Follow your dreams, before it’s too late

Just today, I was having coffee with a friend of mine and we got onto the topic of just how important it is to do something you love. I mentioned that doing the ‘wrong’ thing, for me, led to chronic fatigue syndrome. And my life changed. Here is a piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014 urging us all to try to find some space to do exactly what our soul calls us to do, before we’ve lost the chance.

xx

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It’s 6.45 am, our toddler is in the bath and my laptop is perched on a sliver of the kitchen bench because, frankly, it looks like we had an out-of-control party here last night. Meanwhile, the dogs are trotting muddy paws across the floor, and my husband is nuzzling my neck.

If I died right now, I would actually die all over again of shame, knowing that someone would find me in this disaster. But then I’d get over the fact that the cat is eating out of the cereal bowl and there’s the smell of something rotting in the air, and I’d only be sorry I hadn’t got more books out into the world.

Because that is my calling in life: to write. It’s a calling I almost missed while I was busy leading the wrong life in the corporate jungle. But I didn’t truly start to listen to what I had to do until I had chronic fatigue syndrome and couldn’t work any more. Until the eczema spread all over my face and I couldn’t ignore it when I looked in the mirror.

So many women have amazing creative skills and yearn to leave their “day job” in favour of this passion. There’s a sadness that can’t be healed because that passion, that thing they want to do more than anything else, is also the thing that will, ultimately, make them happy.

I used to be one of those women, leaving for work and getting home in the dark, marching in silence with the hundreds of other rats racing through the tunnels on our way to the towers of soul-destroying “real work”, numbing ourselves with earphones in an attempt to ignore the fact that our true selves, our innate creative selves, were dying inside.

Some women love that life and if that’s you, I’m happy for you, truly. But for me, that life nearly destroyed me.

Unlike a virus that knocks you down for a few weeks before you start to recover, chronic fatigue doesn’t just get better. It takes time, lots of time, with an unknown finish date. Time I didn’t have. I had bills. I was a freelancer. I was a single woman. I was stuck in a horrible cycle of knowing that I needed to invest money in myself to get better, but not being able to make money to do that.

I accrued enormous debts, treading water until I could earn more money, believing one day I’d wake up and be better and everything would be fine. Eventually, I had to accept that I might not get better, that this might be as good as it got. And if that was the case then I had to start living the life that brought me joy.

It was like that saying – people work hard all their life to be wealthy, then retire and have to spend their money to save the health they ruined by working hard. Except I was only 29.

I made tough choices and changed lots of habits, not least of which was learning to accept myself rather than striving for (imagined) perfection. I had to learn to lower the bar. Do less. Expect less. Earn less. Work less. And then I had to start doing more of what truly nurtured my body and soul, even if it was by taking just one tiny step at a time.

Western medicine said it couldn’t offer me much, except perhaps for cortisone, which I didn’t feel was right. I couldn’t afford the plethora of complementary medicines being pitched my way. But I had to keep eating, so that was where I started – with food. Organic farmers’ markets became the place where I began to, finally, invest in myself.

None of these changes happened overnight. You can’t steer a ship in the wrong direction for 30 years and then expect it to turn on a dime. It’s an ongoing process.

We’re always waiting for the perfect time. And we bargain with ourselves by saying we’ll just be happy when we’ve paid off the bills, finished that degree, got that promotion, had three kids, got a cleaner, got a new car … whatever. And yet we all know the truth: there is only the now. And you can’t be temporarily unhappy to be happy.

Deep down we know this, yet we find myriad ways to delay our dreams. We think creativity is something separate from life. But it is life, not something you do for an hour on a Saturday afternoon. We’re running ourselves into the ground with pie charts and timetables and life coaches trying to find the work-life balance when there is no such thing. There is only life. And you only have one of those.

I want everyone to have what I have now – a career that fulfils me and financially supports me. One that gives me energy, not takes it away. I know that seems rare. But it doesn’t have to be. You can have that too. I honestly believe that. You just need to start and keep going. Don’t worry about how long it will take you, because you’ll still be the same age whether you do it or not. Don’t wait for the perfect time because that time is here, right now, messy kitchen and all.

The Life of a Recovering Perfectionist

My most popular post for 2014 was this little piece… Enjoy!
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“I enjoyed your article in today’s ‘Sunday Life’ but please, please, please – ‘slither’ is what a snake does, ‘sliver’ is a small piece of kitchen bench!” (Fiona)

Yesterday, I had a first-person feature article published in the Herald Sun’s Sunday Life magazine, talking about the importance of following your dreams and I related my experience of being in the wrong career, of suffering chronic fatigue syndrome at just 29 years of age, and the long road to recovery. Part of that journey was learning to manage my inner perfectionist. (I don’t think I’ll ever truly get rid of the perfectionist, so I have to learn to manage her instead.) I received some wonderful feedback on the article, including the quote above from a reader named Fiona, who helpfully pointed out the typo in the very first paragraph of the article.

imagesI do actually know the difference between slither and sliver, but my fingers went for the typo while I was writing the article (probably precisely because I was writing it with all those distractions I describe in the first paragraph) and there it stayed, even while multiple editors read it and sent it to print. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.

Now, let me sidestep here and tell you about a teenage girl I met at one of my library talks, who was so passionate about writing and just bubbling with conversation about what she was doing. BUT, she also talked about how she would sit in a cafe for hours to write, but only ever get a few sentences on the page because she would work them and rework and, essentially, be so afraid of getting it wrong that the words she wanted to get just didn’t make it to the page. Truly, this broke my heart. How unbelievably sad. That girl has words waiting for the world and her fear is stopping them getting there. This is a clear example of how perfectionism is a destructive force in our life.

Perfectionism is NOT about excellence. In fact, ‘perfect’ doesn’t even exist! It is a constructed idea in OUR OWN MIND. It is the perpetual search for the worst in ourselves, not the best. And because it is a constructed idea, in your own mind, no one else can ever convince you that something is good enough, no matter how much evidence they present. Only you can decide to trust and let go.

So, back to my reader feedback. Of course, as a recovering perfectionist, my first response to that was horror, shame, humiliation. Stories running through my head like, ‘Oh my God, my article is out there for the whole country to read and there’s a spelling mistake in the first paragraph!’ ‘No one will buy my book now because they’ll think I’m a crap writer!’ ‘People will think I’m stupid!’ ‘How could I have been so stupid??!!!’

But then, as a recovering perfectionist, I quickly identified these thoughts as illusions in my own mind. Sure, some people might think those things. Many people wouldn’t even notice. And many people, going by the rest of the feedback I received, took away something really valuable from the article. Was it better for it to be out there at all? I’d like to think so.

I used to be an editor of books, and despite four or five sets of eyes looking at them before they went to print, they invariably came back with at least one error in them. It’s just one of those things that happens because we are human in all our imperfect glory.

I also realised that Fiona’s feedback gave me a wonderful opportunity to once again heal my perfectionist and choose to NOT lie awake at night fretting about my errors but instead go to sleep feeling really peaceful that my article brought so much joy to so many people. Perfectionism is a choice. Self nurturing and acceptance is also a choice. I choose to be kind to myself. My words may not be perfect but they can still have power.

**disclaimer: I am once again writing this at 6.45am while my toddler watches Peppa Pig so I will embrace all errors ahead of time 🙂 **