Don’t Rock the Boat
“Don’t rock the boat, Eileen.”
I heard this more times than I can count when I was growing up. It became my navigation aide during the incessant arguing of my parents—deciding what I wore, what I ate, what I did at school, what I could imagine. My dream for myself, or the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was to be “normal.” To live in a normal house, eat normal food, have normal conversations, love normal people in a normal way. You see, at the time, I was being raised by parents with undiagnosed mental health issues, in extreme poverty, isolated in the country, and being used by my father for his own sexual gratification.
“Don’t rock the boat, Eileen.”
I was also told that I was exceptional. My place and meaning in our family, my hair, my eyes, my intellect, my creativity, my enthusiasm and zest for life. My report cards were sprinkled with adjectives describing a beautiful girl that was “a delight to be around.”
But dang it, I could not help but rock that boat! I was also described as reckless, impulsive, daydreamy, forgetful, lazy, too talkative, and too shy. Wait…too talkative and too shy? Impulsive and daydreamy? Enthusiastic and lazy? And I’m not supposed to rock the boat?!
My conclusion to all this was to reject it all. Fortunately for me, the unanimous conclusion by anyone who knew my dad was that he was “crazy” or “there is something wrong with him.” So that was easy, and I managed to detach from him by about first or second grade. More difficult was rejecting my mom, as I obviously needed her and we were very attached until about high school. Around that time, and for many reasons, I concluded that I could not talk to or trust her, and thus began about two decades of rocking my mom’s boat. She did not appreciate this.
Trying not to rock the boat, I made it through high school; and the day after turning 18, I moved out. As soon as I could manage it, I moved to a large city where nobody knew me. I worked diligently on creating the woman I wanted to be…normal. I got an apartment with roommates, started college, got a job, got a boyfriend, and made friends.
In my brilliance, I made friends who had a party every weekend, usually with a free keg, which fit my age constraints and budget. I had a cute boyfriend who was in the Navy, so absences were long and time together was increasingly intense. I developed an amazing friendship with a guy who was so smart and loved Big Ideas, and we spent hours talking and thinking and creating who we were. He was also safely adventurous and fun; we went to concerts and tried new food and drinks and hobbies and had spontaneous road trips.
I woke up at around 6 a.m. one Sunday on the couch of the apartment where I had passed out from drinking as much free beer as I could. The glass coffee table next to me was covered with cocaine. I was mortified, hung over, still drunk, offended that they hadn’t shared, and scared. I drove the empty streets back to pass out in my own apartment, only to be awakened a few short hours later by my best friend pounding on my door to go for a planned bike ride. By this time, it was 9 a.m. and 90 degrees in Phoenix, and all I wanted to do was lie in the dark and be sick—but he made me go, anyway!
My boat was really starting to rock. A few weeks later, this same best friend told me that he didn’t want to hang out with my boyfriend and me due to our constant arguing. I dropped out of college, moved home, moved back, got a new job…seriously rocking now! Within a month, my roommate was in an accident that left her boyfriend dead and her in a coma, my best friend and I were in an accident that left me without a vehicle, and my own boyfriend had become physically violent.
I had rocked the boat, all right. “You should have known better.” “You’re so impulsive.” “You’re so stupid.” “You’ve wasted so much time and money.” “You’ve made a real mess.” “Don’t expect me to bail you out.” These were coming from my past…my mom, my childhood friends and advisers. They didn’t fit with the New Me. The Normal Me.
So, I rocked that damned boat again…this time, to stabilize and engage it.
Very messily, and in my young brilliance, I rocked that boat in the direction it needed to go. I chucked overboard the dominating boyfriend and focused on a healthy partnership with my best friend. (We’ve been together 30 years now.) I built a career that paid enough and that I was good at. I finished an education, and I sought friendships that were more than just fun. I relentlessly attacked the knots of secrecy and shame that got in my way.
In my enthusiastic quest for normal, I learned that what I was really seeking was balance. And balance is not a static thing in a boat. A boat is always moving, always rocking. I can spend my energy trying to hold it perfectly still, for the purpose of other people’s false sense of comfort, or I can move with it, understand how it works, adjust what I can, and rock that boat in the direction of my choosing.
It’s time to rock the boat again. I’m on the front edge of 50. I’ve untangled the knots of secrecy and shame, and sailed past beautiful opportunities to focus on the tasks at hand…physical and mental health, building a family, preparing a future. In an intentional, sustainable, creative, and enthusiastic, messy, and brilliant direction… let’s rock this boat!