I never liked coloring when I was a kid. I colored, of course. That’s what kids do, play-doh, coloring, and incessant whining. I have one vivid childhood coloring memory, saturating the inside of an outline of a cat with rich, warm, chocolate brown Crayola. In a creative frenzy, my stroke went just a bit too far outside the line and brown went where brown was not meant to go. It took my breath away. It was no longer perfect. I ripped the page out, which then left the entire book imperfect and I never colored in it again.
Those were my boundaries as a child, make it perfect or don’t even bother trying. So, in a lot of circumstances, I didn’t even bother trying. Even my yet fully formed frontal lobe knew perfection was unattainable. As I aged, those rigid boundaries softened a bit. Time wears us all down eventually, but I still clung to some pretty unrealistic expectations because humans tend to be like that.
There was a lot of chaos in my home growing up. I learned in the therapy I sought after experiencing my first panic attack at the ripe old age of 20 that all those uncontrollable events caused me to seek control over every and any thing I could. That would explain why I couldn’t view the errant marks I made in that coloring book as simple reckless abandon or creative license. They were yet another example of all the things in my life that were spinning out of control that had to be erased. My plate was already full up with more mayhem than I could handle.
At an age far beyond that which is socially acceptable, I found myself unable to swim. I was still a kid, but I was far too old to have not yet acquired this skill. Fear had been my greatest motivator in my resistance to learning how, fear of drowning, fear of the unknown, fear of looking stupid, fear of failing, fear of disappointing my father. It was easier to just stay on the shore and watch the fun from afar than to face all the many things that could maybe sorta possibly go wrong.
I stayed in that safe zone during every summer trip to my uncle’s lake cabin in Rhode Island. I stood, knee deep in tea colored water, happy that I didn’t have to even try to surmount the endless stream of fears. That plan worked well until the fateful day when my Uncle had had enough of my apprehension. Up until then, he’d given me plenty of space and encouragement to find the courage myself, but his patience had officially worn thin.
He strapped me into a life vest and rowed me to the center of the lake in his dark green canoe. I knew what was coming. He’d warned me of his plan on the shore before I even heard the first click of the plastic buckles. I was in a state of shock, far beyond any type of fear that would bring about tears or fidgeting limbs. I was silent and still as I took in how far I would have to swim.
Before it could all sink in, he swiftly grabbed ahold of my vest and flung me into the water. I panicked for a bit when the cold water stung my pale skin and all around I could see only darkness. Quickly, the vest did its job and my head bobbed above water. My uncle began to row for shore, a chorus of uplifting words trailed behind him, and I flapped my legs and arms as best I could.
I made it to shore. As cumbersome and slow as my swim was, it did the job. There were no showers of praise at my return. I was simply rewarded with my own satisfaction and relief and the permission to now use the diving platform far past the spot where my feet could touch the bottom. I grew up that day, not because I wanted to, because I had to.
We tend to think we quit needing to grow up at some point, but in reality that point only comes when we’ve taken our last breath. It seems even when I am forced to grow up, be it from a loving uncle tossing me in a lake or a devastating tumor growing wildly within my leg, I always revert back to that little kid afraid to color outside of the lines or let the water go past my knees. Change comes and my knee jerk reaction of panic and paralysis soon follows. Dealing with uncertainty is a skill I’ve been most often forced to learn and relearn.
This morning, after my husband left far later than he planned to head to North Carolina and find our new home, the cat escaped through a hole in the screened in porch, and I felt the weight of the 8,000 different things I have to accomplish before we move, I started to feel that panic and paralysis set in. I felt overwhelmed and stuck, unsure of what to do next. With a dead tumor and no uncle to throw me in the lake, I had to find a way to get out of my own way and grow up. So, I started to color.
I bought The Bloggess’ book, You Are Here, as a birthday present to myself. I’ve been so busy lately with the move that I haven’t accomplished much in it. There are more blank spaces than colorful ones and there are plenty of strokes outside the lines and that is the part that gives me hope that I’m learning how to grow up without being forced to. Ironic, isn’t it, that coloring has helped me to feel more adult? I don’t want to tear out the pages or put it on a shelf because I couldn’t do it perfectly. I just want to enjoy slowing down and getting out of my own way so I can take in all the chaos in and decide what I’m able to handle and when.
I’m scared of all this change, moving and being well after being so sick for so long. I’m scared of how imperfectly I handle things sometimes. I’m scared when I break things and I can’t fix them. I’m scared I can’t rein it in. I’m scared of the what ifs and the maybes and the couldas. Then, I take a breath and realize I was never in control of any of those things ever in my whole life, no matter how much I let myself believe I was, and then it’s all good, until it isn’t. And, the cycle continues, but what a lovely and colorful cycle it is.