The Trouble with Having it All

We have a funny way of believing that a busy life is equivalent to a rich one. We — men and women alike — seem to place greater value on being jam-packed with obligations from dawn to dusk over having the freedom of nothing. We fear nothing. We worry during times of nothing. We wonder what responsibility we’re forgetting or what item on our checklist could and should be completed in nothing’s stead. We are taught to believe that rest and relaxation are akin to laziness; that “me time” is self-indulgent; and that stillness is the antithesis of productivity. And yet the trouble with having it all — I know this first hand — is the risk will inevitably outweigh the award.

The last few months I’ve had it all: love; a career; family and friendships; a passion that became a budding side-business; success; travel; physical exercise; six servings of fruits and vegetables a day; a beach-body; great hair; and a sense of humor. I’ve also had moments of sheer panic; crying spells; stomachaches; racing thoughts; confusing dreams; and one early miscarriage. I’ve snapped photos on the shores of exotic islands and made darling quips about relatable nursing problems between financial stress and family illness, questions of physical capacity and emotional strain. I’ve painted a public portrait of how it appears to have it all, leaving behind the reality that having everything doesn’t always mean rainbows and sunshine. I’ve suffered silently. I’ve wondered endlessly. And I’ve tried like hell to put rose colored lenses on the moments better left unseen. The trouble with having it all is it’s a lopsided existence: everyone expects the glitter even when you’re mucking through the mud.

This year has forced me to take a good, hard look at who I am and what I value, because I refuse to “have it all” any longer. My physical, mental, and emotional state finally came to a head when I arrived at a Podunk community hospital to greet my parents in the emergency department a month and a half ago. I watched a team of professionals who attempted to treat my mother for one issue create another. I tried to reason with the physician who opted to treat her in his own way instead of listening to my insight and advice. And as I watched asystole scroll across the cardiac monitor — even if only for just a moment — I was greeted with a wake up call. The team tried to chemically convert my mother out of a cardiac arrhythmia with a medication that transiently causes the heart to stop: and no, it didn’t work (just as I told them)…but the residual side effect lives within me. Three seconds of a flatline slapped me in the face. I had been bobbing between work, home, social commitments, family engagements, and helping my mom with her medical problems without any sign of a life preserver. I was drowning and I didn’t realize it. My head had been beneath the water for months, and instead of acknowledging that I desperately needed to come up for air, I convinced myself that I had the gills to maintain at such a pace. It had been months since I experienced nothing: since I had the time to rest and reflect and recharge in a way that is so deeply necessary. And what was of greater concern was that I stopped writing; I halted the creative process, perpetually telling myself that I would “sit down and write something new tomorrow.” Tomorrow came, and yet I persisted to neglect myself. I continued my torrid love affair with having it all, completely unaware of just how deeply it would cut me in the end.

So I cut it off. I ended my relationship with doing it all, all of the time, and applied for medical leave from work to be more present in my home and family life. I finally put guilt and obligation and excuses aside and reminded myself that while four weeks wasn’t nearly enough…it was a start. I understand that it’s not always possible to “take a break” from life: as a matter of fact, this time away has been anything but a vacation. But if you can mitigate one stressor and refocus on what and who matters around you, it can help you find your center of balance in an off-kilter existence once again. Having it all isn’t glamorous. Constantly doing isn’t healthy. And being packed to the brim won’t every give you sufficient time to take inventory on your own self-worth. A dear friend recently put it best: your psyche, she said, is like a bucket of water. Your bucket is never going to get bigger: what you see is what you get. But how you fill your bucket — that’s up to you. And we — especially women — are notorious for allowing our pails to overflow, dumping important pieces of ourselves for the sake of space for something new. We don’t yet have children, but I imagine this analogy only becomes more real; complicated; cramped; overflowing with thoughts and worries, soaking the pavement with doubts and fears as life and time whizz by.

And maybe this is just how life is: curve ball after curve ball with an occasional home run that seem to validate the stressors. But trust me when I tell you: the idea of having it all isn’t worth the stress and anxiety that come with it. The physical manifestations and emotional strain are too large a price to pay for “just one more shift” or “just one more dance class” or “just an hour at that party” or “I’ll go to bed as soon as I finish.” I am not perfect and I am not an expert but I am very notoriously an “all or nothing” kind of person: I am working like hell to be less “all” and more “nothing.” I have taken to meditating daily — some days even for three short minutes — as a way to simply acknowledge my worries; put them in a box; and breathe. I have cut back on exercise: I still workout a couple times a week, but now it’s a casual jog-stroll among the trees instead of a six mile sprint in a cold and sterile gym. I have started a new television show and watched it without disruption. Anyone who knows me understands this is not my norm: I am the eternal multi-tasker. For me, television has always been background noise for a book to read or a project to start. I’m not saying Game of Thrones changed my life: but you can’t really keep track of the latest happenings in Westeros if you’re constantly checking your email. It has been, without question, a welcome distraction and a means to disconnect. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned, though, is this: how to say no. You’re allowed to decline without explanation. You have permission to pass without fault. You don’t have to say yes to everyone and everything else if it means saying no to your self. I have had countless people reach out to me since publishing a book about “what comes next.” I’ve had meetings with foreign book agents and phone calls with international distributors asking who and what and how and where and when and why…and with each conversation, I’ve reminded myself why I even write in the first place. For me, it’s an escape; it’s a release; it’s a means to a psychological end. I used to believe that writing was like dessert: the icing on the cake of every other obligation, only to be tasted when life’s tasteless dinner is complete. But today I realize it’s not just a sweet treat — not for me. For me, writing is water, fire, shelter, and air. Without it, I am a shell of a person. Without it, I cannot be me. And if you think that sounds dramatic, I assure you: you don’t want to see who I become without it.

So take this as a word of advice or a point of reflection or a cautionary tale: the trouble with having it all is that you end up risking everything. Physically, mentally, emotionally: if you can’t relish a taste of nothing now, you’ll end up with all of the struggles later. Ask for help when you need it. Take the time when it serves you. And embrace how liberating it feels to let go of “having everything.”