The Impostor Version 2.0

You probably noticed that this entry is called “The Imposter 2.0.” “Version One” was just a little too raw to share with the world. I was afraid that if you read it, you’d call my building and have them lock the doors to the 28th floor balconies outside our apartment. I don’t know what it was, but by last Sunday I was working on a major meltdown. Probably, I was over-tired, and ALS is not something you tough through with a little more caffeine. When I need rest, I need rest. I also was hyper-aware that the next day I’d be traipsing down to Mayo. When it comes to anticipating a visit to the Mayo Clinic, you would think that this would not bring on anxiety. The folks at the clinic are so warm, so supportive, so competent. But each quarterly visit is not just a time with great professionals. It is also a measurement of what is lost and what remains, and I don’t look forward to documenting my losses. So I wrote “The Imposter Version One” in a very tired state and anxious about the coming day. Why call it “The Imposter?” I think it was because no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t muster the grace or live-in-the-now mind frame that I have advocated over the past year of this dis ease journey. And I felt like a fake, a fraud, a ridiculous parody of some overly sappy life lessons now learned—in short, an impostor.

I first learned of impostor syndrome in my early days as an assistant professor when I was given an article penned by my esteemed colleague Stephen Brookfield. It was a piece of his on adult learning–I don’t remember the exact topic–but I do remember his discussion of the idea of imposter syndrome. Basically, imposter syndrome is a phenomenon of adulthood. As adults, we are expected to be competent, yet through the course of our normal lifetime, through our careers, our families, the social events that we attend, and especially in our introduction to new situations, we are sure to be put into circumstances that are quite unfamiliar. And because we are adults, we know how woefully unprepared we are for these new settings! Overlaid upon the anxiety of not knowing what to do is the realization that we are actually expected to know what to do, because well, we are adults. This leads us to feel like we are imposters, dressed in a paper costume meant to project competence but thinly disguising the feelings of incompetence that we hold. And we worry that others will find out just how incompetent we really are.

I think about that article often. Imposter syndrome sums up numerous occasions from my past, and it helps me to name the fears that I hold for such anticipated situations where I’m not sure I’ll have the requisite skills. And while naming something is not solving it, it does at the very least take away the power ignorance holds when such times present themselves. With a name for the fear, I can acknowledge when I feel like an imposter as I move into new spaces, and with that acknowledgment, find the courage to share the burdens of the moment with others who occupy the same. My experience is that many others feel the same way that I do, that I am not alone in my own little imposter syndrome. I have learned to recognize coping strategies, both functional and dysfunctional, and while acknowledging one’s limited sphere of control and lack of experience is healthy, I have also seen people totally overwhelmed by their own feelings of fraudulence. The consequences are serious–self-medication, avoidance, repetition of the same situation in a different context, bad marriages, bad relationships, bad commitments–I’ve witnessed all of these dysfunctional attempts to remove the feelings of being an impostor. So last week in an effort to move beyond impostor syndrome, I recognized my own fakery and wrote it.

I thought that by acknowledging my own dis eased imposter syndrome, I would be able to find an appropriate and healthy outlet for my anxiety. And it helped, but not quite in a way that I would want you to read.

As I wrote I kept waiting for the imposter feeling to stabilize, to allow me the space where I have things figured out, mostly. But on that day, the space was not to be found. And I realize now, that expecting to be in the moment one hundred percent of the time is unrealistic. That just isn’t how ALS works. My ALS brother, Dudley Clendenin, calls ALS “Lou,” and if I were to do the same, I would believe that Lou has a death wish. He doesn’t seem to know that if we keep going down this road, it ends as all parasitic relationships end, with the death of the host. But Lou is no imposter. And he is no friend. He doesn’t really seem to care that this road, with its multiple alleys and corners and long, scary corridors that seem to lead to less and less function, more and more fatigue, and certitude about endings that no one seems to want to acknowledge excepting vagaries of the final cadence, is a one-way street. And finding the space to handle this overwhelming reality was suddenly an exercise in futility.

Oh, and what I wrote, made Ev cry.

This week, I stumbled on the little song, “I never thought I’d live to be a million,” by the orchestrated, neo-aged, 60’s rock band The Moody Blues. I admit, I always thought I would live a life where I was in control of the physical body that I was given. I thought I’d be active, in-shape, highly functional, right up to the day when, because there was just no more left in the coffers, I’d die racing semis on I 94 riding a titanium frame bike in my early 90’s. Such romanticism has no place in a reality constructed around dis ease. “I never thought I’d get to be a million, I never thought I’d get to be the thing that all these other children see, Look at me…”

So I melted down, and that is the way it had to be. I just couldn’t handle the impostor that I was. There was no grace, no quiet breath, no sense of the moment, only despair and the crap that makes the progress of ALS so very, very hard to take. And I wrote it, and Ev cried, and I decided not to put it up on the blog, and I cried, and then, I decided to quit, and with that, I’ll share a bit of what I wrote:

OK, I’m going to do that thing now that has worked for me in the past. I’m going to take a deep breath, exhale and acknowledge that indeed, this is a learning situation, and I cannot be expected to come to it with anything except my impostor identity and a tiny kernel of hope that I might discern the skills necessary to meet it and consequently, to put those feelings of being an impostor aside. I’m going to remember that with each loss is a gain. I’m going to see the gifts again, and I’m going to accept it all for what it is–just life as it goes. There are no impostors, just people doing the best they can, and in the end, all of us will find ourselves inadequate to the challenge.

The truth is if you aren’t pushed to your limits by all this living, you are probably unconscious. I still look up and wonder how things got to be this way. I don’t know, but if I just focus on the things that really matter–the love of my true love, the joy of my sons, the wonder of the women with whom they have hitched their lives, the friends who give me a hug and a smile, the naughtiness of my blue kitten–there, there is the thing I was looking for–back to the center. Breathe. Sing. Feel. And it is better.

So long Lou, you big impostor!