Reflection, 2015

Looking back over 2015, and really, over the last several years, it’s immediately obvious that I have had a lot of struggles. My life now is vastly different from where it was 10 years ago. I’ve left California – where I was born and raised and never intended to leave – to drive across the county, trying out Philadelphia and New Jersey before ending up in a little city in Central New York. I adore it here, and now I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

I went from starting community college at 31, with a new baby, to the last semester of my BA in a History of Art degree at an Ivy League university – only to run out of loans, leave school, struggle to find work, and end up back in community college pursuing a (much more marketable) degree in business. I started freelancing as an editor, and found, one by one, all the ways that freelancing can be a disaster, all the ways I can screw up.

I screwed up as a writer, too, missing opportunities and losing the time and focus I am desperate to put into my writing, spent on dealing with everything else.

I’ve been unemployed – I am, at the moment, uncertain how I’m going to pay the rent next week. I’ve been scared about whether I can provide for my son so much more than I ever thought possible.

My son was diagnosed with a severe speech disorder and autism and ADHD, and we were given a laundry list of all the things he’d never be able to do wit his life. I have spent most of his life being worried and frustrated, struggling to communicate with him, to teach him, to be his advocate; I’ve spent countless hours fighting the state, the school systems, doctors, teachers – anyone who wanted to give up on my son – and educating myself in the process. I’ve done it mostly alone, without any family or good friends close by.

I know I’ve made mistakes, made bad choices, broke down, and been lost. But my child has grown up, found his voice, and exceeds even my expectations, every day. He’s well on his way to becoming a man who can graduate school, go to college, live on his own, and make a life for himself. Not now, not for years and maybe not in the way you’d usually think, but someday.

I was married, and now I’m not. The idea of caring for a child with a disability was the last straw for a man who already didn’t want to make a better life for us, only for himself. We were left without a father for my son, without a partner for me, without child support. We haven’t seen or heard from him in years, and I don’t expect he’ll ever see us again. It was his choice, but in choosing him (and every other bad relationship in my life), it was my failure too.

Over the years, I’ve realized how much I didn’t know. I was horrible with finances, and life-long poverty had never given me a chance to learn. I was never taught how to do well in school, how to be organized and on time, and I had to teach myself while going to college and raising a child. This last semester, going back to college (without the childcare and support I had before) made me relearn it again.

I had a undiagnosed eating disorder for most of my adult life. Over the last few years, I’ve figured that out, sought treatment, sorted myself out, and begun the long process toward a healthier life. But all the years of dieting and fighting with food and “succeeding” only to gain it back… All that time,  I spent disappointed in myself.

I didn’t know how to make a healthy relationship work either. That may have been the biggest failure of my life. So much drama, hurt, wasted time, wasted money, wasted opportunities.

And then, randomly, I found the person I was looking for. The last five years has been hard on us both, as we taught and challenged and supported each other while we both figured out what love and family and a real, solid, partnership was. I don’t know I’ve ever put so much into another relationship, another adult human being, in my entire life, and along the way,  I’ve discovered who I really want to be. And a person who inspires me to be my very best.

Today I am dwelling in my failures. I have made grand efforts, and I have failed. I admit that. I have to.

But I am so loved. I have a family now that I never believed possible. Not easy (never easy) but worth it, and the foundation for the best possible future. I’m writing again. I have a plan for a better life. I fought for that, and that I won.

The rest is a temporary state of learning from my mistakes before back I get up, and try again. I regret every mistake, every failure, every time I hurt someone else or let myself down,  every wasted moment. But I don’t regret where I’ve ended up, or the beautiful life in front of me. I just need to make it happen.

On Failing, Fear, And Learning to Learn Better

I’m halfway through my first semester back in college. So far, I’ve:

  • borrowed, begged, and asked for help to pay my bills without a dayjob.
  • come down with a cold that turned into bronchitis, which meant I…
    • couldn’t go to a doctor because I no longer have health insurance.
    • spent 3+ weeks sleeping.
    • got behind in some of my online classes and had to drop my traditional (in-person) classes, because I couldn’t manage the 35 mile drive EACH WAY to campus while sick.
  • added new online classes to keep my status above full-time.
  • took quizzes, tests in all of my classes; did homework; participated in discussions – basically, all the parts of a class, with a mix of grades from As to Cs.
  • figured out how much I didn’t know about going to college with my life the way it is now.

