Maybe it’s because my last kid has left the house and is in college. Or maybe it’s because I’m almost to the point of rounding the final bend to 50. Maybe I’m experiencing a mid-life crisis. Or maybe it’s because I find myself at a crossroads. Regardless of the reason, I’m realizing how deeply exhausted I am. I don’t mean the usual tiredness after a long week or a frenzied end of semester push. That is just good old fashioned bone weariness. And I’m not talking about the exhaustion of working several jobs to make ends meet while holding down all the child rearing and household duties of a parent. That is just regular pure exhaustion. What I’m feeling is much deeper than the mundane tiredness and exhaustion. And before I go on, I want to make clear that I’m not looking for pity, sympathy, or even empathy. I am hoping I can give language to what I’m going through because I hear from many people that they are going through something similar. I see it in the haggard looks I see in people’s eyes as I pass them in the grocery store, approach them in their work role, or meet with them in my work role. Let me see if I can language in a way that gives this exhaustion voice.
I don’t know if it’s an actual thing but I definitely think I have post-traumatic stress from a variety of things in my life. My childhood is one such source. Long-term poverty another. A toxic marriage, divorce, and highly contentious years following that, raising kids, the trauma and drama that kids bring, suicide and suicidal ideation of friends and family, friends and family in crisis, toxic work situations, being power of attorney for my grandmother’s end of life business, grad school (which was also so very therapeutic), working 5 or more jobs to survive, and the list goes on as to all the potential contributing factors. I’ve really been contemplating the ways in which I borrowed against my future self, my future earnings, my future happiness. And looking back across the almost 50 years of my life – or even just the last 30, I’m not sure I had a lot of choice in doing too many things differently and some things, I wouldn’t change for all the time or money in the world – like caring for my grandma in her last couple of years of life.
A part of my exhaustion comes from sacrifice. Always sacrificing my needs and wants in order to prepare myself for a brighter future (still waiting on that one) or to make sure others had what they needed (my kids, my grandma, and the friends or family I’ve helped and supported throughout the years). Some of the sacrifice was necessary. When I couldn’t even afford to pay one deductible, I figured out how to make sure my kids got the preventative and corrective medical care they needed while putting off my own real health needs. As a single parent, I put myself through school. My choices were to work several dead end jobs and have no time with my son (and eventually daughter) or invest in myself and get an education. I chose student loans and college, believing in people I thought were smarter than I (and being told by everyone around me from my parents to financial aid counselors that this would pay off and I’d be in a better position than I was) that education was my golden ticket to a self-sufficient life, off of welfare, and into a life with financial security and maybe a few perks. And I lacked imagination to leverage my associates or bachelors degrees into anything more than secretarial work. Imagination is a funny thing for poor people just struggling to get by, we can’t afford to have our heads in the clouds, we have mouths to feed and people depending on us to keep them alive, safe, warm, and relatively happy. I saw much of this sacrifice as borrowing against the future me to serve the present me because I’ve never had enough, thinking one day it would all pay dividends…I’m still waiting.
I wanted to build something different, something better than what I’d had growing up or had at that moment. And I poured myself into that work – school, raising my kids, gaining professional experience that I could leverage for the job I wanted. But I didn’t really have the time to really strategize what that might look like, what life I wanted to build for myself and my kids, or how to get there. The furthest I got to planning and creating what I wanted/needed for myself and my kids was to try and make home a safe and sane place for us after going through some pretty heinous stuff. I was often responding to crises – my own, my kids’, or the crises of others to the point I felt like a firewoman, putting out fires left and right. I was just trying to survive and keep my head above water. I’m a crap swimmer so I always likened this to treading water in shark infested waters and trying to keep my nose above water while trying to avoid shark bites. And crises kept flying, leaving me feeling like a taught rubber band. I allowed a lot of people to tax my time, energy, and monetary reserves. Some of those people I’d gladly give my reserves to again, some were absolutely not worth the time or energy or money I allowed them to tax from me. And while some weren’t worth it, my willingness to help them was larger than them or myself – I did it for my kids, for the kids of friends, or some other real or imagined obligation.
