Reoccurring nightmare: I am failing out of university.
In theseI have I shown up for a final exam without studying, or a lecture I am presenting but haven’t actually prepared, or a class I haven’t done the reading for. The situation changes slightly dream to dream; different campus or class, different faces and spaces. The theme is the same. Failure.
After these dreams, which began in the spring during lockdown, I wake up slightly sweaty, nervous and highly strung. At best I can deep breathe for a few moments and fall back asleep, at worst I stare at the ceiling for hours, punctuating my anxiety with several chapters of reading before (maybe) returning to slumber. In spring the restless agitation of my days suddenly bled into my only peaceful time, sleeping. I was irritable and quick to temper. My emotions were peaky and forceful. The last time I had felt so emotionally distraught was during my bout with postpartum depression in 2018. Unable to regulate the source of my ire I turned back into the mental health trifecta which saved my life previously: therapy, medication and a support group. This time the main issue – besides the burgeoning global pandemic- was the collapse of my business.
The story won’t be unlike others that will emerge in the coming months and years. It’s simple, actually: the unique offering of my business didn’t have a place to land inside a pandemic. For almost seven years my complete focus had been in creating experiences for people in sport (feeding what I have always assumed was my life’s work: to help bring women to sport) through marketing and communications. Within a short window of time sport as we know it ceased to exist, taking with it the entirety of my business. For the first six weeks of pandemic life I fought with every last ounce of power I had in my body: I worked to keep clients, I worked to acquire clients, I worked to make connections in any place I could. I attended zoom networking events and read essays on pivoting and refocusing and making the best of my current situation. It felt like my efforts were in vain: the sand of Adesso was sliding through my hands and the harder I worked to hold it the quicker it leaked through the cracks of my fingers. The twofold question I started to grapple with was this: to whom was I if not an Entrepreneur, a label I had proudly co-opted as a significant and important part of my identity, and what was my purpose if Adesso was gone and I wasn’t going to be working at bringing people (women) to sport / providing them with meaningful and life-enhancing experiences?
It wasn’t just the loss of my business that was fueling the decline in my mental health. For weeks and months I’d been struggling with Hyperemesis, a sometimes debilitating pregnancy condition which had me vomiting repeatedly for hours (and days) on end. It was the largest source of concern for my physical and mental health in early 2020, by spring it was one more irritation in the smorgasbord of the year. I’d assumed that I would see some resolution in the condition that caused me a handful of hospitalizations and prescription drugs by the mid-point in my pregnancy – and I did- but the ongoing vomiting lasted until the morning I gave birth in August.
For all the physical misery I experienced from January until now, I felt I could not own, share or grieve my feelings. After all, I didn’t have a sick child, I didn’t have a death in the family, I didn’t have cancer or COVID19 or a heart condition or a surgery I was waiting for. This horrifying list of issues affected people in my life who were and still are dealing with something far worse than a collapsed business kept me mute. I am safe, I told myself, alive, surviving. You have nothing to complain about, a small voice said from the depths of my brain. So I said nothing at all.
Day after day, week after week, I would look out from my couch to the street in front of my house, which had never felt more interesting. Who was that walking their dog, and why hadn’t I seen them before? Had that house across the street always had its indoor lights on between 1:00am and 4:00am? Did that black truck with the dinged bumper always park four doors down? Why are those tulips planted on the edge of the alley and the house at the end of the street and not in a garden, and why had I never considered the short but beautiful lifespan of such a beautiful flower? When the bloomed tulips finally withered and died, I stood in front of the haphazard garden and cried as my toddler bounded ahead of me and my dog stood tangled up in the leash around my legs. What are we besides a tulip, destined to wither and die? I knew I probably needed more help as my ugly crying and gasping became so pronounced that I had to sit down on the sidewalk for several long minutes.
An unexpected gig arrived in June and our second daughter arrived in mid-August. In the whirlwind of a new baby and toddler, managing COVID19 cohorts and childcare, my current world, thick with sleep deprivation and uncertainty, feels much like the early days of lockdown. Sleep is short and fleeting, but with it, the arrival of that old dream, back like a loud shout and echo in my brain. Failure, it says. You are now purposeless and adrift, it says. Death, my consciousness says, following me around with intrusive thoughts at all times of the day and night. Everything has a beginning and end. My own brain, causing at times physical waves of panic, now feeling like a tool to be used against me.
It’s back, I told my therapist, on a call a few weeks ago. I’m like a tulip, I’m going to die. My business is dead. My identity is gone. I feel like a wave is holding me down until the water. What next, what now? How does anyone survive this crippling anxiety of moving forward during a time where all I want is for everything to be certain, but nothing is?
There is a long pause on the other side of the video chat, as tears fall down my face. It’s going to be OK, says the same small voice in my head.
“Let’s tackle one thing at a time,” my therapist said, as I breathed deep into my chest and we began to talk.