How Did I Get Here: Breakdowns in IKEA and Other Tales from an Average and Foreign Life

I’m standing in IKEA, and I am shattered. It’s not often one has an existential […]

I’m standing in IKEA, and I am shattered.

It’s not often one has an existential crisis in the checkout lane of a Swedish furniture store in the suburbs of Sydney–I think–but it happened to me, and very recently. In the twenty minutes (that felt like an eternity) that I spent behind the cart holding my two young children and a mountain of decorative crap, I came to question every #blessed gift and decision that got me to this exact point in the universe: to this store, to this country, to these children, to this marriage, to this God.

How’s that for a Saturday afternoon?

I’ve battled anxiety for as long as I can remember: as a child I figured if I uttered enough of the repetitive prayers I’d devised myself, I would single-handedly (by my hand, not Anyone Else’s) keep my family healthy and out of danger. As I got older, I funneled my anxiety into working, then playing, hard. After I had kids I obtained a prescription for Xanax and always made sure to visit Total Wine when the Cabernet was getting low. But sometime after the birth of my second–okay, about six months to the day–as I was weaning him, and navigating the world of spectrum disorders on behalf of my first son in addition to taking him for his yearly MRI and attempting to potty-train him, I admitted to a friend that it had all become too much. The word anxiety, which seemed manageable and can even come off a bit esteemed in this ever-busy society of ours, was no longer cutting it. Instead, words like post-partum linked themselves to another one–depression–and a trip to the doctor’s office ended in a daily pill for that.

Gradually things evened out, as much as is possible for a neurotic mother of two young children. Then we moved to Sydney, and within a few weeks the bottom had fallen out again. At IKEA.

While my offspring employed various strategies that seemed designed to humiliate me and kill each other, the surrounding patrons stared, the cashiers met each other’s eyes, and I felt like my sanity was dissolving in chunks. I wanted to disappear. No, seriously–I wanted to leave. Not through a hole in the ground, though I would have accepted one had it opened up, but in a taxi that led to a plane that led to a coastline that led to solitude, books, wine and food that I didn’t have to share, and quiet.

Which was all rather inconvenient and ungrateful of me to imagine, given that I am currently living out a series of answered prayers in a location two minutes from the coastline of the Pacific. But it doesn’t always look like we planned, does it?


We were way too excited about that Peppa Pig trailer.

My husband and I met, became friends, and fell in love in New York City and he proposed on the rooftop of his apartment with a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Such images are not congruent with our present reality, in which I sigh heavily over the socks he leaves out–socks that instigated the endearment (wait for it!) Socks on his first vacation with my family and were so cute then but now make me want to kill him. Or the tension that arises when the kids throw salt in our mellow game during weekend outings that make us wonder if parenthood is just one big cult whose members are constantly drafting new people, not because they believe in its merits but because they want moral support and maybe a little revenge. One recent rainy Saturday we took our lives into our own hands and decided to bring the kids to their first movie at the theatre (cinema here). We saw about thirty minutes of Moana before our older son set off a motion-detecting light at the front of the cinema and our younger one’s dancing threatened to send him down a flight of stairs. Before the movie began, though, a preview for a Peppa Pig movie came on and my beloved and I looked at each other excitedly. Then we grimaced at what currently gets our motors running, as memories of weekend matinee triple-features withered in the dust and years behind us.

How do you, in seven quick years, go from romantic rooftop proposals to puke-covered bedspreads at midnight and terse digs about who should have bought the milk? By getting everything you ever prayed for, apparently.

I’ve found solace recently in the plotlines for two Netflix series I’ve devoured as fast as any parent can. Santa Clarita Diet is a zombie comedy, but as we all know, stories about the undead are never really about the undead. Uncovering the metaphor here isn’t tough: Joel and Sheila Hammond (played winningly by Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore) witness an upending of their lives when Sheila’s, well…ends, and she wakes up with a penchant for flesh, preferably of the human variety. What the show is really about, though, are the changes a marriage (and parenthood) undergo as each individual experiences their own modifications, including, but not limited to, severe dietary restrictions. It’s about feeling alone within a marriage and family. It’s about just how much trauma those institutions can take and still survive. And it reminds me of all the times since we said “I do”  that my husband and I have looked across the table/room/bed at each other and thought, WHAT THE HELL and WHO ARE YOU. (Full disclosure: farts have often been involved.)