And really most of what has driven me is a sense of obligation and love. My grandma, for example. She was my best friend, was there when I was born, my other parent in a single parent home. To say I loved her is not nearly strong enough for all the love I hold inside of myself for her. And it was a privilege and an honor to be her chosen power of attorney for her end of life care. But it was also incredibly stressful to manage her needs with that of my kids, schooling, and work. I did all of this for 2 months shy of two years, putting 30,000 miles on the road between my town and her city (75 miles one way) in a matter of 3 months while battling a toxic ex with shared custody of my youngest kid and financially scraping by. And stress doesn’t even cover that time of my life. I did what needed to be done, the best way I knew how at the time, while juggling several balls that couldn’t be dropped.
So here I am, kids raised and pretty much fully out of the house and I’m sitting here asking myself what do I want to do now, where do I want to live, what do I imagine for my future or what’s left of my life? And I’m frustrated because I’ve literally worked myself to the bone to get by and hopefully get a little bit ahead but I was already coming from so far behind and still have many structural barriers that feel like where I’m at right now is all that I dare hope for. I’m in a pretty decent job. I don’t hate it but it doesn’t feed my soul, much of the work is mundane as hell, I’m not intellectually stimulated, I am not fulfilled, and I don’t want to be in the area I currently live. I stayed here for my kids, for stability which meant I sacrificed some things to stay here – like some upward mobility and experience across institutions. I stayed here out of convenience because my ex made my life a living hell for so many years, usually by way of using our kid as a weapon against me. I couldn’t imagine being at a distance from her when it was his visitation in case something happened and I needed to be there to protect her and pick up pieces of destruction.
I spent a lot of time and borrowed a lot of money as an investment in myself. I’ve believed that the harder I work, greater rewards would unfold. I’ve sacrificed happiness in the moment for happiness later – or financial stability, or comfort, and sometimes even sanity. I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps (which is one of the greatest U.S.-centric myths) and tried to pay it forward but lifting others as I go. I’ve played the politeness game, the look how smart I am game, the do a bunch of things and learn a ton of skills game. I have a shit ton of education – an AA, a BA, an MA, and a P.h.D across 3 different disciplines/fields. I tend to think I’m pretty well respected and that people genuinely like and appreciate me and my work across many domains as evidenced by invitations to participate in this and that, speak to this or that group, contribute to a project, etc. I’ve worked my ass off to come from where I did and arrive at where I am now, personally and professionally. And I’m overwhelmingly exhausted.
My life is a never ending series of days that go like this: work/home/tv/sleep. Before this last year, I have had little time or money to travel for leisure in my life. I have not had the money to go to concerts (most are either an hour and a half or 6 hour drive from where I live). For the vast majority of my life, I’ve not had what they call discretionary money to spend on things like the movies, bowling, or anything recreational. I’ve had long stretches of time where even the cost of a toothbrush was beyond my grasp – and that was when I was working 5 jobs: 1 full-time, and the others at home direct sales, piece work, or temporary work…in addition to being a full-time parent. We’ve had shit Christmases where everyone was sad and disappointed. My kid went 5 months of one school year with exactly one pair of pants and didn’t complain. I’ll forever be sad and ashamed of that but that’s the reality of my life. My other kid has desperately needed mental health care and because of the Affordable Care Act, I was able to keep him on my insurance but I couldn’t help him pay for that and he was so poor, he couldn’t either. PTSD is all I can think.
So as I sit on the precipice of whatever comes next for me, I can’t help but wonder if this is all there is and what the hell all of this struggle, debt, and sacrifice was for. I mean one of my kids is certainly better off than I was at her age or previous generations were. One of my kids wasn’t sexually assaulted as a child, breaking generations of childhood sexual abuse in my family. Both of my kids are smart, kind, generous, open minded people. If that’s all there is to my legacy, I’m feeling okay with that if I were to die today. I still don’t have a pot to piss in and I’m angry. All. The. Time. Frustrated and annoyed, perhaps with myself. There is always more to that.
