Daring to be
BY DR. CELIA SPRAGUE
Dr. Sprague is a rural GP and mama of two littles, who loves to write about life in the backwoods of Northwestern Ontario.
Standing at the kitchen sink, I stare blankly out the window into the blue-sky, spring morning. My fingers feel cool as they grip the edge of the dark, stone bowl. I am holding on for dear life. My chest rises against an unseen weight of three decades worth of emotional baggage, a global pandemic, stories of violence and sadness seemingly at every turn and I can’t breathe. I feel like I am crawling out of my own skin.
My breath comes quickly and shallowly as I will my body not to fall off the edge into full blown panic. Behind me, something crashes in Henry’s room and the inevitable wailing and ‘MOMMMMMMM!’ requests follow. My frenzied heart beats thunderously in my chest, matching the frantic desperation that envelopes me. Everywhere I look, I see chaos. It rudely stares me down in the coffee grinds of Blake’s last espresso, scattered across the counter. It shows itself in the hundreds of ant-sized bits of paper sprinkled all over the living room floor, matched with a forgotten pair of scissors cast down by small hands as imaginative minds have careened on to the next 4 year-old adventure. It makes itself known in the layer of crushed Goldfish left behind from snack time, in the trail of dirty socks that pepper the floor in vicinity of the empty laundry bin, in the powerful scent of urine emanating from the wall next to the toilet, outing a certain 5 year-old’s inability to aim. I am surrounded, overwhelmed and defeated. Try as I might, I am losing this endless war in which I am seemingly the solo defender.
I clench my eyes shut and try to focus. “Drop your breath, drop your breath,” I remind myself, echoing my therapist’s words in my chattering brain. Like a toddler, I hold my belly and force it to rise as I draw in air. I let it go slowly. “Again,” I command to myself. In and out, my belly protrudes and flattens, forcing my breath to slow. Despite the ongoing, incessant ‘MOMMMMMMs’, I stand my ground and breathe with my belly until the worst of it is gone. I am now at least one step back from the cliff’s edge.
Today is a ‘home day’ as Henry calls it. A gift of time to be spent entirely at home with the kids after a series of gruelling, successive days and nights of call for our local obstetrics service. This day is what I had been looking forward to all week, but I am wound tight and overwhelmed, pushed to the edge in ways that I never experience at work.
My mind carries me to the night previous, where I had attended a delivery in our rural community hospital. It had been the woman’s first delivery and the excitement that she and her partner shared was palpable. Her pregnancy and labour had been straightforward but as she entered the pushing stage, her baby’s heart beat dropped precipitously with every contraction, heralding an ominous exit through the birth canal. As the babe was soon thrust to the outside world, sickly thick, meconium-stained water pooled between the woman’s feet; the babe had had a bowel movement in utero and now his lungs were full of turbid, tarry, particulate fluid. In a glance, I knew what was coming next. Severing the connection between Mom and babe, the cord was swiftly cut and the babe’s limp, pale body was silently placed into my hands to be carried to the nearby resuscitation warmer. “Heart rate less than 100”, barked the nurse as we worked to provide breaths into the babe’s lungs, my gloved hands slippery with the pea-soup coloured fluid that coated the baby’s body. “Heart rate less than 60 now,” continued the nurse. “Start compressions,” I responded. “Call a code. I’m going to intubate.” I grabbed the laryngoscope. The metal felt cold and hard in my palm as I passed the tiny tube into the baby’s airway. My hands were moving in a knowing, methodical way, but my thoughts floated far above me, distanced from the dire scene that was unfolding. “This baby is dying now,” I thought calmly. “He is dying in front of me.” The injustice of a life ending before it had even had had a chance to begin.
Days later, as I sit prickly with sweat in front of my laptop, I describe the neonatal resuscitation to my counsellor. 1,800 km away, she tilts her head subtly to the side, without responding. I know that she is urging me to continue. “I just cannot understand why I feel so calm in the worst possible situations at work, but the sight of peanut butter smeared across the counter makes me panic and rage! It’s so ridiculous!” I am angry now. Angry at myself and my need to vent over my god-damn inability to cope with the dirty floors in my house when rubber bullets are flying at protests, racial injustices scream from online news headlines, cities are literally burning while their tyrannical political leader responds with threats of military force against its own civilians, all during a world-wide pandemic that has lost the global community’s interest; apathy that will certainly result in more lives lost.
I’m ashamed, lost and confused. My desperate need for perfection in every realm of my life, including in my own home is eroding my relationship with my husband, interfering with my ability to enjoy my kids and is suffocating my home life.
“How did I get here?” I wonder aloud, but there is a quiet knowing underneath. I know. I know, because this perfectionism dance has been my armour for my entire life. It has been my hustle for as long as I can remember, a hustle for love, a hustle for acknowledgment, a hustle for validation, a hustle for self-worthiness. When life got hard, instead of calling out for help and revealing my struggle and vulnerability, I put my head down with the belief that if only I could work that much harder, all would be well again. But I am tired, so, so very tired.
A year ago, while mindlessly surfing through Netflix, I stumbled across a thumbnail linked to an on-screen lecture by professor, researcher and storyteller, Brene Brown. I had heard of her work before through an online network of fellow Canadian female physicians and I knew the main topics of her work were shame and vulnerability. Ironically, I had passed over recommendations to read her words because I didn’t think they had really applied to me. Why did I need to learn about shame and vulnerability? This didn’t seem to relevant to my life nor did it seem to speak to me in any way. I had been raised to highly value hard work and independence; ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. No time to waste with fluff, if life got hard, you put your head down and you worked harder.
