If You Truly Could Not Fail…

My husband and I recently binged “The Dropout” on Hulu (if you like mini-series that are based on real-life events and have a bit of an edge, I’d highly recommend it); and in the show, the title character has a paperweight made that reads, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

Days after watching the series, that question was still rattling around in my mind. What would I do if I knew I could not fail?

While pondering this inquiry, I reflected on my recent conversation with my psychiatrist — he asked me why I was pursuing environmental science at the university when my passions clearly lie elsewhere. It mirrored a conversation that my husband had tried to start months earlier… one that I quickly shut down and walked away from.

Black Sheep Bah-ing for Approval

Mitch was concerned that my academic shift had come from a place that was frustratingly familiar to him — choices that I make to gain approval from my family, not approval from within.

This is something that I have wrestled with my entire life. Being the “black sheep” of a family is never easy… especially when you have earned that title by making bad decisions, followed by ever-worsening ones.

I was not an easy teenager to live with. I drank, abused prescription narcotics, and smoked a shit-ton of marijuana. I lied. Lied all the time. I ran away. I disappeared for days or weeks at a time. I had reckless, anonymous sex. I hitch-hiked across the country. I stole money from my baby brother (who was a scrupulous saver). I attempted suicide. I fought with my family — every member — constantly.

None of these things happened because my family did not support me. They just didn’t understand me. (How could they? I barely understood myself.) We didn’t know that I had Borderline Personality Disorder, nor that I suffered from Complex PTSD. My parents were unaware of the extent of the sexual abuse I had endured as a child, and did not know that I had been sexually assaulted by my high school track coach. From the outside, it appeared as if I were just a careless girl, spiraling into one dangerous addiction after another.

And things didn’t get better for a very long time.

Rig-o to the Rescue

Two years ago, my baby brother Rigel and I were able to finally come together; and I made amends for the sins of my past. When he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I told him that I would love to go back to school. Impressed with the progress I’d made in my sobriety, he generously offered to pay my tuition — as long as I kept up a working GPA. In addition, my parents agreed to pay for books and supplies.

So I enrolled at the local community college, as a sociology major, and was on my way. Subsequently, I enrolled at the University of Arizona last year, and took an agricultural science class to fulfill my general education requirements. I enjoyed the subject so much that I enrolled in an environmental science course this semester (again, to fulfill general education requirements); and something magical began to happen… I could have lively conversations with Rigel about what I was studying at school. (Rig-o has multiple undergraduate degrees in varied science fields, and a master’s degree in climate science.)

Disillusioned by my experience in twelve-step programs, I knew that I no longer wanted to dedicate my life to helping people that by-and-large have no interest in being helped… at least, not in a way that asks them to take active responsibility for the choices they make. So, I switched my degree program to environmental science, but kept my minor in the writing program.

My parents were excited by my enthusiasm; and for the first time in a very long time, seemed genuinely proud of me. And yet, outside of my conversations with my family, I was not at all happy.

Which brought me back to reflecting on the question I just can’t seem to shake, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

Nothing Fancy, That’s for Sure

If I take everything but myself out of the equation of this question (i.e. family approval, job prospects after graduation, financial success on a large scale, etc.), then the answer is simple. I would study literature and writing. I would get my undergraduate degree and apply for the MFA program at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (I was actually offered an opportunity to study with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop years ago, but declined the offer because I could not leave the state with my then-young child — due to a custody agreement — and Mitchell’s job and family were here.) I would then take that degree and teach literature and writing, preferably at a community college. Someday, I would love to own a book store.

The happiest I have ever been in this life was when I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. Recently, I visited the store where I used to work. I met up with an old co-worker, and she introduced me to her boss as “one of the best damn booksellers [she’d] ever known.” She talked about the way I easily conversed with customers, and always had a reading suggestion — no matter the subject — that resonated with them. It made me feel alive in a way that I haven’t felt for a very, very long time.

I came home after that visit, and did something I hadn’t done in years. I opened a book that wasn’t required for school, and began to read it. I didn’t realize how much I had missed my books.

Eating Crow…

Yesterday, I shared all of this with Mitch. Thankfully, the man was generous with his heart. He laughed, shook his head, and said, “Why do you refuse to listen to me? I told you that’s what you should have been studying all along.”

He’s right. He has been telling me that… since the very beginning, twenty years ago. I didn’t listen for three reasons:

  1. I’m scared of pursuing my passion, and finding out that I suck at it. (I’ve always been a writer, but am truly frightened that I lack the talent to be a real writer.) If I suck at environmental science, who cares? But if I suck at writing… it would break my heart.
  2. There’s no glory in the arts. A degree in literature is one of those things that people respond to with, “So, you want a degree that could ultimately lead to a job where you say, ‘Would you like fries with that?'”
  3. My family is proud of me, and I don’t want to risk losing that — no matter the cost to myself.

However, Mitch reminded me — in the face of these fears — that pursuing a path to gain approval from others has never ended well for me. We decided together that it’s time for me to own who I am. And if people don’t approve of that lady? Oh, fucking well. Life is too short to be wasted on dreams that are not my own.

I do fear that Rigel will hear of this change and pull his funding for my tuition; and I told Mitchell as much. To which he said, “You underestimate your brother. But! If that does happen, we’ll figure it out. I’ll do whatever I have to do in order for you to take this journey, because I believe in you and I’ve seen what you can do. You taught me to see to the value in what you love… and if you’re doing what you love you cannot fail.”

Christ, I hope he’s right… because this fall, I am risking it all to become the woman in my own dreams.

But for now? Now, I have to find the courage to tell my family.

7 thoughts on “If You Truly Could Not Fail…

  1. This was lovely to read. Not the reminesences about painful experiences: I’m sorry about those. How tragic that so many of us grow up believing we need to earn our air. But that you are moving forward in a direction that speaks to your heart? How wonderful ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: In Reading, We May Yet Return | Baitless Biter

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