I’m a helper. And a giver. I love others. I want to nurture and support them. It’s who I’ve always been. It’s what I’ve always done.
But I’m different than I was.
A few years ago my giving came to a culmination that forced some changes – externally and internally. I volunteered with my husband’s command as the Ombudsman, a liaison between the the families and the command. There’s a Navy instruction that lists the 18 items a volunteer in this role “shall do,” and then anything else the Commanding Officer wants to tack on. Some days it’s a dull position – checking emails, tracking hours. Other days it’s absolute insanity.
There was one day my in-laws were in town and they left, took the kids to the zoo (which was an hour away), and came back and I was still unshowered with files scattered around me on the couch and one phone to my ear and another in my lap. No exaggerations.
Not all days are like that. But the ones that are take a lot out of you. At least they took a lot out of me.
And then there’s all the days that fall some where in the middle of that range. As the Ombudsman you’re on call 24/7 for emergencies. There’s a lot of presentation and selling yourself – your best self. You’ve got to be approachable, thoughtful, and kind. Even on the days your kids lost their minds before breakfast.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved that position. I loved the Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Chief of the Boat I worked closely with. Their wives became friends that I’ve leaned on more than once and feel connected to for life. I met other people I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t volunteered as an Ombudsman. Other friendships formed that have lifted me up ever since. I wouldn’t change my decision to apply for that role or accept it or even stay in it for two years.
But, I am different now than I was then.
That volunteer position invaded my life. Little vines would wind their way through my days and weeks and just when I thought they might strangle me, they would bloom such beautiful blossoms. The cards and emails I got saying thank you. The sailors or family members I knew I’d helped. The Command that I loved and knew I was supporting. All of those things were the flowers that gave me renewed faith that what I was doing was worthwhile, important, and good.
Yes, it was also exhausting, frustrating, and emotional at times. Such is life. And this was a part of mine, for better and for worse.
So, I lived the volunteer’s life and struggled with finding time for taking care of me, or reading with my kids, or doing nothing. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged forward. I lived for the high of the good times, but felt pulled in too many directions during the quiet times when the phone wasn’t ringing, I wasn’t sleeping, and the heaviness of what my life had become settled over me. But there was always someone to bolster me and encourage me and I knew there would be an end point – the Navy would transfer my husband at some point and then I’d be free.
I felt like I was doing the best I could in the situation I was in. I still think that. What I didn’t realize was how much of an emotional and mental toll this was all taking on me.
I was worn out. Wrung out. Used. And tired. So, so tired.
When the time came for us to transfer (I knew the Navy wouldn’t keep us there forever), I spent two years not getting involved in much, letting myself heal and rest. But then, I started again. I actually said out loud to more than one person, “I’m going to get so involved in other things that I won’t be able to be the Ombudsman.” The fatal flaw in my plan was that it wasn’t the position that beat me down. It was my complete involvement. It was jumping in with both feet. It was swimming so fast and hard that I lost sight of the shore. And here I was, doing it again.
I joined several groups, got my kids involved in sports, found ways to explore my own interests. All while homeschooling, setting up a new home, settling into a new command and boat family…and fairly quickly realized that I was in the middle of the water again.
But, I am different now than I was then.
I stopped. I tread water whilst taking a good, long look at my priorities and goals. I didn’t jump into any other decisions or opportunities that popped up. I prayed, meditated, talked about, and thought about every decision that came before me. And I slowly started finding my way to shore. I backed out of commitments. I said no to new opportunities. I started aligning my actions with what I said my goals were. (Actions speak louder than words or something, right?) And the more of that I did, the closer the shore got.
This week I stepped down from the last group I’d volunteered for. I still have a little commitment to transition out of the role, but I feel so much lighter. I feel like I can stop swimming and stand up to walk the rest of the way to the shore. I’m almost there.
I am still a giver. I am still a helper. I still love others. I still nurture and support. It’s who I’ve always been. It’s what I’ve always done.
But I am different now that I was then. I’m putting me first. I’m putting Annie first. I’m giving to myself, helping myself, loving myself.
Then my family. And we’re a homeschooling Navy family. That means a lot of things. And all of those things are after taking care of me: then I take care of them – my husband, our children. Our home. Nurturing and supporting them. Loving them.
Then my friends – the vast network of people I know from high school, college, grad school, Navy life in four different states. The people who have lived their lives in step with mine at some point or another. People who have stepped up to support me or laugh with me or sit around a camp fire with me. Friends come next.
I’m almost to the shore. I have grown. I have learned. Swimming is good. So is volunteering. But both can be trouble if you get too far from the shore. I was just telling my oldest son what I was writing about and he said, “If you swim into the middle of the ocean, you’ll drown.” Yup. I think that sums it up. If you get too caught up in volunteering, you could drown. Maybe he understands better than I do.