The Girl who Couldn’t: Stories, Self-worth, & Toxic Independence
Have you ever had something happen that made you question your character, your value, your self-worth? It happened to me recently and folx it wasn’t pretty.
This post is about self-sufficiency, failure, and the stories we tell ourselves. Read on for more about how a queen-sized mattress broke me down and made me question EVERYTHING. Yes, you read that right. A mattress.
I bought my first home way back in December, but only recently ordered a bed for my new bedroom. I picked out a memory foam mattress, which I’m sure I’ll regret if I ever decide to have sex again. But that is a post for another day.
When the mattress arrived, I dragged the box up the stairs to my apartment. Then I dragged it up another flight of stairs to my bedroom. I unboxed and unrolled and left it alone to inflate for the 24-48 hours prescribed. It was a beautiful day, the first sign that the end of winter was near, so I opened my bedroom windows to let the fresh air in.
Two days later, the mattress fully inflated and shaped, I planned to assemble my just-arrived bed frame and get some seriously good sleep. But as I approached the mattress to move it out of the way, I noticed something. A little something. A little, black something with legs!
CUE THE PANIC! SOUND THE ALARM! BUGS AHOY!
A siren went off in my head, and while I know jumping to conclusions is dangerous, so, too is allowing bed bugs to jump into your rug. I did what any rational person would do: Assumed the new mattress was infested with bed bugs and got it the HELL out of my room to investigate further.
But I wasn’t about to unzip this mattress cover in my living room, potentially unleashing a swarm of bugs into my beautiful new couch or my squishy, fabulous rug. No, no. I shoved that mattress out the door and all the way downstairs into the empty apartment for further inspection. This vacant apartment, which will be filled someday if I ever get my landlord Act together, was the perfect place to find out what was really going on inside the mattress.
I carefully unzipped the cover and removed the foam bed. I stood it up against a wall and walked slowly around it. Inspected every inch with as much suspicion as a murder suspect. I examined every fold of the now empty mattress cover. Still, I found nothing. No bugs and no sign of them.
I really hate uncontrolled variables. And that was the biggest problem on this day. You see, the day I had unboxed the mattress had also been the first day I opened my windows. My unscreened windows. You see where I’m going with this.
There was no way of knowing where that bug actually came from—inside or outside. Did it simply fly in through the window and crawl its way onto my new bed? Or was there an unseen infestation brewing in the corners of the rug, under the baseboard heater, in the mattress itself?
I know the simplest explanation is often the right one. But when it comes to things that crawl, I don’t mess around. Despite logic telling me it was likely the first option, a simple side effect of an unscreened open window, I couldn’t just assume the best and risk the worst.
I called out of work when I had the slightest symptom that could have been COVID, despite feeling certain I didn’t have it. I wear masks even though I’m not sick. I set alarms on multiple devices when I have an early report time at work. All of these things can be considered a bit overkill (this is the foundation of the anti-masker argument, after all.) But the fact is, “overreacting”, the slight inconvenience it might produce, is far better than the alternative. Getting someone else sick, the guilt that would come with that, oversleeping through work. (I did it once, and you can read about it here.)
Sometimes “overreacting” is just mitigating risk. It is just a matter of priority. Taking the extra step to protect against disastrous outcomes. Layers of swiss cheese.
For me, assuming there was a bug infestation and taking care of it in the most diligent way possible, was better than the alternative of assuming the best and possibly finding out later that I had been wrong. So, I got to work.
Further inspection of the intruder and consultation with Google assured me that the little bugger was not, in fact, a bed bug. Phew! This was a huge relief. Nonetheless, I took on an insect mitigation process that involved a lot of internet research, diatomaceous earth, and the purchase of a shop vac.
Once this lengthy (and very annoying) process was over, I felt confident that the mattress downstairs was clean and ready to be brought back upstairs for my first night of sleep.
Did I mention to you that I have been sleeping on an air mattress since December?
Bringing it up
I knew it would be a bit of a struggle to get the mattress back upstairs now that it was full-sized. But I had dragged a solid wooden bureau up those stairs by myself. Two large boxes containing my sofa. An 8×10 rug. When it came to this house, I had done everything by myself. And I had brought the mattress downstairs just the day before. I could totally handle it. Right?
It started off okay. I pushed and pulled its foamy girth up each step, one by one. I shifted its weight and my position. I tilted as necessary and used “on-the-count-of-three” surprise force tactics. Still, I kept running into the same problem. At the top of the stairs is a small landing, where the mattress would have to turn the corner and lift over two more little steps to get in the house. This is where we struggled for about an hour. Where it pushed back against every method I tried to get it in. Where, dripping in sweat, I shed layers of clothes and fountains of profanity. Where my patience was tested over and over again and, ultimately, where I would be defeated.
