I was working in a new situation and was asked to sort out and manage a large backlog of paperwork. It was a stack at least two feet high; a mountain of dusty paper reflecting all kinds of transactions and data in jargon I could only guess at. Although the task wasn’t as challenging as puzzle-solving, or as creative as re-engineering, I welcomed it. The environment was a tidy, modern office with a cheerful employee. The work required focus and concentration. I missed that kind of nimble mental aerobics and I dove in with gusto. It brought back a similar experience when I was no more than a tot when my mother brought me along to do some grocery shopping. In those days the local groceries were smallish with dull-grey walls of shelves, cans and jars with colorful labels and no flank of gleaming, scanning, beeping cashiering stations. The store had one little register and you could hear its hunger pangs as the owner fed it currency and coins.
While my mother shopped a distance from me, I became keenly absorbed in rearranging the cans and jars at my height, which were a jumble. There was no grouping or gradation by container size or product type. No facing outward of the wonderful variety of labels on all sorts of vegetables and fruits, canned for their safety, I guessed. No similar food huddling together like a healthy family would, for protection. It was a hot mess. And that bothered my childish sensibilities. I preferred military rows, straight as a ruler, with equal spacing in between the columns. Rows and columns that made it simple to find what you needed in an instant. This was decades before the internet and immediate gratification. Regrettably, it was still a mechanical era, and not an information age, and I was a long way from knowing what I felt and doing anything creative or healing about it. I was still a little girl who had limited world experience, and virtually no human interaction. However, I knew the canned goods and jars needed my help.
They said I would also react to being dressed in colors that I disliked, long before walking or talking. Could a baby know her own mind that way? Ridiculous, and just another one of the silly folktales they loved to retell to make themselves look like heroes and me like a problem child. I’m not sure why this one grocery shelf moment is etched in my memory. Perhaps because it was a time when my mother wasn’t angry and I wasn’t afraid. These moments were few, so this one was a clear standout. Perhaps it was because my natural tendency toward organization and order was being expressed for the first time. This quality became gradually stronger over time, despite a lapse during tween years of rebellion, so by the time I married I had closets that could have readily passed the most demanding Marines inspections. But perhaps it was my innermost yearning for sanity and sense that I instinctively knew was so lacking at home, despite not knowing it consciously. It was the outward expression of my deepest desire then – to be in an environment that I could understand, a logical place without confusion where I could navigate safely. Yes, this was it, the painful truth.
The next day on the job I was approached by a smiling, energetic and bright fellow who introduced himself and then sidled into his inability to find a particular set of reports like a sand crab scuttling across the beach. He implied I had misplaced them, but was very kindly and serpentine about it. He was not blaming me directly, but it was obvious that he was dropping his bucket of high anxiety and obsession at my desk. There was no clear direction or request, just free-floating anxiety in the air like a swarm of bees. I checked and re-checked but I too could not find them. How is that possible?
If nothing else, I am methodical and systematic. I pay attention to details and can spot variance a mile away. I am careful but also prone to quick actions. That familiar electric fear zap ran down my spine, that gut-flutter that always precedes self-condemnation and isolation. Speed kills. Yes, I must have made a mistake by rushing. How did I lose this report? Where did I put it? Why couldn’t I find it? My racing mind was saying “I don’t make mistakes.” Yet my sorry soul whispered “I am a mistake, and I cannot be redeemed.”
After 30+ years of ACA recovery this zap-zone was not as intense as it once was. And the flutter lasted but a brief few moments. Logically, I knew that there was no way to be certain that this report was part of the stack I worked on. It’s true that it was missing, but maybe it had nothing to do with me. Perhaps I was just the person to ask since it seemed like I might know, and my outward air of assurance usually attracted hard questions in any work environment. I may have looked like an oracle, but felt like a dunce on most days. But maybe two reports had stuck together at the staple and I just didn’t catch that. Still, I came in an hour early the next day and calmly looked in places I hadn’t the day before. With a calm mind I could use my “grocery skills” and find hiding places for the MIA paper, organizing the office areas like an anti-Magoo patrol as I swept along.
Still no luck. Approached again by the obsessive gent who had seen me come in early. While he said he was sure I had nothing to do with it and thanked me for my conscientiousness, he pressed me nonetheless. I replied naturally, without the customary feet shuffling coupled with verbal stammer, “…sorry, I’ve looked everywhere and just don’t see it here.” Ten simple words that took a lifetime to say. In the old days I would have sunk into guilty silence, sure that it was my fault. The fear would have radiated out of me so intensely that everyone in the area would have known that I was the screw-up even when no one was sure it was actually my fault. My reputation was formed by my own self-hatred, which made me even more depressed and disgusted.
By the third day I had pushed the incident to the side in my mind. I gave it my best shot, and couldn’t find an answer. I have learned to let it go, and that’s just what I did. In the afternoon, Adam came in again, smiling as usual. He said he had come in just to see me, and used my name. That was unnerving; people didn’t generally use a newcomer’s first name unless there was some kind of razzing involved. I didn’t know him well enough to think it was playful; it felt like a set-up for humiliation and on-going fault-finding. I felt myself tense up, pasting on a fake no-teeth smile. And then he disclosed, grinning a Cheshire cat grin, that another department had held the report in error. He wanted to be sure I knew that this had nothing to do with me, and to thank me again for supporting him.
Bottom line: mistakes are part of life. They happen all the time in many ways big and small. No matter how close I am to them, or how many I make myself, they are only behavioral. They happen for many reasons including inattention, dyslexia, speed, carelessness, inaccurate information, et. al. They are not part of my DNA and can be corrected, usually. When there is sunlight between a mistake and me it’s a sign that recovery works. I can take responsibility, if appropriate, without humiliation and self-flagellation. Happy to be human, happy to be imperfect at times, happy to know that I am worthwhile even when a mistake is mine, and even more so when I don’t carry blame that isn’t rightfully mine.