Learning to Fail: A Life Skill

My greatest fear used to be a fear of Failure. I remember sitting in session with my first serious twice-a-week therapist (the Great and Amazing Kate) and discussing this fear.

“Failure is insidious,” she said. “You don’t have time to fear it, because it happens in tiny ways, small bad decisions, and it’s over before you even notice it’s coming. If you are worried about failing a class from the beginning, you probably won’t fail the class.”

I’m paraphrasing most of that, but she definitely said that failure is insidious. I remember that language, because I had to look it up. Google says it like this:


  1. Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects: “the insidious effects of stress”.
  2. Treacherous; crafty: “an insidious alliance”.
sly – treacherous – guileful – crafty – perfidious
Perfidious is a great word, too. But back when I was talking to Kate, we were talking about how I was not actually failing at anything in my life. I don’t know that I ever had. I was 21. I had an amazing school record. I had prepared my resume for life after college, but that life wasn’t starting for another year. I had whole year ahead of me of this thing that I was so good at–being an undergraduate.This past year, I have learned to fail. I failed at my last attempt to take a graduate course in exactly the same way that I failed to keep this job I so desperately wanted. I loved that course; in many ways it healed me, being there. I was a class on mental illness and memoir, for heaven’s sake! We talked about talented people who struggled with mental illness all the time! That’s all we did! Seeing myself in that context was totally awesome. But after a series of absences, I promised my professors that I would not miss another class. One day, I didn’t feel well, the train still scared me half to death, and I didn’t go. As soon as the clock ticked past the last train that would have gotten me to New York on time, I knew it was over.

Yesterday, as soon as the clock passed 1:00 pm, the time I was supposed to be at work, as soon as I knew I wouldn’t go, I knew it was over. I had failed to keep my job. It happened just the same way.

Here’s what was gradual, subtle, and harmful: I did not admit to anyone, not even myself (especially not myself!) that I was not taking enough anti-anxiety medication. We had agreed, Dr. P and I that 4 mg, stretched out over the course of a whole day, might be enough. I had held myself to that number even as my sleep disappeared and my thoughts scattered. Even while I looked over my shoulder, convinced that someone must be noticing all the mistakes I must be making, even if I couldn’t quite name the “someone” or point to specific mistakes.

I refused to admit that there was a pattern emerging in my absences from both babysitting and school jobs. That I couldn’t go a whole week without missing a day. That the mom I babysit for had a real point when she called me on it. That I was crying too often. That, on the weekends, I couldn’t so much as walk the dog without freaking out.

I have not learned to fail gracefully; I don’t think it’s possible. But I have learned to fail with humility and with a sense that I will learn something.

I have learned that even when I fail, I am not a failure. I do not feel that I, as a person, am a failure. I can examine my mistakes to learn from them, to learn about where I am. I take that knowledge to my husband, my therapist, my psychiatrist(s). And I move forward. In fact, I am blessed. So much help. So much support. So much love. With all this love, all this family and these friends around me, how can I be a failure? It’s not possible!

And so, I accept that I lost something I should have held onto. That I also did the best I could. That I also sabotaged my own efforts. That all any of this means is that I must accept the fact that I need more medicine.

Another therapist, Monica, once told me that I draw “lines in the sand.” 4 mg/day? A line in the sand. I must learn again and again that these are not real boundaries. That I must cross the boundaries I create if that’s what it takes to keep me healthy. That my health matters more than the stubborn attachment to The Best Way to do anything, especially if that Best Way is something I made up and didn’t tell anyone about.

The quickest, most insidious way to failure is to embrace denial. To pretend that everything is ok, even as it spins out of my control.

One Comment

  1. […] benzos? All kinds of uncomfortable, but not hard to do. I once (against the advice of my doctors) tried to function on less than my prescribed dose of Ativan (yes, I’ve tried a number of benzos, only to find that Klonopin is the only thing […]

    February 18, 2012

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