Six-year-old me at the top of a hill. Straddling my bike, everything normal except the absence of a chain. “This will be great,” they said. “Without breaks, you’ll go faster.”
1969, a blue Schwinn with a white seat, a twenty-inch job. Still too big for teeny, tiny me. The ubiquitous stingray design that dominated the kids’ bike market for the next thirty years was just getting off the ground. My bike wasn’t a stingray; it was a ten-year-old hand-me-down from a family with grown kids.
I don’t remember why I didn’t have a chain.
The big kids were encouraging, my brothers, their friends. I was the pioneer, the test-monkey. “Let’s see if Jeff can ride down a steep, third-of-a-mile hill without the ability to stop!”
This is probably my earliest memory. I’ve never talked about it with anyone. No conversation could conjure up the feeling of dread that accompanied that short ride.
I was on my quiet suburban street, a block away from the main thoroughfare, Greentree Road. Greentree connected our neighborhood to shopping centers and highways. Constant traffic, but my road went nowhere, it existed only to harbor houses. There were no intersections save one. At the bottom of the hill. It was the only way to get into the neighborhood off of Greentree Road. I was going to cross a moderately busy road.
I pushed off, and I was quickly going too fast to hop off, to bail. I was committed.
And then I felt it—for the first time in my life—I was fucked.
Careen is the word. Point A to point B. A straight line. No control. Too late to do anything about it. Along for the ride. Wherever it leads.
I’ve felt this way a few times in my life. When I was tanking college during my sophomore year, academic expulsion looking like a foregone conclusion; the day it became clear that my mother was rapidly dying from cancer; the two seconds before I crashed my bike into the side of a minivan, setting off a decade of recovery; last week, sitting at my desk, trying to get a handle on my new job.
Does this sound hyperbolic? Surely a rough start to a job isn’t comparable to injury, death, and life altering failure. I just need to get my feet on the ground, find my stride, keep treading water.
Last night, I went to bed late. I’m reading The White Road by Sarah Lotz. An engaging first-person narrative about people ruining (or ending) their life by climbing Mount Everest. It’s been a while since I’ve been this engaged in a book, and for the past four weeks (due to my new job), I’ve barely had time to sit and read. Reading for three hours was a simple luxury that I’ve truly been missing.
The White Road does a good job of placing the reader in the midst of the poor decisions people make when they think they’re doing something positive. Last night, I hit that spot in the book where it looks like a good pull will get me to the end of the story, but as I kept reading, the distance to the end of the book never seemed to shrink. I kept pushing, and I read an hour later than I wanted to. I took my meds and went to bed.
Meds? I’ve got OCD. For years, going to bed worked like this: Hop in bed and fall asleep. Wake up two hours later with all of life’s details racing through my mind. Meditate, get up and pee, toss and turn, get out of bed and make a list, toss and turn and meditate some more. Finally, I fall back to sleep until my alarm. About five years ago, a psychiatrist prescribed Lorazepam. A light-weight barbiturate that shuts off my brain. I take it at bedtime, and I sleep for eight hours straight. Until last night. When I went to bed, I couldn’t quiet my mind. The internal conversations from the past month at work continued deep into the night. And then they started up early this morning as well. The things I did, the things I didn’t do, the things I did wrong.
My old life was pretty good. Yes, I was bored at work. Sure, I wanted to earn a bit more money. True, I was ready for some new challenges. But my job change feels like an ill-advised attempt to summit Everest. I’ve hopped on a bike that I can’t stop. I’ve made my choice, I’m careening, and I have to ride it to its conclusion.
The four moments of clarity I described earlier ended with mixed results. I didn’t die in either of the bicycle incidents, but one left me seriously injured and permanently scarred. I never did flunk out of college, and I pulled my grades up to a respectable level my senior year. But my mother died right on schedule, exactly when they said she would.
Susan tells me that doubt and stress are a usual part of a job change. And because my position is large, there are lots of moving parts. It’s unsurprising, she says, that I’m feeling overwhelmed. But late last night, I simply wanted to hit the brakes.