You can't have all the figs!
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I spend a lot of time thinking about which fig to choose.
I always have. Life has always seemed, to me, like an endless well of possibility –– but not necessarily in a good way. With endless possibility comes hard decisions, and at some point you have to make them. And with each fig you choose, you lose the opportunity to go back and choose differently. For someone with anxiety, that's a fairly terrifying proposition. From an early age, I vacillated between wanting to be a veterinarian, or the next Oprah, or a forensic psychologist, or a figure skater, or an author. The moral is that, on some level, I wanted to be everything. And as I near my 26th birthday, I can't help but think of all the figs that have shrivelled up in the time it's taken me to decide.
But then I feel a tinge of anger at the fact that some of those life paths I can no longer go down aren't just because I waited too long and couldn't decide –– some of them are paths that my illness has taken from me. No one ever wants to talk about the fact that there are just some things I can't do, but there are. "Can't" may seem like a strong word. With the right accommodations, people with sicknesses and disabilities can live full and lovely lives and do just about anything their healthy counterparts can do. But in terms of what I can realistically and comfortably do, some things get knocked off the list.
I can't work on a political campaign, because the temporary nature of that work makes keeping steady insurance coverage difficult. I can't currently keep up with stand up comedy, something I used to love, because fatigue due to my illness has me in bed by 9 most days, and open mics tend to go late into the night. I can't become the next Bear Grylls because access to a bathroom is kind of really vital to me. I can't become a famous chef because my dietary restrictions would make my dishes super boring.
Don't get me wrong –– sick people are amazing, and resilient, and tougher than you know. And in saying I can't do these things, I'm not implying that every chronically ill person can't, but rather that my unique symptoms and circumstances have placed some seemingly untenable obstacles in my path. But I've also had to come to terms with some paths I just can't comfortably go down in the same way my peers can. And it's an everyday struggle to cope with that. I wish I had unlimited energy, and that I wasn't so dependent on great insurance coverage to live. I wish I had access to all the figs.
But then I remember something important –– even if I weren't sick, I still wouldn't be able to choose every path. There would be proverbial figs that I couldn't choose because of my socioeconomic status, or a desire to stay near friends and family, or my particular set of skills. As much as I want to believe the childhood adage that "anyone can achieve anything," it doesn't seem to hold true. And while accepting that might strike some people as sad, I see it as freeing. You have to be able to mourn the lives you might've had.
Everyone wants to be that inspirational story of a disabled person overcoming the odds to achieve it all. But sometimes life is just about making it through the day, or putting food on the table for your kids, or finding a way to express yourself. Don't feel like you're settling for less if you can't capture the perfect future you once imagined for yourself.
Some of those figs are out of my reach –– and that's okay. Everyone has tough decisions to make, and a cross to bear, and my illness just happens to be mine. Whatever paths I end up going down in my life will work out okay because of the skills my illness has instilled in me: that strength and resilience and empathy. Maybe I won't be the next great standup comedian, or the next celebrity chef, or the next White House Chief of Staff, but as long as I can find a way to be content with that, I think I'm on a pretty good path.