An anonymous story
Every week, I meet with a small circle of fellow students. We gather in the counseling center, each of us hoping to share the load our bereavement, to find meaning in our collective hurt. In a stroke of the morbid humor that is the product of loss without reason, we’ve come to call ourselves “The Dead Parents Club”. But this week, I feel a distance between us, between myself and my peers. After all, my parents aren’t dead. And I feel guilty, because more often than not, I wish they were.
I’ve known guilt well, among a host of other confusing emotions. My dad has a heart condition that renders him perpetually on the verge of death, largely immobile and unable to take care of himself; my mom has Alzheimer’s – she rarely recognizes me, her own daughter. I was raised by my brother, who is ten years my elder. Alongside the standard growing pains of the young, he and I have trudged through lawsuits, endless hospital visits, and four years of living in a Courtyard Marriot, where I would walk my mother down the halls only to have her forget my name and the number of the single room that was becoming our more-and-more-permanent home. The burden of caring for two parents when it should be the other way around is crushing, but one that I must shoulder until they pass. And so I return to my guilt – because I hope they do soon. Because when they do, I can finally care for myself.
Through all four years of high school, I concealed my struggle. I bottled it up inside me, only to deal with it when absolutely necessary; otherwise, I found solace in keeping up the façade of perfection. Amidst the chaos, pain, and confusion of my situation, the best way to escape seemed to be by ignoring it altogether. It was out of my control. To make up for this, though, I felt compelled – deeply, constantly – to be perfect in all that I could control. School was where I would exercise the only agency I had, and I allowed no excuse for anything less than I felt I was capable of.
I sacrificed sleep. Some nights I only got two or three hours, instead working, refining, perfecting essays and problem sets into the early morning light. Not even my closest friends had the slightest idea why I would vanish from school (to help my brother care for my beleaguered parents), only to return unannounced weeks later. I didn’t want to burden them, but even more so, I didn’t want them to feel pity for me. To tell me I’m strong. I’m no stronger than any of them: I just did what necessity required of me.
Last semester, my dad was supposed to finally pass on. Catastrophically, he didn’t. So now I have to continue to struggle, because I have no choice. But, if nothing else, I’ve begun to accept the struggle, and that by the very nature of it I will sometimes fall short. My mom passed away in February, and with that has come a rejection of perfectionism and the realization that I can’t grieve and study and do everything perfectly, all at once.
I used to think perfection meant not struggling. Since coming to Davidson, I’ve opened up to those close to me, and it’s helped me realize that perfection is not only impossible, but not necessarily desirable. Instead of seeking it, futilely, I try to focus on the things that mean a lot to me, the things that I truly care about. I don’t place my self-worth where it doesn’t belong – in places where it isn’t mine at all. But even now, I still feel that creeping pressure when someone asks me what I’m doing this summer, or how my research paper is going. I still feel that urge to make up for the wrong in my life by perfecting the right. Like everything, it has its flaws. It’s a work in progress.
This story originally appeared in Facing Perfectionism, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.