real life

"The secret to having less stress in your life (...please tell me what it is)."

They say that when you have an ongoing, self-inflicted problem, you have to hit bottom and realise your life has become unmanageable before you’re triggered to change your behaviour. And you have to hit that bottom hard.

Other people pointing out how badly you’re messing up simply won’t do it. The ‘ah-ha’ moment when you see your dysfunction with sudden clarity must come to you from you, so as to penetrate even the most willful denial.

You might hit your bottom in a nightclub toilet, licking the last remnants of cocaine off the toilet cistern just in case you missed a bit. Or in a gutter outside a casino after gambling away your family’s savings. You might wake up in a stranger’s bed, in prison, in the back of a police car or in a pool of your own vomit. You might wake up in a pool of your own vomit in a stranger’s bed in prison. The ways in which you can hit bottom are infinite.

My bottom occurred one sunny Monday morning in the passport office. I was due to leave for Africa with 11 members of my extended family in 72 hours to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday and my youngest son’s passport had expired.

Mood: freaking the fuck out.

“Do you have a special consideration?” asks the bored middle aged woman behind the counter. She seems to sigh her words rather than speaking them. She does not appear to be loving her life and on that we are aligned. Sadly, we’re aligned on nothing else, especially my degree of need.

“Um, yes. I think so? I need an urgent passport renewal for my son because we’re going overseas on Wednesday.”

“Is it a family emergency?”

“Ah, well, actually it’s a family birthday. My mum’s 70th, so.”

She looks witheringly at me.

I do indeed wither.

“So yes, it is an emergency really because we need the passport in 24 hours. I’ve filled out all the forms and have the photos and everything!”

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She doesn’t even look at my impressive pile of paperwork. She is not swayed by my puppy dog eagerness to please. I am in full Golden-Retriever-lying-submissively-showing-my-soft-exposed-belly mode.

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Passport lady is having none of it.

“You need an appointment. You can’t just turn up here and submit your forms. The first appointment I have is tomorrow at 11:25am”

“But I’m here now! And the website says you can issue a new passport in 24 hours if you pay extra! I’ll pay extra!”

I’ve quickly pivoted from eager to begging.

She looks at me.

“We give priority only for compassionate reasons. Like if a family member has died or is critically injured overseas. Do you have a compassionate reason?”

[Mumbling] “Um, we’re meant to be going on safari… to see… you know, animals…”

But wait, she isn’t done shaming me.

It's getting real.

“Look around you,” she snarls, gesturing to the people behind me and those in the waiting area filling out forms. “The people who can come here without an appointment are grieving relatives and people who have emergencies. Actual emergencies”

I look around as she suggested. There are people who look like they’ve been crying, it’s true. But there are also people who just look disorganised. I feel a deep connection to those people.

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Reluctantly, I decide not to bother trying to make myself cry. She will not be moved by my holiday tears, that much is clear.

I take the first available appointment for the following day and slink away, fittingly mortified and hating myself. How am I so spectacularly bad at life admin? How can I keep causing myself and those around me such untold levels of stress that could be so easily avoided with the bare minimum of organisation?

Later, my husband tells me that he’d warned me months before that our son’s passport would expire before our next trip. I do not recall this warning or even any conversation about a passport ever. Reportedly, I’d dismissed his warning at the time with, “I’ve got this” when he offered to sort it out.

I did not have this.

To be honest, I have almost never ‘got this’.

It’s how I get pulled over by the police at 11pm to learn I’ve been driving my car unregistered and uninsured for four months. “You’ll have to leave your car here Ma’am and that will be an $800 fine. Also your licence plates have been cancelled so you’ll need new ones.”

It’s how the phone rings one afternoon at work.

“Ah yes, hello Ms. Freedman, it’s your daughter’s school here.”

“Oh! Hi! Is everything OK?”

“Well Coco is fine, Ms. Freedman, but I’m afraid nobody has come to pick her up.”

“Oh no! Oh my goodness I’m so sorry! Her grandmother picks her up on a Thursday and something must have happened! She must have forgotten! Let me call her right away this is so unlike her!”

“Um, Ms. Freedman, it’s Wednesday today.”

“Oh. Is it? Right, well that explains why her grandmother didn’t come...”

It’s how my kids never have birthday presents to take with them to parties. And how I’m so used to being paged at airports, I seem to have been placed on some kind of chronic fuck-up list so that when my flight is called, my phone rings and it’s the airline checking to see if I’m on my way to the gate. This is not because I’m special, it’s because I’m hopeless. I assume it’s a cost-saving exercise so planes can leave on time. I do not want to be responsible for Qantas having to issue a profit downgrade.

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I don’t think I’m arrogant. I don’t expect the world should wait for me or that I’m somehow above laws like registering your car or societal conventions like taking a gift to a party.

I think it comes down to having an underdeveloped sense of consequence.

Teenagers have the same problem except theirs is due to evolution. The part of their brain that processes consequences doesn’t fully develop until they’re in their early twenties. This explains so many things about my past including the time in Florence when I thought it was a good idea to try and steal a Vespa so I could more easily get around the city.

But it doesn’t explain my inability as a 45-year-old woman to administer my own life. Present Me just cannot comprehend let alone anticipate the problems that Future Me will have. And the ripple effect of this gap causes untold stress for every poor bugger in my orbit.

So, in the passport office, clutching my paperwork in one hand and a sad little piece of paper with my appointment time in the other, looking into the heartless eyes of the woman who gave no fucks about my situation, I hit bottom.

The only way was up. Via Africa. Hopefully.

Postscript: the passport was renewed with 24 hours to spare. But when we got to the airport to try and check in for our flight, I discovered I haven’t read the fine print on the ticket and I was meant to bring the kids’ birth certificates as well as their passports (their father also missed the fine print but apparently he asked me several times if I’d checked the tickets and I’d waved away his concerns due to the fact that WHO NEEDS MORE IDENTIFICATION THAN A PASSPORT??? Oh, just children travelling to South Africa.). Solving this new crisis involved an emergency call to an Uber driver and my mother-in-law and talking them both through where the birth certificates were kept in the house while trying not to freak out as the clock ticked down to departure. The Uber driver made it to the airport with 11 minutes to spare.

Look. I know. Is it any wonder my eldest son’s chapter in my book detailing my assets and liabilities as a parent included several stories about how my disorganisation negatively impacted his life? He’s never missed a plane because of me, though. Not so far.

If any of this sounds familiar, you will love my new book Work Strife Balance, which is about why balance is bullsh** and how we're all just doing our best. It's full of advice and lessons that will make you feel better and more normal and less overwhelmed. Promise. You can order it here or find it in any bookstore.

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