Sacrifice and loyalty, to the point of stupidity

Have you seen those affirmational posts on Instagram about wronged gentle souls? They go like this: “Don’t stop giving, you wonderful human! Yes, I know that everyone else is so mean, hurting you, taking advantage of you, taking you for granted. But the world needs souls like yours! Keep being the awesome, self-sacrificing being you are!”

They always make me think–doesn’t everyone think they’re a fundamentally good, giving person? Sure, I feel like this, but what right do I have to proclaim to the world my saintly victimhood? (Because, don’t be fooled, those posts are a glorification of victimhood and a plea for more of it, thank you, sucker!) Actually, if you think about it, only a small percentage of humans will actually be those benevolent, self-effacing individuals these posts talk about. So it’s hypocritical for the rest of us to pretend we are. After all, it’s downright baffling how many utterly selfish, emotionally stunted people there are (I’ve met them, trust me) who shout it out of the windows: I’m a victim! People always take advantage of me! I’ve been so wronged in my life! Just before they treat you with the sort of cruelty that makes you wonder whatever in the world you did to deserve it.

So, I always have reservations about identifying with those Instagram posts. I know I can be deceiving myself, just as all those selfish non-victims of my past were quite obviously deceiving themselves.

Somewhere about here, my husband and my friends start protesting: “What are you talking about, Ioanna? You are a giving person. You kinda give too much. Stop that! I mean it!”

So, okay. Maybe I am one of those gentle, giving souls, if the people who know me best keep insisting I am. Right?

Husband: “You are. You always do so much for everyone. You take good care of me and the kids. Too good care. You should take less good care of us and better care of yourself!”

Varvara: “You have to learn to protect yourself!”

Dimitra: “You’ve given enough! You have to focus on yourself!”

Okay, okay, got it. Less for others. More for me. On it!

For years–who am I kidding, decades–I’ve been laboring under the manifestly wrong impression that loyalty in friendships is the number one quality one should have. So I’ve been steadfast to the point of stupidity (only recently did I realize that it was, indeed, stupid). I was always there. A friend you could count on. Day or night. People come first, right? What’s more important than the well-being of people? I’d leave everything and run to their help. I’d be there to chat whenever a friend needed me. No matter if it was the middle of the night and I had to get the kids ready for school first thing in the morning, and I had a deadline which I would surely miss because I’d be too tired. Because that’s what friends do, right?

Interestingly enough, no, it’s not. That’s what I do. Very few of those people ever did it for me. Were they in my position, they’d prioritize. Kids, deadline, yup, more important. Upset friend has to find someone else to chat to. Or wait until tomorrow.

Lately, I decided to be strong and start letting go of mentally and emotionally taxing relationships. And, oh boy, is it hard to let go. For me, it’s hard even when a relationship is destructive for my mental and emotional well-being. How can I ever leave someone who may need me, or need the support I can give, even if I, myself, am not all that important to them? I know I’ve had enough mental health problems in my life. I truly empathize. I sure as hell have been a burden, and a rude and aggressive burden at that, and some folks–husband included, Stevie is another one–did not abandon me. What right do I have to abandon someone else?

Well, this line of reasoning can go really wrong. It can make you stay in emotionally draining situations in spite of your better judgment. When your whole inner self screams, “leave!” and you don’t, because you just can’t bear to disappoint a person you care about. Because you don’t come first, right? They do. Others always come first. You’re strong, after all; you can handle it. Just like that time I pushed down my inner need and stayed with someone who needed me, even though it caused me a significant amount of pain to do so.

When I told Dimitra, she was understandably unhappy.

“I couldn’t leave him,” I told her. “He had tears in his eyes.”

And, because she knows me, she replied, “You have tears in your eyes, too, Ioanna!”

She was right. Right then and there I realized I’d been comparing five minutes of tearing up to crying myself to sleep for months. Months. How did I put that up on the scales and judged it equal?

And the other thing I realized with this oh-so-concise statement of hers, was that I consistently believed to my core that my tears, my pain, my feelings, I myself, don’t count. Only his did.