Then there’s Schitt’s Creek, pronounced exactly the way you were about to ask, another comedy about life not resembling that which had been previously planned. The Rose family goes from Fifth Avenue to backwoods with one bad business decision and as their quartet of overwhelming personalities try to fit into adjoining (and disgusting–seriously, for those of us who are particular about our lodging, this one can at times play out like a horror tale) motel rooms. Never has the line between hotel and motel been starker or less crossable. Never has a set of wigs jumped socioeconomic brackets more quickly, or have bicurious fashion choices been played for more laughs, or have Eugene Levy’s eyebrows been replicated so faithfully, or (What It’s Really About alert!) has a change in life circumstances revealed what’s really going on beneath an exterior.

But there was that one time in IKEA…

Though I maintain an interest in both, there was not enough yoga or mindfulness in the world to get me through that moment. And as for grace? Well, there was enough for that moment, evidenced by my husband returning and no one losing life or limb, but there’s not enough of it on earth to guarantee such a breakdown won’t happen again. And again. Which is sort of the point, I think, and also the hardest part of this to swallow–because I’ve only recently begun to accept that I am never going to be the wife and mother I’ve always imagined I would. Which is to say, nearly perfect but for a few minor blemishes and the occasional mild shortness of temper. Nope. My reactions are of the Moira-Rose-dropping-the-F-bomb-at-an-auction variety, though far less cute. I am inwardly turned, constantly overwhelmed, and–even on my best days–desperately in need of more grace than this world has to offer.

I need all the grace in heaven too. And I’m not going to get it–not this side of eternity. Meaning: there is a perfect and whole version of me, but I’m going to have to die to see her. And until then, life will be full of tiny deaths to remind me of that truth. Like…the kind that happen before zombification. Or when you have to start wearing synthetic fabrics. Or in the checkout line at IKEA.


Antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

I went to an autism seminar recently and the speaker attempted to explain the ABCs of behavior. Literally–that’s an acronym. While the idea of being able to break down my child’s (and my) actions into digestible and controllable units is appealing to the part of me that still wants to reign from my tiny, shitty throne, neither my sons nor I are ever going to be reprogrammed into the predictable, tame versions of ourselves that such theories claim to achieve. CS Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” One beyond IKEA, perhaps?  And I would add that If we find ourselves surprised about breaking down on an average day inside that IKEA with our beautiful family in tow, the most probable explanation is that we are not who we thought we were. At least…not yet.

As the world changes around me (seriously–why must the light switches be shaped differently here?!) and I change within it (though the help of a fantastic hairdresser is curbing some of that), I find that the changes most often reveal themselves to be less of the “Oh look! Turns out I’m deeper, kinder, and value more important things than I realized!” and more often of the “Well who knew! There’s an even lower level to which I can sink!” variety. It’s infinitely disappointing and, yes, depressing. What can be done–other than denying it through self-help books and shoddy religion? I mean, this is where a lot of people give up, right–on marriage, their kids, themselves? That flight becomes real, or an affair becomes plausible, or self-harm looks appealing, as all of the above lie and tell us they are the truest version of ourselves.

As far as what to do, Mama Holy has been kindly providing counsel. I’ve noticed where my gaze falls most heavily lately, and while introspection may be my thang and that’s not all bad, it’s way too easy for it to turn into staring at the water rather than the one in the boat, a la Peter. When I study myself at the expense of marveling at Jesus, things are going to go awry. Speaking of him, anchoring oneself to the Rock of Ages who, by definition, never changes? That’s a serious fortress when the winds of change itself are rocking my world.

The great thing is that there are ways to anchor to this truth, rather than taking my kids to IKEA every weekend as a form of desensitization therapy. I find that the liturgy, in its timeless fortitude, is a further balm in its reflection of the Rock. And, since I’m here, there’s the ocean: a different kind of staring at the water, this kind leading me back to the creator of its vast depths. Other than that, I’m still watching and waiting–either for relief, or trumpet sounds, knowing that the gifts of grace now are showing up in spite of me, and the fullness of it is waiting beyond everything.

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6 responses to “How Did I Get Here: Breakdowns in IKEA and Other Tales from an Average and Foreign Life”

  1. Sean says:

    Great stuff per the usual. Thx Stephanie.

  2. Melanie Heckman says:

    Thanks for this, Stephanie. 1) We miss you. 2) It’s not (wholly) you; it’s IKEA. It does that to everyone. I once ended up literally curled up on the concrete floor in a corner next to some strangely-named, birch-veneered wardrobe shelving system on the verge of tears and an introvert’s breakdown and a friend had to come rescue me…and I didn’t even have kids to deal with. 3) Arnott’s Mint Slices can be very comforting when you’re suddenly slung to that corner of the world.

  3. Love this. I’m convinced that “IKEA” is Swedish for “let us show you all of our cheap stemware on this very long and confusing detour, and oh look, there’s a throw pillow.” It’s abbreviated, naturally.

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