Creative Nonfiction: Exploring Too Much
By Stephanie Laurenza
I’m texting with Rachel about her cherished garden — specifically, her tomatoes that she just planted and has to abandon for a week as she travels to her hometown in the wake of her grandfather’s sudden passing. I offer to check on them in her absence, and we laugh as she assures me her father-in-law has it covered. The last thing she needs is more illness and death, which is what my black thumb would inevitably bring to her budding babies.
“I know you would, though. ‘Rachel needs me so I guess I’m going to fucking learn about tomatoes.’” she sends back. It’s funny because it’s true: I would sleep next to those tomatoes if it meant they’d survive and it’d be one less thing she’d have to worry about.
Early in my relationship with my therapist, Erica, we talked about the many ways my anxiety can manifest. Sometimes, it’s invasive, spiraling thoughts — in the early COVID days, I spent more than one night up at 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. wandering my house, checking and rechecking the locks on our windows and doors, strategically placing things so that if a break-in did occur and it was through one of the un-alarm-censored windows, we’d still hear noise. Sometimes, it renders me immobile, mimicking depression — because I can’t focus on or accomplish anything, I find ways to zone out, to shut everything down and retreat.
And sometimes — most times — it makes me Too Much. I think the kids today would define it as Extra (or maybe the kids of yesterday, as I feel like the term is already dated). For as long as I can remember, I have been compelled to not just achieve, but to exceed. In a work situation, this is often fantastic: I have awesome talking points during interviews (“I tend to put my whole self into everything I do, from menial tasks to long-term projects.”) and am seen as someone who can take charge and execute. In personal relationships, these things remain true — which is the doubliest of double-edged-swords.
Once, at a friend’s wedding in a beautiful church hall (very common in Western PA), they were running low on alcohol. I saw people scrambling around the bar, including the bride and groom, and I made my way over to shoo them away. I scurried in my red heels to the truck outside that came to the rescue with more beer, transporting cases between it and the refrigerator, crouching to load and fill coolers with ice as people danced, ate, mingled. I made friends with the staff, loading a tray of my own with the newly purchased-and-stocked beers and bringing them to my table when I felt my work was done.
Another wedding, this time in a rustic barn. One of the grooms somehow found himself with a splinter. I took my earring out of my ear and performed surgery, as we said. “I learned this trick long ago,” I said, maneuvering the pointy end between the slices of wood and skin. “I’m too clumsy to not have immediate solutions.”
When Rachel was pregnant, it didn’t take long for us to transition to baby shower planning. There was never a, “will you throw my shower?” question, it was just sort of assumed — a mark of our friendship, to be sure. There were decorations and custom invites, games and prizes. It was co-ed (as someone who does not particularly want or need attention, she would’ve forgone the shindig all together if not for traditional in-laws and friends. “This is the one thing you can share with me,” she famously told her husband.) and I was explaining to Jon how we had to arrive early, set-up, that he would be on due-date-raffle-duty during, then we’d help tear down. He asked, “don’t you ever just want to attend the party?”
In this context, these are shining examples of friendship, the defense churning below the surface: this is just being a good friend! What is unseen, though, is the deep-seated-need: yes, these actions are indicative of being a supportive, there-for-you friend, but they are taking place because I need to occupy this role. I need to be invaluable. If I do not serve this purpose, why would they keep me around?
Erica told me once that Children of Trauma internalize their surroundings in fairly standard ways, two of which are: “This must be happening because I am not enough,” and “This must be happening because I am too much.” For me, it is the former, and this means that even as an adult, I am conditioned to over-correct. For me, it means that I often start from a place of, “let me never not be enough again.”
It was clear at an early age that the adults in my life did not love me enough to make decisions befitting of a parent-child relationship. Their addiction ruled the roost and I was left to pick up — or sometimes attempt to navigate — the shattered pieces in their wake. The lessons learned: maybe love doesn’t come naturally. Why would it? We must have to do something in exchange for it.
Erica and I have also talked about insecure versus secure relationships. Insecure relationships were modeled for me, based on exchanges and power plays. There was a time in my life when Christopher was in a ‘good’ spot, Jackie would be in the ‘bad’ one — and they’d trade off, almost-but-not-quite-purposefully. There was always a victim and they battled for that role: do we feel worse for the one so addled they cannot get off of the couch, or is it the one who has a higher tolerance and can seemingly go through life undetected but beleaguered by having to do so while the other is incapable? I picked sides and listened to their pain, their vent sessions, their attacks-veiled-as-advice. “Don’t grow up expecting a man to cook and clean and take care of things like I do,” Christopher told me once, gesturing to Jackie’s prone figure on the couch (to be very clear: he happened to cook and do laundry this week). “Don’t ever put up with someone who thinks he’s better than you and wants to keep you down,” Jackie said at a different point, frustrated that Christopher hadn’t returned home following the deposit of whatever government funds hit their account.