This familial culture had been I’m sure, in part, passed down by my maternal grandfather who had gone from a working-class farm hand to an accomplished lawyer, member of parliament and city mayor by sheer hard work and determination. These hardwired values were apparent to me from my early childhood. I worked doggedly on school projects with an overabundant worry about my report cards from the get-go. As a teen, I participated in every high school sport, played clarinet in the school band, ran student government, skated competitively in our community and stayed up late into the night hammering out study notes on our clunky family desktop computer. I expected only the best from my teammates and from myself. I was independent and focused. I graduated with multiple academic awards, acceptances into three Canadian Ivy League Universities and received the ‘Best All-Round Female’ award – a culmination of all of my high school efforts. These traits continued to serve me well as I pushed through an academically rigorous pre-med degree at Queen’s University while working to support myself, continuing to skate competitively, volunteering at the local hospital, working with student-run organizations in health education and in Indigenous health, as well as chairing an environmental advocacy group.
Yet below the surface, I was struggling; my mental health crumbling underneath the mountain of self-ladened, unachievable expectation of perfection. My parents would call, asking me how I was doing and I would respond with generic answers, fight back tears and hastily hang up the phone as to not show them what I thought was weakness. This only fuelled the fire and made me work harder. If I only achieved more, all would be ok.
Eventually, I was accepted into medical school then into residency. In the culture of medicine, where diligence, hard work and zero regard for self-care was dogma, my ingrained notion of work ethic were only more positively reinforced. There was simply no room for fragility, emotion, or vulnerability. I was spat out on the other side of my exhausting years of training as a newlywed with a baby on the way, starting a job as a rural family physician in an isolated community serving Indigenous patients.
I had achieved ‘success’ in all senses of the word in my personal worldview; perfect family, perfect house on the lake, perfect job that I had always dreamed of, a perfect life. It was the finish line. I had done it! Years and years of sleepless nights, tears, emotional turmoil and work had resulted in these achievements. I looked around frantically. Could anyone see me? Was anyone proud? Was this enough? Was I enough yet?
Opening the door into Brene Brown’s research was like painfully holding a mirror in front of my face. After watching her Netflix presentation, I immediately powered through three of her audiobooks, then bought hardcopies to re-read them, underlining ‘Aha moments’ on every page.
Dr. Brown’s research speaks about human connection and communication, how we foster a sense of belonging and become shame resilient in our lives through courage and vulnerability while working towards what she calls Wholehearted Living. Brown is a master storyteller and presents her work with captivating hilarity, yet will bring you to you knees with the simplest of truths of how all humans so desperately need to connect and to be loved. It is not an understatement to say that Brown’s work has completely revolutionized the way I parent, lead at work and connect with Blake. But most importantly, it has been the impetus to begin the journey toward myself.
When reading Daring Greatly, Brown’s 2012 book on using the tool of vulnerability to inform how we live, lead, love and parent, the margins had become scratched up with a multitude of light-bulb moments as I saw myself in her words. I realized that somewhere along the way in my life, I had switched from working hard, striving for my goals for ME, to completely hinging my self-worth on my ability to achieve for OTHERS. I was a middle child, wanting everything to be perfect and everyone to be happy and I would work my damnest to make that happen. Don’t rock the boat.
Please. Perform. Perfect. Repeat. Please. Perform. Perfect. Repeat.
What I have come to realize through reading Brown’s research, however, is in this debilitating dance, I have spent my whole life ‘armouring up’ and preventing myself from truly being seen. I knew that if I let anyone peek behind the curtain, I believed that I would be certainly subject to harsh judgement and criticism and my secret would be out; I just wasn’t good enough to be truly worthy of love.
“Perfectionism is the ultimate fear… People who are walking around as perfectionists… They are ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and they won’t measure up.” – Oprah, in a 2013 interview with Brown
“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at it’s core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.”
Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve?
Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?
Perfectionism is a hustle.”
– from Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Almost forty years into my life, I am only now coming to this realization that I have, and continue to live with an outside focus. I have been hustling all my life.
Of course, changing one’s core belief system is not an overnight job. To dismantle the framework upon which you have built your entire existence takes an incredible amount of work and I am literally only just taking my first steps. It is uncomfortable to say the least! I still squirm in my seat during my therapy sessions – deconstructing and examining your true, unhidden self is sometimes paralyzing. Writing these words has been beyond agonizing, but I desperately want to live my life differently, to be loved by Blake and connect with him in a deeper, more authentic way and to regard myself with compassion and empathy. Most of all, however, I want my children to know that they are loved just because they ARE and not because they DO. I have realized that the most impactful way to do this is to model these behaviours towards myself and this will be the most difficult hurdle to overcome.
Finally, in the chaotic, uncertain, terrifying world in which we all currently live, it is not shocking that Goldfish crumbs are thrusting me towards near panic. I know that I am not alone in this. Now, more than ever, Brown’s work is relevant to all of us. We need to reach inside ourselves to be brave, choose courage over comfort, demonstrate authentic vulnerability to those we trust to bring hope, true connection, resilience and healing to our own lives, our families and our communities, both big and small.