I am – and always have been – an avid rule follower. My parents love to tell a story of me as a little girl on the way to visit my grandparents in Long Island. It was a long drive from our town in upstate NY, and at some point night fell.
Now, if you weren’t a child of the 80’s you might not be familiar with the piece of technology that plays a critical role in this story, so allow me to explain. Before I could read the words, I would sit with a children’s book and an accompanying cassette tape playing through headphones. No, not earbuds, or Beats, or whatever- headphones, with Styrofoam padding. The story would be read to me by a sweet sounding woman, who would eventually say, “when you hear the bell chime, turn the page,” followed by a charming ring. At which point I’d turn the page, of course. So now you’re up to speed.
After driving for some time after the sun went down, my mom realized that she was still hearing a page turn every few minutes, and turned around to see little me, strapped into my car seat, obediently turning the page – in the dark – with every chime.
What can I say? I do what I’m told. This has been a blessing and a curse, in so many ways. Being a rule follower has kept me safe but made me afraid, caused me great relief and deep regret, propelled me forward while holding me back. Like most things in life, it’s been a practice in contradiction.
I had a job a few years back that nearly broke me. I lived in fear, and reported to a person who can only be described as abusive. But I had never quit a job before without a plan (I’m a planner, have you heard?), and the thought of walking away filled me with terror, because it felt like breaking the rules. Crazy, right? The whole “free will” concept was foreign to me at the time, and I built myself a lot of prisons. Luckily, when I reached a breaking point I was surrounded by family and friends who gave me the permission I couldn’t give myself, and I got the hell out.
Oddly enough, that’s not the “aha!” moment I’m leading up to here (sorry for the emotional roller coaster, we’re getting there). That moment came a few weeks later. Did you know that there is a law against hanging things from your car’s rear view mirror in some states? But everyone I saw on the road had fuzzy dice, or beads, or ornaments hanging there, and they just carried on with their lives without fear of imminent arrest! Madness! Needless to say, I had NEVER hung ANYTHING from my rear view mirror. Against the rules, Jack.
A little while after leaving job-from-hell, I went out and bought me a Yankee Candle car freshener. And a little while (and a little worrying) after that, I hung it on my rear view mirror. And the first time I pulled out of my lot WITHOUT REMOVING the incriminating yet deliciously aromatic piece of contraband was AMAZING. I will literally never forget that moment. Windows down, music on, car freshener in place…it was quite a time to be alive. And suddenly I felt like I could do anything.
Then I was pulled over and got a $300 ticket for obstructing my rear view. OMG totally kidding, would that SUCK or WHAT!?
I wasn’t cured of my rule following personality that day, of course. To be honest, I like that I’m a rule follower- just not when it feeds my anxiety, which already has enough to eat. But what I felt that day was my first taste of something we all deserve to innately KNOW: that we really do have choices, and we really do deserve to be happy, and it’s OK to reject something that you think you’re SUPPOSED to do but your gut tells you just isn’t right for YOU.
The feeling of freedom that washed over me that day happens a lot more often now. I felt that freedom when I started this blog. I feel it every time I paint my nails a bright color…and sometimes add glitter! 19 months ago, I felt it strongly enough to pick up and move to Florida just because I wanted to.
Part of me will always be that little girl, turning pages in the dark because the lady with the sweet voice tells me to. But knowing that I can put the book down and still be OK; that life will go on; that ultimately, I can trust myself to make the choice that’s best for me…that’s living, baby. And I’m just getting started.