The Year that was Hard

Here on the last day of the year I am putting things away, and it is not just Christmas decorations. I have been cleaning house both physically and emotionally. I’ve been collecting items into donation piles because I don’t want to carry them forward with me into the new year. I have been rearranging furniture because I plan to use spaces differently. I have been collecting pieces of writing from my blog, my newsletter, my private journals and nestling them all into place inside a book where they will sit together on my shelf with the year 2023 stamped on the spine. A record of the year that was. A hard year, but not a bad one.

The difference between a hard year and a bad one is that a bad year results in coping strategies that need to be dismantled because they are traps and traumas or injuries that need to be healed before growth can happen. A hard year was a difficult passage that sets us up  for future growth.

I first developed this differentiation in regards to my kids and their schooling. Because of their various neurodivergences and mental health challenges we had more hard or bad years than easy or good ones. Sometimes as we scrambled free on the last day of school it was as if we had been drowning for months and finally found a beach. Even when we were exhausted and not ready for future effort, I could tell if my child had grown or shrunk during the year. Often both grown and shrunk in tangled up ways. I would use the summer to try to heal or rest. Then in the fall we would try to set up a better situation in the hopes of having that elusive Good School Year where my parent teacher conferences could be moments of rejoicing rather than intense collaboration or negotiation. Now that my kids are grown, I’m a little sad that I so clearly remember the bad years while the good ones come to mind less readily.

I wonder if, when future me looks back, whether 2023 will feel significant or if it will be lost in the flow of time. I don’t remember much specific about 2005. It just sits there, but the years 1999, 2001, and 2020 all have weight in my memory. Pivot points in my existence. In many ways I think this year was the preparatory year and next year will be the one where I can really see the result of the slow pivots and changes that have been accumulating since the pandemic hit life like a rogue wave. Some of the hard of this year was ongoing pandemic clean up. Floods are like that, there is damage that can only be discovered and work that can only be done once the waters are gone and the deposits of silt and debris are cleared away. Some structures must be knocked down and built anew. Others can be carefully restored and rebuilt.

I thought about this as I collected my year’s worth of words. I read through them all. Sadly, the unifying theme for the year was overwhelm and stress. Even the cheerful entries were bracketed by the ones where I was processing stress by writing it out. The effect was rather like a movie where the shot of a sunny meadow is accompanied by an ominous musical theme. Bright scenes with music that makes one brace for the disaster which is surely coming. My whole year had anxiety as its soundtrack. Here at the end of the year, as I am putting things away, one thing I am certain of: I want a better soundtrack for next year.

I want a life where anxiety is not allowed to steal joy from the bright moments. I want a life where the harder things are only as hard as they actually are instead of also bearing the weight of a hundred possible future outcomes that I’ve imagined, most of them terrible. If I want that life, then I have to change how I cope with my days. This is one of the reasons I name 2023 as hard, but not bad. As a result of this year I am finally ready to dismantle some long held anxiety coping strategies and choose different ones. They were adaptive at the time I developed them, but they became a snare.

After a particularly bad school year, I helped my child unpack their school bag. It had been dumped into a corner and forgotten all summer. The bag was full to bursting because my child had begun hoarding supplies as a means of feeling safe. To protect against the possibility of forgetting their pencil, there were twenty pencils. Thirty pens, five spare notebooks, three books to read, yarn and crafting supplies, fidget toys, and more filled the bag. We unpacked nearly twenty pounds of stuff that my tiny-framed child had carried every day. There was no room for any of the textbooks or notebooks required for class. Those got carried in my child’s arms where they could be seen and double checked constantly to make sure nothing was missing. At the end of that bad year all of it seemed essential. After the calm of summer, my child could see how much simply wasn’t needed and we could talk through strategies to prevent such a burden from accumulating again.

I have spent the last years (at least two or three) with anxiety constantly accumulating things for me to carry. Until this year I was so burdened that every step forward felt like a slog. Pile on top of that medical appointments and expenses which stirred up decades old traumas that I didn’t even realize I still carried. Add large measures of parenting feelings stirred up by family events. On top of that I assigned myself to be prepared for every possible eventuality, which meant thinking up every possible eventuality. I accumulated a huge and exhausting burden of “things to be prepared for”. Until I had a full bag and a pile of things in my arms so that I could check them constantly.

I need to dump out my bag and re-think what I choose to carry. Perhaps I am not always the crisis response team for every loved one with a need. Perhaps I’ve been treating things like crises that actually aren’t. Perhaps my over-preparedness prevents moments of serendipity which I should embrace, moments when someone else gets to step up and be the hero instead of me. Or when they get to fumble through and figure things out for themselves learning and growing in the process. Perhaps the answer is not always I step up and handle it.

This is how I can tell it was a hard year and not a bad one, I am able to decide to manage things differently for next year. I can look at how I carry each of the burdens which I need to keep. I can remember a recent conversation with a friend about my role as household financial manager. She wisely told me that redoing the math several times per week doesn’t change the numbers. It just means I’m stewing in my stress about the numbers. “trust past Sandra.” My friend said “she’s pretty smart and you don’t need to re-do her math. Until there is something new to calculate, leave the numbers be.” I’m going to listen to my friend and put the finances into the bag instead of carrying them in my arms.

A thing I’m going to attempt to abandon entirely is the cloud of self judgement that surrounded so many things. What if when I say “sorry we can’t afford that this month” it is a statement of fact instead of the beginning of an emotional guilt spiral about how I’ve failed in my role as steward of finances. What if I say “sorry I can’t do that” without the massive spiral of social guilt at telling a friend no. What if I just do (or don’t do) tasks without carrying a cloud of anxiety about each one.  What if I put down the extra pencils and trust that I put one in my bag or that a friend will have one for me if I didn’t.

I’ve wandered through a trail of metaphors in this post. Some of them are fighting a bit. I’ve had a theme, a flood, a soundtrack, and a bag. I suppose those are a lot to juggle in a single post, but it’s been that kind of year. The artistic thing to do would be to wander backwards along the same trail, collecting and connecting them as I go. If I could connect all the dots and land this neatly, that would be very satisfying both for me and possibly for you. But 2023 has been messy. It defies my attempts to entrap it inside a single metaphor. (I didn’t even deploy the one where I talk about how I want the story of next year to not be stress-themed.) So I’m going to let all the metaphors stand as they are, each expressing a different aspect of the meaning I’m trying to convey.

Standing here on the edge between last year and new year, it feels like I can make the new year different. Better. Not all at once, but day by day I can choose to set down old coping strategies and pick better ones. Day by day I can craft a year with less disaster clean up, brighter music, a lighter load, and a more hopeful story. The year just passed was a hard year, but I feel ready for the next one.

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