Needless to say, the first secure relationship I had was the one Jon and I built together — which is not to say it was perfect. Our love story has several hard and ugly chapters (like our Ross-and-Rachel, Lily-and-Marshall-esque “break” during college). As adults, though, confidence and trust have always been very present aspects of our relationship. Assured that our love and connection was truly unconditional, the intrinsic drive to deliver was not quite as present with Jon as we grew.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in our mid-20s, after a friend’s wedding, Jon brought up to me that he felt like I put my friends before him. Almost like I held their feelings in higher regard, or put more effort into my relationships with them than I did in ours. I was floored: how could he think this? My rock, my one steadfast presence, I am utterly myself and comfortable around and with him and. . . oh. There it is. My perceived lack of insecurity resulted in its presence on the opposite end: the person I care about the most is left questioning, wondering. That double-edged-sword just pierced my heart.
In a recent session, Erica reminds me that the relationships in my life are secure (this is one of the things I appreciate about and actively seek from therapy, and Erica: Validation! Reassurance!). She asks me who I feel the need to prove worth to, and I tell her it is the people in my life. She pushes — who else? I pause before saying, “Oh, God, it’s not me, is it?”
“Of course it is!” she says, laughing. I am trying to overcome what is buried in me: if these people didn’t — couldn’t — unconditionally love me, why would anyone else? Let me make it impossible for them to not, let me show you just how valuable I am.
A few years ago, Jess and I engaged in what I am hesitant to call a fight and instead will refer to as an Experience of Hurt Feelings. I was upset that she had not told me something fairly big that occurred, that I stumbled onto it while texting with her then-fiance about something else. “You’re a terrible communicator!” I texted her with a tongue-sticking-out-emoji, half-joking but also hurt, as I listed a litany of things I could do to help (run errands! Deliver groceries! Take you for drinks! Listen to you vent!). In that instance, she responded that she had been going through a lot, this was just one event in a mini-series, and she was busy dealing. We shared our collection of feelings over the next few days — her, hurt that I jumped to that; me, hurt that she hadn’t told me sooner. Because if I am not someone she goes to in need, who am I? What good am I? Why even have this relationship?
It took me months — months — and reading a book with characters going through something similar to realize the very, slap-in-the-face-painfully obvious duh: the situation was not mine, it had actually nothing to do with me, I made it worse by demanding to be In the Know (and not just In the Know, which I was, but demanding when I should have been informed), and I made did the exact opposite of help or show up for one of my very best friends. I immediately texted her that I extra-realized my mistake and, of course, we have moved on — because, hello, that is the mark of a secure relationship.
Navigating this is a work-in-progress if there ever was one. During a conversation about familial relationships, Erica told me that as a Child of Trauma, I tend to think I either have to be everything or nothing, but that’s not how all relationships need to function. “It’s okay to accept your place as maybe not the direct, innermost circle, but right next to it,” she said, and had I been outside when I took the deep breath that followed I certainly would’ve inhaled a bug or two.
Weeks removed from that discussion, a part of me finds relief in that statement. Truly, I think COVID-19 helped with this: I have gained a fresh sense of what is important to me, what I am willing to do and when and where I simply do not want to put forth time or effort. Erica tells me that selection is good and healthy. “‘No’ is not the end of the world,” she says, and I hear her double meaning: it’s not a bad thing when I say no; it’s not a bad thing when someone says it to me.
“. . . I’d still learn about the fucking tomatoes, though,” I tell her, needing to draw a line in the sand. “But because I want to, not because I need to.” She smiles and nods (Validation! Reassurance!), assenting that the tomatoes are totally within bounds.
Stephanie Laurenza works in communications for a manufacturing company. When she's not strategizing to tell the company's story, she's daydreaming about the stories SHE wants to be telling (and/or drinking outside somewhere). She resides in Pittsburgh, PA with three cats and her husband (whom she grew up across the street from - really!). Her passions include reading, reality TV, red wine and spending time with the people she loves (...bonus points if it includes the aforementioned drinking outside).