The Fear of Being Left Behind
As a 6 year old, I had ambition. I wanted to be the best at everything I did. As I grew older, that perfectionist drive just became more and more embedded into my self esteem. I viewed myself as worthy of time, space, love, and affection only if I achieved everything I set out to do.
Luckily for me, school came very easily to me. I did well in my academics, was involved in every possible extra curricular activity, always attending festivals and rehearsing for plays, or going for extra classes or workshops on the weekend. I didn’t allow myself a moment of rest. I needed to achieve, and achievement came to those who worked hard, a strong character came from doing difficult things again and again and again (sometimes just to prove that I could).
I studied computer science at an extremely competitive university only to prove that I could. I was in the pits of my undiagnosed anxiety and depression, crying every week, gaining 5 kgs a semester from stress eating, binge drinking on weekends, dreading every flight back to college for a new semester. Every time I cried before leaving my mom would offer me a chance to drop out, but no, how could I? That would mean admitting defeat, giving up. It would prove that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t tough enough, wasn’t hard working enough. Giving up was the ultimate sign of weakness.
When I started working and work came easily to me, I constantly asked for more difficult projects, I asked to become the subject matter expert of the most complicated software configuration our company provided, I wanted to be a Product Manager at age 24, I wanted to be ahead of my peers. Outside of work I began punishing myself with a rigorous workout routine, two hours a day, six days a week. I restricted my eating. I cried in the bathroom at work. I threw up on Saturday mornings after binge drinking on Friday night but on the outside I was A-C-H-I-E-V-I-NG the American Dream (TM). I had a brand new car, a 13th floor studio apartment with floor to ceiling windows, in a building that had a rooftop pool. I went to bachelorette parties in Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York. I drank sparkling wine on yachts and gulped mimosas at drag shows before watching Broadway plays and getting into stretch limousines for birthday parties. I was A-C-H-I-E-V-I-NG the American Dream (TM)!
No one needed to know about how I cried in the car on the way to work or went to bed every night comforted by the thought that if it all ever became too much I could just kill myself, the power was in my hands. As long as on the outside I was being an A+ student of life.
I came back to India and quit my job to become an actor, partially to do what I loved, but partially to prove that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Even before quitting my job I had been in a play and was cast for another. In three months I had been flown to Bombay from Bangalore to shoot a national Television Commercial. I was on TV screens across the country. In five years of working, I’ve been in five features films, in three of which I’m in a lead role. I’ve performed on stage, for camera, my videos are on youtube, I’ve been on billboards, and in apps, I built a youtube channel from scratch and got to 27k subscribers with minimal effort.
During the pandemic when the world stopped, I kept going. I took classes, workshops, worked on my craft, I worked out almost every day, I published ten episodes of a podcast, I coached spoken English online, I found a coach to improve my Hindi, I shot for a film and got a part in a Hindi play (a language I don’t speak and have never spoken), I worked constantly. I was constantly A-C-H-I-E-V-I-N-G, relentlessly pushing myself to be a better version of myself.
And then it all came to a grinding halt.
On March 6th 2022 I slipped on a mat. That’s all. I slipped on a mat and my life screeched to a halt. That one slip had torn two ligaments and damaged the cartilage in my right knee. On March 17th I had surgery. It will be a minimum of three months before I can walk again without support. That’s not counting climbing stairs, jogging, or running. That’ll take another three months. Three MORE months before my new ligaments can function the way the old one did. It might be a year before I can sit cross legged comfortably.
The problem with the halt is not that I have to stop. The problem with stopping is that everything around me keeps moving. Projects get made, casting gets done, plays are performed, shows release, movies start filming, people announce their latest achievements, while I cry before, during, and after physiotherapy from the blinding pain of trying to bend my knee.
I don’t care about people partying or cancelling my travel plans, those things will keep happening, but what is debilitating to me is my inability to continue improving myself. My inability to work and further my career. My entire day is taken up just caring for my knee. I wake up after a night of fitful sleep, so it takes me a few hours to get started. Then it takes an hour to do one round of my physiotherapy exercises at home. Then an hour to reach my physiotherapists clinic. Two to three hours at the clinic and another hour to get home. I scroll mindlessly on Instagram for a while before beginning another round of physiotherapy at home. I eat, read a few pages, and toss and turn for an hour before I can fall asleep, my leg itching, sweating, twitching, and aching under my brace.
I need full time caretakers who take turns to feed me, get me water, help me put on my clothes, put me in a car for physio, help me get out and into a wheelchair to be rolled up to the clinic. Far from improving myself, I am barely able to function.
The icing on this cake is getting a text asking for my availability for a project and having to say, “I’m sorry but I’m recovering from knee surgery. I won’t be able to work till July.” and hearing back “Oh, can you recommend somebody else?”
Recommend somebody else? You want me, someone who is aching to work, who is unable to work, who is crying three times a day because I am stuck, to help you find someone to replace me? You want me to take an active part in giving away the work that I love to someone whose joints are intact? Someone who maybe cares less about their career, who maybe has a million options outside of my referral, someone who is thriving already.. you want me to further their career while I sit here, breathing heavily trying to get my knee to bend? “Don’t you know success is a zero sum game??” I want to scream at them.
“Sure”, I say, “get in touch with this person”, and send them a contact.
It takes me another hour to get myself together to do the next inane task of raising my leg 45 times in one direction, before raising my leg 45 times in another direction, before bending my knee 50 times.
“Sure”, I say, them not knowing that my heart is bleeding as I send them a contact.
People say to me: “Oh it’s okay, you can still do your part time job from home, that’s a good thing!”, “It’ll be over in no time!”, “Take an online class it’ll help pass the time.”
I have no difficulty passing the time. The problem is actually that time is passing me by. My problem is that I have spent my entire life trying to pack as much as possible in to as little time as possible, trying to accomplish five lifetimes worth of living into one lifetime, trying to beat the clock and do things faster, better, more impressively than everyone else. My problem is accepting the idea that this is actually what life is. Ups and downs. Starts and stops.
My problem is forgiving myself and believing that three months, six, months, or a year of not A-C-H-I-E-V-I-N-G isn’t the end of the world. My problem is truly believing and accepting that I am still worth time, space, and love even if I am doing nothing more than bending my knee 150 times a day, eating and sleeping. My problem is accepting the idea that my self worth doesn’t depend entirely on my accomplishments. My problem is fighting that voice in my head that tells me five times a day “You will be forgotten. You are worthless. Give up.”
My problem is not my knee. My problem is my brain. My problem is the knot that I’ve tied between my identity and my accomplishments. My problem is trying to undo a knot that has been tightening for over twenty five years. My problem is my fear that I will be forgotten. My problem is accepting that even if I am forgotten, that my life is still worth living. My problem is acknowledging the idea that it’s possible to start again after stopping. My problem is allowing myself to stop without feeling like I no longer deserve to live.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. Maybe there is no solving this problem. Maybe the solution is to just face my worst fear and see what’s on the other side. Whether it’s starting over, doing something new, or picking up exactly where I left off. A solution I hate, but the only solution available right now.
And so I reluctantly say, “See you in three months, or six months, or a year, when I may not have a career, self esteem, or a plan, but I will have a working knee. See you then.” because I need to go bend my knee 50 times before I go to sleep.