As I prepared to pack up my house, my family and all things I might need to begin my Fulbright, I encountered something I had not planned to tackle. And trust me, I had lists of things I had planned to tackle. Get visa…check. Pack lightly enough to move easily around trains…check (I actually packed 5 whole days before I left). Find places in Bordeaux for all my essential services (nails, pharmacy, allergy shots)….check. But then just as I had been working through my lists and crossing things off with ease, friends and colleagues began to make me wonder. People in my life who only wanted to support me also had a need to express their own fears. They had fears I wouldn’t return. They had fears about what I would be doing with my house. They had fears about what I would find in a new place. Other people’s fears began to dominate my own thoughts about a week before I was due to leave. Compounding my packing and preparing, I also had to end the semester.
The end of any semester is always busy. For me it is even busier because I help lead the graduation ceremonies for my university, the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Graduation is among my top five favorite parts of my job. To see students standing together united as Blazers (our mascot, a very cool dragon) makes me feel so many emotions. I feel pride, joy, respect, and hope all at the very same time. Basically my role is to ensure that all the moving pieces move together as one. We want our students to think the ceremony was perfect no matter what really happens.
One can imagine the amount of stress planning such an effort can produce. At the same time, fall graduation occurs during the holiday season, not to mention grades are due at the exact same time. Needless to say, this particular December was a bit more than I could handle. I thought I could do it all if I just made enough lists. I had graduation lists. I had packing lists. I had shopping lists. And I had cleaning lists. Now I am not a list maker so just having to make the lists was stressful.
I realized things were not going as planned when one week before my departure, I found an item that was not on my list. It was aquaphor, my favorite lip hydrator. Silly right? Not having this on my list gave me a mini melt down. What else had I forgotten? My stomach cramped, I threw up. I doubted everything I had already put together. It also happened that this was the day before graduation. At every meeting I went to, people were asking me if I was ready. That question put a feeling of dread in my chest. I wanted to say “Well I thought I was but you asking me isn’t helping!”. The fears of my friends and were starting to create fears in me. I didn’t have a ton of time to try to process the new mix of emotions with graduation and the end of the semester so I just stuffed it all inside.
I have a usual set of tools when I am looking to destress. I take walks and listen to my favorite podcasts or music. I do yoga or take a spinning class. I try to ensure I go to bed at a reasonable time (9:13 if I am lucky) and I try to limit myself to 1-2 cups of coffee. Any more coffee than that and I am likely to come snap at people because I get too wound up. Unfortunately, this December none of those things were working. I could use them to keep myself pulled up over the ledge but as soon as I encountered other people’s anxiety over my departure, I would lose my grip and slip back down.
Most of their comments were very well meaning. People would ask where I was going to live, where my son would be going to school, what types of work I would be doing. For me the hardest part was that I would have to answer each of those questions between 8 and 20 times per day. It was exhausting. I said the same answers so many times that they began to sound phony. Doubt crept in over and over again and I became confused about just what I was doing. As it all came to an exhausting end, I realized an important thing. I needed to get away from people.
Get away from people? I am a huge extrovert. I love noise and chaos. I work better when there is something buzzing around me. And here I was working from home more and more. I found that staying at work after about 1 pm was just not productive for me. I was unable to get anything done. People kept stopping by with the same questions. If they weren’t asking one of the standard questions, they would inevitably ask if I could just do a quick project for them. 10 people each asking me to do a 2 hour project amounted to half a week of work that I hadn’t planned to do. If my skills at saying no were more refined, this wouldn’t be a problem but they aren’t. So I just stayed home to avoid it.
Through this process I learned something valuable. The fears and needs of others are accentuated during major life changes as I was experiencing. I never realized how often I try to internalize other people’s fears, dreams, and other emotions. Heading to Bordeaux to embark on a new experience is going to be wonderful to help me begin to process these emotions. Hopefully, I can develop practices to balance out my own needs and emotions with those of other people.