Letting go is a new skill for me. I’m still learning. I have to be careful not to regress to past patterns of behavior. I have to constantly remind myself of the fact that I count. My feelings count. My tears count. My pain counts. I don’t have to sacrifice my mental well-being for anyone. I must admit here that I don’t quite feel this yet. I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that I count just as much as the next person. I always thought I was somehow less worthy of love and care, and therefore my emotional health was somehow less significant than that of those I was trying to take care of. Not only that: it didn’t even figure in the equation. Punching bag Ioanna, with me giving all the punches myself.

Dimitra is bristling up as she reads these lines. She’s right. Why in the world am I less worthy of care than anyone else? Why, indeed? Dimitra thinks I should just stop taking care of others. Sit back and be the queen of my little universe. Let others take care of me. The end.

“You’ve done enough,” she said to me last year. “Now it’s time for others to invest in you.”

Amen to that.

No more one-sided relationships.

No more sacrificing mental and emotional health for love, or friendship, or for someone else’s well-being.

No more crying alone in the night.

No more feeling obliged to take another person’s burden because they suffer and you empathize.

No. More.

Demolish The Boulder

Tonight, I fed the guinea pigs. Real cuties, those two are. They squeaked and squeaked until I had to get the salad from the fridge, sit down on the floor and hold leaves for them to munch on.

Most importantly: I was right there, in the moment. Watching them attack the salad, listening to their adorable chewing sounds – chomp, chomp, – laughing like a little child at the petting zoo.

I was there because space has opened up in my head. I can finally exist in the moment. Because the thing that kept me from living my life is gone.

The thing was there for over a year. Like a viscous liquid you constantly have to wade through, or a boulder you need to constantly carry on your back. Talk with your kids? First set down The Boulder. Go for a walk? You have to haul The Boulder along. Try to escape it, and it rolls along behind you, trying to crush you. You can’t get away. It takes effort and stamina to always, always push through a mental block in order to do literally anything. But that was The Boulder: a sink of effort, energy, emotion. And all the while, nobody can see where your exhaustion comes from. They don’t feel your brain working in overdrive trying to manage life with an invisible burden you lug around, day and night.

Today, for the first time in over a year, I didn’t debate making coffee. I kid you not, I’ve constantly had to convince myself it’s worth the effort to grind the coffee beans, clean the coffee machine sieve, fill it with coffee grounds, press the button. But today, I thought to myself, “oh, that’s actually not much work,” and I did it. Just like that. You can’t imagine how proud I was of myself. Not for the coffee itself. But because for the first time I realised The Boulder weighing me down is truly and utterly gone. Festering limb severed. Healing progressing nicely. I finally have the energy to deal with my everyday life, including the little or big crises that inevitably come with children. And I have the emotional and mental stamina to make a damned coffee.

What the hell is The Boulder, you’re wondering. It doesn’t matter: it was just another obsession. A difficult problem. An emotional drain, a fixation that outlived its usefulness.

When I look back now, I realise there’s always been an obsessive thing in my life. Maybe not as prevalent or oppressive as The Boulder, maybe not as acute, painful, all-consuming, but always there, in the background, draining mental resources, forcing me to multitask to execute the simplest of tasks, because the thing was always there, a process running parallelly in the background. Every other thought was on top of the default baseline of worry and mental wear that the thing induced. Now, after the final break from careers, expectations, conventions, traumas, disappointments, and after a spectacularly successful course of therapy, I can finally be. The background is fading. No all-consuming parallel process running silently inside my skull. The mental space that’s opened up is huge. Is this the capacity, the emotional and mental energy normal people have? People whose brain is not working against their reserves of patience, energy, endurance?

I don’t know how I’m going to put this newly discovered capacity to use, but for now I’m just enjoying not being mentally and emotionally exhausted all the time. I’m enjoying being able to concentrate on one thing at a time instead of constantly having to juggle two. For the first time in my life, I can enjoy things for what they are. Because I demolished The Boulder.

See, freedom ultimately comes from the inside.