Please welcome today’s guest writer, Bethany Cooper (’18). Bethany graduated with her B.A. in religion and is working on her masters of divinity at Garrett Evangelical Seminary. She currently works at The Wine Goddess, a woman-owned business supported by the Evanston community and wine aficionados. In her free time, Bethany enjoys running, playing Scrabble and eating with friends.
Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
The other day one of my students said, “You seem like a free spirit to me, almost like a kid but not completely.” I smiled. It felt good to be seen as someone who is okay with not being in control. It has taken me a while to understand how I simultaneously look uninhibited but also seek to control as many areas of my life as possible.
My mom died of a degenerative disease called Post-polio Syndrome two weeks after I turned seventeen. I am seven years past her death, and it has been almost ten years since she became seriously ill. Even as I write this, I am struck by the fact that this is a part of my life. I have blocked out so much from those years. I both forget that it happened and that it continues to affect me.
Before this era of my life, I know I had already developed perfectionistic tendencies. I can point to many obsessive habits I began to develop in middle school that made me feel “perfect.” Whether it was being obsessively clean, performing well academically or making the “right” moral decisions, I always put unwavering thought into my choices.
Fast forward three years to my freshman year of high school, when my mom became seriously ill and I was in the throws of trying to capture the illusive “American Dream.” My world was crumbling down around me, and all I knew to do was intensify my perfectionist tendencies. I did not drink, smoke or have illicit sex. I studied constantly, acted like I was okay with my friends, and fixated on the future.
After so much loss in my home life, control and perfectionism became my right hand. They were there beforehand, but not to the same extent.
A year after my mom died, I began attending Calvin and became a fervent Evangelical. The idea of unquestionable truth felt safe and certain. In that case, my bookish and inquisitive nature saved me from diving too deeply into the Evangelical world.
When I would break through the waters having let go of one safety net, I would arrive with another in hand. The safety nets began to collect: strict evangelicalism, grades, exercise, being everyone’s best friend… you name it. For three years I could not let go of a relationship with a boy I semi-dated for two months because I was convinced we were meant for each other.
Each time my idea of the perfect life got debunked, I became overwhelmingly angry. I do not know how many times I called my dad and sobbed saying: “I do not want this to be dubbed another fucking life lesson.”
But, time would pass, the anger would dissipate, and I would start to live with more freedom. I still consider myself a person of faith, but I openly talk about my distaste for the church. I did not end up marrying my college crush, but now I can ask the doorman at a bar, “Can I kiss you? I think you are really attractive.”
I love the person that takes risks and does not need rigidity to be okay. This person sees the black and white, and mixes them together to show you that gray exists too. I know she is the person that my students see as the “free spirit.”
The perfectionism is still a very big part of me. My room is typically spotless, I have a hefty savings account and still question an extra three dollar purchase at the store, and I normally can not run less than twenty miles a week without feeling like I am going to get out of shape.
I do not think my desire for control is inherently bad. Running helps with my depression, cleaning keeps my head less scattered, and I have paid off my student loans faster than I ever would have imagined.
But, I am sad for the girl that truly believes she will not be okay if she does not live by certain rules. I am sad for the sixteen-year-old girl whose mom is dying while she can do nothing about it. She is the girl that is terrified of letting go for fear of losing everything.
I am realizing I cannot help this girl if I do not let people know that she exists in the first place. I want more people on the sidelines who see her dip her toes in something scary, and scream, “You are okay and I love you.”
So maybe I did not meal plan this week and I am eating frozen dinners, but someone is exclaiming, “I love frozen dinners. I am going to tell you about my favorite one.” I slept in instead of following my normal morning routine, and my cheer crew shouts, “Bethany is taking care of her body! You go girl!”
Even as I write this, the perfectionist in me is screaming “DANGER!” But, the louder voices are of people who love me, and they are saying,
“Take the jump into the water, Bethany. We are here.”