actions, and positive manifestations for myself. Hoping to shift into this butterfly, by a miracle, overnight. Stepping into the best version of “myself”—this one that I seem to think exists behind the version that is often getting in the way.

This year seems different. I’m not necessarily panicking. Because…I suppose I’ve been in panic mode for a while. I’ve been unemployed for over a month, the world is under siege by a pandemic, and the build-up from centuries of systemic racism has come to a head, leaving America shaking with civil unrest. I heard or maybe read somewhere recently, that this moment in time is like “the world cracking open”. That stuck with me—there are moments when it feels as if the surface underneath me is actually caving in. That everything around might dissolve.

I start down the steps. Down the steep hill of West Lane. I have done this, it seems thousands of times already in the past five months. Which is how long we’ve been here. I gain momentum and loosen control as the incline starts to become parallel with the intersecting street below. A blast of speed. Heading towards the trail, I think of all the changes within myself since we moved here. Since just a year ago. I was attached to timelines.

“I want to be pregnant by 29,” I told my husband, tipsy in our old apartment back in Washington, having come home from the bar. I sat on a stool in our tiny kitchen underneath the lonely pull-string light bulb.

“Why do you have to have a number?”

“Because,” I was welling up. “My biological time clock is ticking. The risk of giving birth to a child with developmental issues skyrockets past the age of 30.” This was a constant arguing point for me.

“I’m excited for us to have children. I just…,” sitting across from me, he looked defeated. He knew nothing he said would be right. “I just want us to have some time by ourselves. I just want us to be ready.” Crying, I felt angry. Angry that he didn’t understand. What it meant to be a woman. To have nightmares of losing your unborn child, waking up feeling devastated. To lose something you never had. Motherhood, for as long as I can remember, has been my dream.

These days, I’m not sure where that dream has gone. I often think about mothers. I always have, but now when I think about motherhood…it seems improbable. Watching moms at the grocery store helping their children with their masks, or make futile attempts to keep them six feet apart from the elderly woman coming down the aisle. These images imprinted in my mind. It’s one of the things I think about on my runs:

Can I have children in the aftermath of a pandemic? Is that just senseless? Carelessness? What if my children will never have the joys of going to a school? Never have the first days getting on a yellow bus? What if they can never touch strangers? Never hug a new person they met for the first time at a playground? Will there even be playgrounds anymore? How many times a day will I have to wash their hands? Or apply hand sanitizer excessively? Will their entire life exist within the confines of a house with the exception of a few outdoor spaces? And whenever they step foot outside, will they forever be required, for their own health, to wear a mask?

I can’t flush it out. It’s hard and clunky in my brain. The feelings I used to get when I looked down at my stomach, imaging—just imagining—life there. It seems to have evaporated.

But that’s only when I really think about it.

Every day is like a new test. Responding to each curveball, adapting to the slow climbs and fast falls of the rollercoaster. Before the pandemic and being laid off, I was already making strides to work from home. To be my own boss. During my 28th year, I decided: No more bullshit jobs. I want to be a writer.

Since arriving at this conclusion, I’ve begrudgingly worked random jobs to stay afloat financially. Moving to a small town in central California earlier this year, getting a job was necessary. I wanted something brainless. Where I could clock in, clock out, and leave the mundane behind. I thought I struck gold when I landed a serving job at a local brewery. I even thought it was a good sign when—only two weeks into working there—they kept me on when the shutdown happened. Two, sometimes three, four-hour shifts a week. Doing takeout orders and answering phones. It was perfect. Enough to scrape by between that and my husband’s job.

But a selfish part of me was envious of all the people who were laid off. Claiming unemployment. All that time. Everyday. I fantasized about what I’d do with it.

“You’re literally working eight hours a week,” my husband reminded me. Still…I thought about it.

Some things you can’t predict. Or begin to understand why they happen.

“It has nothing to do with you,” my boss assured me in the backroom with the empty kegs and to-go containers. The restaurant had been opened for dine-in for a week. “We’re just a very busy restaurant and I need people running on the floor.” She was kind enough to phrase it: I’m gonna have to lay you off.

So, there you have it…fired from a fucking serving position at 28 years-old. For being “too slow”.

But…I got what I wished for.

These days, I try to wake up around 6 a.m. I go out and water the plants on our tiny patio while the grounds in my French press steep. In the center of our mint-green, velvet couch, I take large gulps of coffee while reading, checking emails, and glancing over my best-self planner.

