Like any true perfectionist, I pride myself on impeccable organization. Every item has its place, every hour has an assignment. Every last detail must be accounted for accurately so that everything goes according to plan, my plan. For the past seven years, my life has been a well-oiled machine running on a routine so detailed and consistent that my three-year-old could have told you the next three steps in any day based on the event which she was currently engaged. Every day was the same, everything that needed to happen in a day had its place. This made for amazing sleep training for our children, it eased my husband’s anxious mind, and it made us look like we had our stuff together, that we had our life down to a beautifully flowing science.
Until the routine was suddenly off-kilter, until I was broken beyond repair.
Perfectionism and excellent organizational skills take a toll on us entirely: body, mind, and soul. As a woman in a predominantly male-dominated field, as a mother of two energizer bunnies only twenty-two months apart (I’m Catholic?), and as the wife of the textbook absent-minded professor, I needed the precise manipulation that only a perfectly put-together person can wield…yet I’ve never been perfectly put-together at all. I fooled everyone for years, though, while slowing damaging my body, slowly stressing my mind, and slowly letting life eat away at my soul.
The corrosion started with my first psychiatric hospital stay beginning on Labor Day, 2017. What we learned during those five days was this: that “perfect” routine was only viable if I was home to gently push, or heavily prod, it to happen. My ten-minute evening phone calls were spent listening to my husband struggle and me shouting at my children to settle down. I’d hang up the phone feeling defeated and I’d spend the final hours of my day in thought: What’s the point of making a routine if one small alteration causes the entire system to break down?
Studies have shown that having a consistent routine is not only beneficial for stress-relief, but it also gives humans the sense of meaning in their lives. Yet, somehow, my life routines were wearing me down to the point that I literally was in “the loony bin.” What am I doing wrong?
The problem wasn’t in the routine, it was in my refusal to relinquish any control in the routine. I was literally killing myself by trying to adhere to a routine so strictly, without any sort of slack. I thought that’s what a routine was: a perfect timeline, seamlessly executed and checked off a line-item list.
My family still very much follows a routine, and mostly it’s the same as it was before my “breakdown,” but with one small change: it doesn’t have to be perfect or always entirely the same. Last night I had group therapy, so instead of lights out at 7:00 my husband let the girls play a video game with him until I got home at 7:15. There were no explosions, no losses of blood (though my three-year-old did try to convince us to play video games longer…she lost). We still go grocery shopping nearly every Sunday morning, but on occasion we go on Saturday instead or skip it all together if we don’t need anything but milk and bread, which we can just get at the smaller market down the street. Routines are amazing, but they aren’t laws carved in stone. I’m thankful that I’ve now learned that, and hopefully by sharing someone else can learn that, too.