I knew what had to be done. The mattress needed to be tilted upward, while the bottom was pushed up the final step to the landing. So that it would be standing tall, not wide, and could then swoop inside the doorway. But each time I tried, tilting it up just so, by the time I pushed the bottom, the top tilt fell, and it was sideways again.
If my arms were two feet longer, if I could have held both sides simultaneously, I could have executed my plan.
This was infuriating. To have solved a puzzle, to know exactly how to get the thing done but still be unable to accomplish it. To accept that for all your problem solving and wit and drive and determination it was a lack of strength that would result in failure.
What the hell.
Where’s my value if I don’t have this one big,
Cut to me crying on the living room floor. A true adult tantrum. It lasted only moments, three tears max, but the feeling was deep and lasted longer.
It wasn’t just the mattress. It was the failure. It was not being enough. It was needing help that was killing me in that moment. And rather than trying to talk myself down or lift myself up, I poured salt in the wound and leaned all the way in.
“How am I going to raise a child on my own if I can’t get this past these two little steps?”
(No, I’m not pregnant, but at 35 and single, the active plan is to become a mother on my own in the next few years.)
“How am I going to conquer the world if I can’t conquer some memory foam?”
I know this probably sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But at the bottom of this mattress fiasco, was a kernel of something bigger.
It felt like my independence was on the line.
Independence isn’t a byproduct for me. I don’t just ‘happen’ to be doing things by myself. The alone part is one of the things I’ve chosen. It feels sometimes like the most important thing.
When independence is so intertwined with how you perceive yourself, it can be crushing to need help. It can topple the house of cards you’ve built around you. Unravel your tightly woven confidence in an instant. Leave you sitting alone on the floor cursing your ineptitude, your lack of strength, the missing two feet of arm’s length that would have solved everything.
Wondering ‘Why can’t I do it?’
Why can’t I do it all?
And where is my value if I don’t have this one big, important thing?
I love stories. I consider myself a storyteller and I do it through writing here on the blog, through songwriting, and through a hell of a lot of talking. But this incident got me thinking about a certain type of story. The stories we tell about ourselves. What we present to the world and what we internalize. The big, important themes running through those stories, and how devastating it can be when one is called into question. A protagonist learning they’re not who they thought they were.
These stories can be helpful. We tell ourselves we are strong, independent, resilient creatures and it helps us to overcome obstacles, persist in the face of setbacks, of gut-wrenching tragedy. These stories encourage us to reach for the stars, to love ourselves, to demand what we deserve. And yet, pushed to the opposite extreme, they can be detrimental.
Like too much food or booze or work, when we put too much stock into stories, these normally positive tales can turn ugly. Like too much of any good thing, the chance exists for addiction, for things getting out of hand.
Have I been addicted to this story of independence, the One-Woman Show? Have I become so dependent on this story line that simple, normal setbacks can cause a complete breakdown? Have I been holding the story-version of myself on a pedestal, self-sufficient and thriving—and is that pedestal planted on a foundation of sand?
The truth is no one can do everything alone. To know this fact is not the same as feeling it, I can assure you. And for many years, despite knowing, I have prided myself on being able to do as I please and completely on my own. Moving abroad and buying a house and deciding to take on parenthood alone, just some of the claims driven by and for this storyline. My sense of independence makes me feel big and solid, untouchable in the best way. But that night with the mattress it made me feel small and weak and helpless.
It was not having to ask for help, it was not pride on the line. It was needing help. It was the all-important story in question. It was cracks in the foundation. A swift gust and a shaky pedestal.
This isn’t just me. It’s the person who wraps their self-worth in job titles, only to be shattered by a job loss. It is the supermodel, bolstered by her beauty and hurled into depression by criticism. It is an athlete, lost and directionless after a career-ending injury. A “family man” drinking away the past in a bachelor pad after divorce. It’s the stay-at-home mom feeling empty and useless once the kids have grown and left the nest. The writer, reading and re-reading rejection letters. It is anyone who believed something about themselves so strongly that the loss of that thing caused suffering. It is all of us, in one form or another.
Mattress problems solved, I'm free to lay in bed and ponder self-worth under the skylight.
This incident with the mattress was both bruising and illuminating. It has caused me to examine more closely the things I take for truth, the grip with which I hold onto my story lines. I can’t say I’m cured of wanting to be 100% self-sufficient, but I am trying to get used to the idea that it’s okay to need help. I am hoping that by sharing this, some of you will feel willing to look at your own stories. The pedestals you’re holding yourselves on, the standards you’re measuring yourselves against. I hope you can see the benefit of those storylines, but that you won’t hold them too tightly.
It is a beautiful thing to know ourselves. Let us not allow the quest for perfect stories to get in the way of that.
No one likes a perfect character anyway.
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