I purchased this “best-self” planner during a low point last year. When I felt like I wasn’t being as productive with my time as I could be. I never was a planner person. I evolved into a list maker in my twenties, eventually developing a ritual for making a list every day. Which one could claim is the exact purpose of a planner. But planners always felt like suffocation. I had owned them in the past and was never consistent. If I skipped a day, the evidence glaring at me from the blank space left on the page, I felt excruciating guilt. And then a voice in my head would kindly interject, “You’re a fucking joke! You can’t even keep a planner!” So, I avoided them entirely.

But it was time to grow up, I thought. And this “best-self” planner seemed super grown-up. So, I ordered one. I remember opening it for the first time—the crisp pages with organized dots and lines—feeling like I was bound to fail. Designed to help people accomplish specific goals, each week has a special page for plotting out habits you’re trying to form. Each day has you list a goal with three specific targets. And if your anxiety wasn’t already spiking from the rigid structuring of your dreams, they provide an instruction manual with detailed suggestions of how to utilize your planner for “crushing goals!”.

Afraid I wouldn’t live up to my own expectations, I put it back in the neat box it came in and tucked it in a stack of arts and crafts supplies. When we moved to California this winter, I brought it with me. Maybe because I knew that I would want to use it someday, or maybe because I didn’t want to feel like a fool for spending $35 on a fucking planner.

A week after being laid off, I went searching for it. Locating it among the small library of old journals and developed pictures from disposable cameras—I opened it up. This time, I wasn’t afraid.

I’ve been surprised at how much I actually like this planner. I enjoy writing out my supposed schedule for the day, hour by hour, color coding each task with my assortment of Paper Mate felt tip pens. It brings a sense of peace looking at the rainbow of plans on the page in the morning. I kind of just do my best to follow it. Most days, my timing is completely off. My morning runs end up happening about thirty minutes to an hour later than I intend. Or I’ll skip doing proper meditation, even though I write it in there every morning after my run.

Other pages of the planner go unutilized. Planning out the week seems futile, as most times I don’t know what exactly is going to happen. Or going back and reflecting on the week. Pages with the months go untouched as well. Thinking about months as a whole, complete with projected plans and accomplishments, seemed like swallowing a large bite without chewing. Day by day…that has been manageable for me.

But this would have never flown about a year ago. If tasks weren’t completed or parts of the planner were unfilled, or, god forbid, I skip a day, I would have spiraled. Melted down in a puddle of self-deprecating curses.

Where did that girl go? I remember years of envisioning this future self. Highly productive. Never wasting a second of time. Completely balancing all of the dozen or so activities and interests that are important to me: fitness, diet, writing, reading, love, friendships, cleanliness, organization, and so on. I’ll never forget being on a backpacking trip with a close friend and telling her about these emotions I’d experience.

“Don’t you ever just get mad at yourself? For not doing things in the most efficient way possible?”

Her face stalled in thought. “Uh…no, not really.”

In my mind, there was a better me. A more productive me. I just needed to work harder to become her.

“You’re a creative person,” my therapist would tell me, “there are going to be days when you need to do what feels right to you. Taking a nap, reading a book, or going for a walk. It’s not all about just crossing things off your to-do list.”

It is peculiar. The merging of expectations of who you want to be and who you actually are.

I’ve made a very conscious decision to not get mad at myself anymore. Well, at least about little things. I’ve allowed myself to stray slightly from original plans. Forgive myself when I spend the day talking on the phone with loved ones rather than applying to jobs or working on my website. When I look at my best-self planner, I have this control. I’ll write things like “sleep-in” and draw a heart next to it, or “be kind to yourself” under goals for the day. It’s as if I’m saying, “I’m the captain of this ship, and I’ll use you how I god damn please!”

I don’t want to discredit the structure of my best-self planner. I’m sure some people use it precisely the way the instruction manual tells you to. Maybe they’re “crushing goals” and have tapped into this vein of productivity—like the charge from Zeus’ thunderbolts—accomplishing every single task they set out to do in their day at the exact time they said they were going to do it.

That just doesn’t work for me.

When we moved here—newlyweds, my husband with a shiny new job in his dream profession—I had already started plotting out the next steps. On walks, we’d imagine ourselves in the sweet three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses. I pictured the children, in this central California setting, swinging from an oak tree and picking warm plums from weighted trees along the street. Soon, I’d have a group of cool, mom friends whom I’d meet with at the park to swap Instant Pot recipes and new-age parenting strategies.

