I'm an anxious person. And part of how I cope with my anxiety is that I create routines. Routines make things feel more predictable, and predictability makes life less stressful for me.
Until it doesn't.
It took me a long time to realize that an huge amount of my irritation and frustration was a result of my need for routines. At the time, I wasn't aware that this need of mine was spilling over into needing other people to have routines so that my routines were not interfered with.
With hindsight, it's clear to all of us why this was not a winning strategy. But at the time, I was a tired young mom who was struggling to make life feel manageable.
Here's an example, when Malia was a toddler, she went to a preschool that was at my husband's workplace. So in the mornings he would leave for the day and take Malia with him to drop her off. The schedule was that they would leave at 8:00 a.m. and I would start my routines for the day.
But Malia being a toddler, and there being no strict drop-off time for preschool, meant that sometimes they wouldn't leave at 8:00 a.m. Sometimes they left at 8:15 a.m. Or they would leave at 8:23 a.m. And I found that it was making me angry—angry to the point that I started yelling at them that they needed to leave the house, and angrily accosting my husband if he hadn't left the house by 8:05 a.m.
Needless to say, it caused some tension.
And at some point, my husband made me realize that I wasn't being reasonable. At the time, I must have relented and backed off, but I think I still thought to myself that I was right and he was simply not understanding how important it was to have a schedule and keep to a routine.
As the years passed, I've come to understand that it was not reasonable for me to expect the rest of my family to live by arbitrary rules that I'd made up in my own head. But for those of us who manage the stress of life by trying to create stability with routines and boundaries, it's very hard to shake the feeling that things will only be okay if we do them a certain way. It's like when we're children and told not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Most of us realize that our mothers' backs aren't actually in danger of cracking, but there's the very real feeling that maybe we shouldn't step on those cracks anyway.
But here's an interesting thing about my inflexibility with routines and my need to follow-through with lists and schedules: 95% of the time, it's worked out well for me and made me pretty successful. If I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If I set up a schedule, I stick to it. I'm reliable and I'm consistent. I graduated from college in 2 1/2 years. I successfully trained and ran marathons. I folded 96 origami Stars of David out of dollar bills in an afternoon for a Bar Mitzvah gift...because I put it on a to-do list.
Okay, that said, now fast-forward to about six months ago and this little story.
I've written previously about how last year was very tough for me. In an act of desperation one day I got up and went for a walk. I walked and walked, thinking if I'm going to be miserable, I might as well be miserable outside. After an hour or so, I looked down and noticed that my Apple watch was telling me that I had walked over 10,000 steps.
So the next day I got up, dropped Malia off at school and walked again. But this time I told myself I needed to walk at least 10,000 steps. Then a few days later, I told myself I needed to walk 15,000 steps. Soon it was up to 30,000 steps or more. There were days I walked for more than four hours. Everything I did was scheduled around making sure I could walk for at least 30,000 steps. If for some reason I couldn't get them all completed in one walk, I would go out that night and walk some more. I didn't even question it. I had set a goal. I had established a routine.
This went on for over a month.
Then one day I realized I was crying as I put my shoes on. My feet were covered in painful blisters. My knees were aching, and I didn't feel well. I was fighting a cold and my daughter needed me to pick up a prescription for her which meant I had to leave to pick her up from school early and it was upsetting me that my scheduled walk time would have to be changed.
The realization that I was upset because I needed to do something for my daughter and it was interrupting my obsessive need to walk 30,000 steps made something snap in my brain. Somehow that one little thought broke through to my consciousness and I was able to look at myself from the outside of my own ego for that split second. I felt a bit stunned.
I asked myself what I was doing. I asked myself what was going to happen to the world if I didn't walk. What was going to happen to the world if I simply did not do what I had planned. And...why was I walking?
I didn't have an answer.
So I stopped. I stopped because I wasn't enjoying it. I stopped because it was actually making it impossible for me to be present for my family. I stopped because it was physically hurting me. I stopped because it wasn't helping me.
I calculated that I had walked over 600,000 steps during that month. And while I didn't physically travel anywhere, mentally I feel as if I took a journey. Like most journeys, when I returned, I was not the same person I'd been when I left.