Or to put it another way: I struggled. I set goals I didn’t meet. I was sick and exhausted, I fell behind, I left myself down (and probably some other people, too), and I felt like a failure.

Because, to be honest, in some ways I am failing. I am not doing as well as I had hoped, making this transition back to college. That’s just a fact.

Yesterday, I wanted to give up. It wasn’t the first time, but it hit me hard. I took a huge risk, going back to college now, doing without a dayjob. I’d hoped to do more freelancing, but being sick meant I haven’t pursued any new work for weeks, so I haven’t even had that income. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of support – thank you! – and with that comes the internal pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. If I don’t do well this semester, I’ve wasted this time, this opportunity. Put my son through this for nothing. Leaned on people who were there for me without anything to show for their faith in me.

It’s tempting to quit. Scrap this whole semester. Recover from being ill. Catch up on everything I’m behind on. Start fresh next semester.

Yesterday, I told my person how awful I was feeling. His response was perfect: that it sucked to feel that way, but I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t alone, and we’d sit down and talk about where I’m at, and what I need. Just it’s okay to feel defeated and let’s sort out where you really are vs what you’re feeling and you’re not giving up, so make a plan based on your options now.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along, and what I needed to be reminded of. I’m not giving up. I’m not running away. Just because it’s harder than I expected or no fun or I’m not succeeding as easily as I want – those aren’t reasons to quit. That’s not who I am.

Instead, I reconsidered the goal posts. (It might be three semesters at community college before I can transfer, instead of two. Would that really be so bad? No, I guess not.) I thought about why I’m struggling. (I definitely need to study more, and research beyond the textbook, to find the information the class assumes I know but I actually don’t.) I thought about why I had certain expectations of myself, and why I judge myself as harshly as I do. (As my friend Mary told me, “You’re not failing. You’re tired. And that’s okay.” Until she said it, I wouldn’t have seen myself that way.)

As much as I hate to feel like a failure at this moment, I think I can learn from all of this. The lessons for me will be: don’t give up, and learn how to be a better student.

Going to school now is not like when I was in college before, and assuming I could easily pick up where I left off is part of what threw me off course. Another part of falling behind was that some of my classes are second or third classes in a series I started when I was in college six or so years ago… I’d thought that because I’d aced those courses before, I’d be okay now. It turns out, I’d forgotten things I didn’t know I was missing.

In some cases, like my International Business class, the work is mainly conceptual. I can read the textbooks and consider the ideas presented, and I’m able to access the information when I take the test. Easy. No problem. In other classes, Accounting and Econ, it’s more terms and formulas that I haven’t been using. Like taking Spanish 2 a decade after you got an A in Spanish one, without so much as having asked “donde es la Bibliotheca?” one time in between.

As of late last night, I’ve caught up on all of my schoolwork. There are things I can’t make up, which will affect my final grades, but going forward I can stay on top of my assignments. I’ve looked at how I study, how I plan my work, and figured out what I need to change. I’ve had to create a new system of tracking what’s due, and what I need to study for. I print out study guides and watch instructional videos. I stay up late to take online tests after my son’s asleep. I examine every wrong answer, every mistake, every failure.

We’re not always going to immediately succeed. Not at college, or writing a novel, or anything in life. Mostly, when we fail, we want to stop trying and do something else. Some people, that’s all they do: run from one thing to the next to the next, looking for that instant and easy success, followed by the admiration of others, and if they don’t get it, they move on again. I can’t do that, not if I ever really want to change my life.

I am tired of failing. I have so done much of it the last couple of years. But when I stop trying to sweep my mistakes under the rug, I start learning from them. Learning to accept that I’d screwed up. (Everyone does.) Learning how to fix my problems. Learning to be brave, to try new things, take bold chances. Learning how to learn better.

I may not get all As this semester, and I may feel dumb a lot of the time as I try to learn this stuff, but I’m not alone, and I’m not quitting.