Baggage Claims

My feelings could beat up your feelings

It was inevitable, I suppose. I have become so emotionally healthy, I’m starting to have panic attacks.

It started in the early ’90s. Those years seemed to be a renaissance for personal growth: Everyone I knew was in therapy or a 12-step group. And thus began my own quest for self-improvement. I wanted to be part of the gang. Our parties, our coffee dates, our walks around the lake—even just running into each other at the grocery store—all were psychological Algonquin roundtables, profuse with feelings and baggage and boundaries and discoveries.

We had so many feelings. About everything. All the time. Plenty of them! In fact, I brought extra in case someone didn’t have enough. Here, let me box some up for you to take home!

And issues. So many issues. Many of us had been diagnosed—either formally by a therapist or casually by a friend—as codependent. We might have been hard-pressed to define what that was exactly, but, like the Supreme Court’s stand on pornography, we knew it when we saw it. I once had a heated exchange of “feelings” with a friend, who then accused me of being codependent. In tears, I hollered that if I was, she had started it. The irony, sadly, was lost on me.

There was no incident so minor nor so routine that some hidden meaning couldn’t be mined from it. I remember starting to get paranoid that perhaps the manner in which I folded laundry belied a suppressed rage about some unresolved issue. I just wasn’t sure what it might actually be. We were frothy with revelations about ourselves, but there was a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses when it came to one’s personal breakthroughs. Sometimes I grasped at straws just to keep up: “I realized it was okay not to like rhubarb!

“And if my mother doesn’t approve of me not liking rhubarb, that’s okay, too!”

We saw our therapists, and we compared our therapists. (Many of my visits consisted of working through feelings of envy about other people having better Higher Powers than mine.) We routinely psychoanalyzed each other, and swapped our therapists’ advice like a cookie exchange. Anyone who was okay with themselves or their life seemed terribly sad and we spoke knowingly about the obvious denial of baggage. We reminded each other: progress, not perfection. But what is progress if not the pursuit of some perfection?

What a time it was. What an exhausting, draining, soul-sapping time. We had no time for superfluous activities like actually living life. We were lucky if we could fit in the microwaving of some pizza rolls around all the self-actualization.

All this came to mind recently when I realized how far behind I’d gotten in constantly assessing my various shortcomings. When I took stock, I realized it was almost as if I wasn’t…discontent. Naturally, it was difficult to face but there it was. I was married to an excellent fellow. I had a wonderful family and terrific friends. I had work that I loved. It was almost as if I was—dare I say it?—enjoying life. Good gravy, how much worse could it get?

And I panicked. If I wasn’t vexed and fretting about something, anything, there had to be something seriously wrong. Had I become shallow? But if I was self-aware enough to contemplate my own lack of depth, did that in fact make me deep? And if I wasn’t taking everything personally and harboring grudges, what would I do with all my free time?

We all know the idiom, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” My response has always been, “Glass? Where’d you get the glass? Am I supposed to have a glass?” I am wont to miss the point of everything.

I laugh at myself to realize this, and I laugh to recollect how fraught those years were. We were house-flippers. We worked frenetically to remodel ourselves, and it was only then that we could be put on the market. Only then could we properly inhabit ourselves. I can’t divest myself of the imprint left by that era and the luxury I had of such navel-gazing. But I wonder if it is simply the passing of almost 20 years that brings with it a more temperate view of life.

I am so lucky my life went on as I was trying so hard to figure it all out. And when I am fretting about things either going well or going badly, there’s one thing I’ve come to understand in my middle age: Whatever it is, it too shall pass. And that it’s okay if I don’t like rhubarb.

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