Dry-mouthed and alone in the bathroom at work at 4:26pm today. Pants at my knees. Hands shaking. Breath breath hhf. We’ll leave for the Cristo Rei centre in four minutes, and I don’t want to go. Maybe there’s still time to pull out. If I say no, they’ll understand. Just say you feel sick. You can stay here.
I zip up my pants and walk out to my colleague’s car. Let’s go, they say. Sounds good.
Four of us speeding off to the hills together. Three chatting and shrieking in giggly, rapid-fire Tetun. One smiling dumbly, sliding sunglasses over eyes, just in case of tears. “You need to come and practise Tetun with us, Sophie,” they say. “Why are you always alone in your room?” Breath breath hhf.
I can’t do this but I’m doing this anyway.
I wrote the above sentences nearly a year ago, when I was working at a local NGO while still on my AVID volunteering assignment. I was scrolling through my saved draft posts this afternoon and found this, the beginning of a post and a couple of jotted notes to myself, reminding my calmer future self to return to this moment to examine and reflect.
I remember this afternoon vividly. I’d just been told we were heading up to the resource centre we had in the hills behind Cristo Rei for a vegetable fair, a small ceremony to celebrate the harvest of the first crops of vegetables from the tricky, dry, hillside site. I was having a difficult time at work — my colleagues were lovely and friendly, but few had worked with foreigners before, English levels were low and my Tetun was then appalling, we were all shy and awkward and uncertain with each other and everyone was run-off-their-feet busy — I spent long stretches of my days alone, thinking that, while uncomfortable, it was at least the best thing to do for everyone. I wouldn’t disturb, I wouldn’t put them in the position of having to make time for me in English in already-crowded schedules. I’d keep my head down and do no harm.
Hot, embarrassed tears sliding behind sunglasses.
Days later, panicked and short-breathed trying unsuccessfully to change my gas bottle, one larger than most in Dili and with a dumb, different nozzle. Why is this so fucking hard I can’t do this I can’t do this after the fourth failed trip to the fourth dumb sweaty supermarket hauling the hot metal canister from the car having the polo-shirted guy outside helpfully tell me oh that one we don’t have nope I don’t know where else you can get it then the Chinese shop-owner comes out and speaks a rabble of fluent Tetun incomprehensible to my dumb foreign ears why can’t I speak Tetun why don’t I talk with my colleagues why am I so snobby and hostile and separate why am I doing this I can’t do this I can’t do this but I’m doing it anyway.
And today, a good day, weeks even after writing that little bit above, a good morning of Unicef school trip and giggling with colleagues in the car and knowing hellos to new friends at the too-cool Haburas lunchtime courtyard and an exciting meeting about things that feel like they matter and a triumphant, self-important trip to Agora for a turmeric kombucha and some thoughtful additions to a near-finished article it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written, probably, and a quick message to a friend to ask a favour for the next article and then it comes back no, sorry and suddenly it all cracks and I’m near tears again, blinking in the cool down-light with an empty foamy glass beside me and everything that felt so smugly goodly easy collapsing, paper cards in a pathetic pile I can’t do this I can’t do this.
Why am I so brittle?
Why is it like this?
How do you become resilient?
You cram thing full and then wonder why nothing new fits. No new ideas, no energy for anything. Resentful of an oddly groggy friend, who, post-scuba dive, says I’m usually so energetic I can’t relate I can’t I’m like this all the time. A card tower so elaborate, so inter-twined, that the slip of a single curved corner sends everything tumbling down. To-do lists stretching down the page. For weeks and weeks braying at people, just one more week it’s gonna be like this and then it’ll be better, things will calm down, they’ll slow down, then every week another event another visitor another article another waiting another revision another person I could talk to another thought to pitch stop it please, stop it, I can’t do this, I can’t do this but I’m doing it anyway.
A phrase cribbed from a blog I used to read, written by a young American woman whose military doctor husband deployed abroad for long months at a time. The phrase painted into wall art on a weekend she felt confident, happy, strong, then days later:
But Tuesday and yesterday morning were a completely different story.
This deployment hit me like a ton of bricks and for the first time since Paul left I really felt like “I can’t do this.” Except, of course, I am doing it. One way or another, this is going to end and I’ll get through it.
As I struggled through the past two days, this painting sat on my dresser and served as a quiet reminder. I spent a lot of time wanting to throw it out a window. But I didn’t. And I’m glad for that.
One way or another, I will get through this.
I feel bitter that the stress I’m currently under is entirely of my own making; I resent my past self for agreeing to so much, smugly thinking I could do it all, failing to realise the things slipping off the sides as I let work, drive, selfish ambition take over everything, I’m scared of my future self for not remembering how this feels and for over-committing again in a desperate fit of proving something, intangible and odd, to someone, unknown and unseen.
I just want to rest. I want to wake up early because I’ve had enough sleep, not snooze an alarm four times then crawl groggy out of a hot twist of sheets hating last night’s self for eating cheese and chocolate in front of the refrigerator. For not having time the energy the spirit for a quiz night a lunch beer a phone chat a birthday message on the right day. I want to have faith I’ll get through this and then not put myself straight back in, letting pride and ego rule again. I’m so fucking bored of boring everyone telling them how busy and tired I am. I want to believe cards can slip without everything else tumbling down. I want to grow smooth and supple, firm skin growing over the brittle.
I can do this; I’m doing it.
I put myself on a one-month ban from pitching articles in October. Sharing that is exactly the kind of smug busy-porn I newly loathe, but I’m saying it here to remind myself of how wretched I feel, wow I wrote felt and then was like nope that’s not honest, feel, deep in this pit of work and stress and busy and churn and please don’t sign me up for any more of this.
I miss having fingernails, I miss sleeping well. Felix leaves Dili in two months; I don’t want to drip poison through two beautiful last months together in our island home. I want to be interesting and interested and I want to stop sobbing in the movies because taking myself out is the kindest thing I’ve done to myself in weeks. Breath breath. I can do this, I am doing this. Anyway.
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