There are so many examples of wholly incompetent or otherwise mediocre people in huge positions of power. Those people are usually white folks. Black, brown, non-Christian, LGBTQ+, women, people with disabilities, poor people can never rest on our laurels. We can’t afford to be mediocre or incompetent. We’d literally never survive. People like to spread the myth that money doesn’t buy happiness and to them I say, it might not buy happiness but it will pay my bills which makes me happy after years of working my ass off to be around $400 in overdraft. Every. Single. Pay. Period. EVERY. SINGLE. DAMN. PAY. PERIOD. And my bills were so significantly behind that one credit card company got a judgement against me and started garnishing my wages. My power, water, or phone have been shut off more times than I care to admit. Not because I refused to pay my bills but because I had zero money to pay them. I was barely surviving on payday and title loans which only made a worse case scenario worse. I went into a job every day that I loved but was also working me to the weary bone phase of exhaustion, you know the one that will actually kill a person, wondering what the hell I was doing and why.
Today I can at least pay all my bills regularly (not necessarily on the due dates but regularly). I carry so much debt (student loans mostly and now borrowing for my kid to go to college) that I’ve reconciled myself to dying with that debt, never remarrying (didn’t want to anyways, once was way more than enough for me), or owning a house. I still work several jobs – the full-time job, piece work, and adjunct work. I can afford to be a little choosy with this extra labor so I pick up work that interests me or feeds my soul in ways my full-time job does not. I need the money still, just not as desperately as a few years ago. I’m wondering how hard I have to work to be afforded some of the privileges of an incompetent or mediocre white guy. Like seriously, how hard do I have to work to reach that pinnacle of privilege?
So if this is my life from now until I die (oh, I won’t ever be able to afford to retire), I’m wondering how to increase my happiness quotient and what that might look like. I know what I have passion for in my work life and I know I don’t want to live in the geographical region I currently do. And part of me just wants to say fuck it and find another doc program that will fund me to study (but I still have financial obligations), travel the world and teach English as a second language (but my dogs are old and rehoming them would be cruel and cause them so much distress, they’re older, will eventually die and I’ll be free from being responsible for life for the first time in 38+ years), I could rake sand for beer/food/housing in a tropical location (this sounds better every single damned day), or I can sit here in a job and geo-region I don’t love that sucks a little bit of my soul every day, making a paycheck to pay bills that I keep creating to fill the frustration and sadness of this life like I’ve been doing the past several years.
My kids are my everything, through all the struggle and all the pains and joys of life, they are my heart and soul. And it’s okay to just exist. Shit, that sounds mighty damned nice after all the humps, bumps, hurdles, and swift kicks in the teeth, just existing would be heaven. However, it either requires I live somewhere I wouldn’t mind existing: large body of salt water nearby, things to do that I like doing like hearing live music other than country, blue grass, the one guy acoustical band, etc, and outdoor activities I actually want to do. Not complaining, I do have it pretty damned good especially measured from where I once was. And my job is a pretty good gig even if it isn’t my passion and I find some parts of it irritating. If it were somewhere with the amenities I want, I’d dig it. Or I’d be willing to take a pay cut (in real dollars or cost of living) to be closer to some of those things. I’m damned tired of struggle and sacrifice for the nebulous someday thinking that got me here. And no matter how good it has gotten, the struggle to get here was hellishly exhausting and I’m finally feeling the full release of that.
I know I’m not the only person feeling this bullshit. As I’ve been drafting this blog, I’ve hopped over to my Facebook and saw 3 different friends post something similar to this. And still I don’t have full language to bring this piece to life like I’d like. But there it is. There has to be more to life than this, otherwise, what has it all been for?