“I don’t think I want to stay here,” my husband said to me one day after work. “The community…it’s too conservative. It doesn’t match our personality.”

Stunned, I sat in our living room, thinking of what to say. He was right. We weren’t finding our people. This was made nearly impossible by having moved there weeks before the pandemic locked everyone in. He wasn’t happy with his job. I had been laid off. And after the death of George Floyd, it became crystal clear that most of the people who lived in this new community preferred the slogan “All lives matter”.

Things weren’t working out like we thought. “Okay, so where do we go?” I ask.

“I’ve been thinking…maybe we go back to Washington? Maybe we live in a van for a while?”

I look around the living room. But we had curated this life, I think silently. Finally decorated our quaint Spanish-Cottage style apartment with a certain sophistication that felt “nice”. We had invested in a duvet cover from Urban Outfitters, a mid-century modern, wooden entertainment stand, a velvet couch, and macramé wall art. We were on our way…weren’t we?

 

It is now 18 days until my birthday.

My husband is away for work for two, possibly three weeks. I make myself a nice dinner of salmon, broccoli, and cauliflower rice (all foods he’s just lukewarm about). While putting away the leftovers I pull out a container. Glass Tupperware—an item I was so insistent upon having for our new place. I donated all the Rubbermaid Tupperware, discolored from curries and marinara sauces, before coming here.

“Why do we need the glass again?”, my husband asked. We were wandering the tall, maze of shelves at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, trying to fill the gaps of our household inventory.

“It’s just nicer. It doesn’t stain,” I explain.

“Hmmm”, he looks at the label of the glass set I’m holding. “Is it worth the price?”

“I’ve always wanted glass Tupperware. This is what real adults have.” I smirked back.

As I held the neat, small rectangle of thick glass for my leftovers, I flashed back to that moment. All the things I imagined for us when we first moved here: buying a house and having children. It all seems daft now. Those things seem woven into this version of myself I kept waiting to be. The hyper-productive, insanely successful, effortlessly thin, perfect skin, obnoxiously stylish woman. I’ve had the trickling realization that not only am I already some of those things, but I’d rather work within the foundation of what I’ve been gifted—physically and cognitively—than to fight to reconstruct it.

Maybe glass Tupperware is overrated. Maybe being “highly productive” is not the only key to successful individuals. And maybe—just maybe—there is no deadline to when you’re supposed to achieve something.

As I finish cleaning up the kitchen, sipping my second glass of five-dollar rosé, I wonder if we are always the best versions of ourselves. Even during the years of doing fucked up shit, and making idiotic decisions fueled by emotion. Because in the end, you needed those versions—mistakes and all—fused together to manifest the best version of yourself today. Which just happens to be a little wiser, tidier, and makes more tasteful fashion choices. Watching all the different versions of myself mesh together to form this older me, I feel nostalgic and grateful. For every outburst, uncontrollable crying session, law broken, frog kissed, and procrastination inside the cloud of a daydream. Because all that produced me—an almost-29-year-old woman with a relentless heart and a determination to follow her dreams.

Sitting outside on our patio, I watch the sky shift—powder blue, orange mist, to hazy pink. I look at the scars on my right shoulder, the ones on my legs, and on my back. I don’t wince like I used too. They are a part of me. It’s not cute to admit that you have the bad habit of picking your skin compulsively, but I’m okay with it. I’m learning how to focus my fingers elsewhere. I don’t advocate it, but it doesn’t help if I berate myself each time I tear off a scab. The scars are there. Along for the ride with me. For the duration. They are my constellations—telling the story of my wild existence.

After all…why fight it?

 

 

If you like this article, check out: https://www.harnessmagazine.com/a-work-in-progress/

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by giannamariestarble

Gianna Marie Starble is a new freelance writer with a long history in the arts. From poems to playwriting to journaling‒-there has never been a moment where Gianna didn’t pause to write something down. At age 16, her play “Collectibles” was one of seven selected out of over a thousand as a winner of The Young Playwrights Inc. National Competition. More recently, she was a winner for the 2020 Write On The River writing competition for non-fiction. When she’s not writing you’ll usually find her running, hiking, cooking or baking without following a recipe while simultaneously listening to a podcast, singing and attempting to learn guitar, or spending time with her wonderful husband. She currently resides in Sonora, California where she continues to write and is beginning to dabble in photography. She is working on a website featuring stories from interviews conducted with various women that capture their experiences. If you are interested in her writing services or would like to find out more about her upcoming project, you can reach her at giannamariestarble@gmail.com.

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