The Starfish Syndrome

It was the first morning of my sabbatical, and I started it the way I always start my mornings in Folly: barefoot on the beach with my dog, Oliver. That dog in the ocean is the true picture of pure joy, jumping over waves and zooming out to run a large circle around me in the sand. Just when I start to doubt he’s coming back, he stops, turns around, and then runs with all of his might toward me as if planning to barrel me over. At the last minute, as I feel myself bracing for all 80 pounds of him crashing into me, he darts to the right or left of my legs, as if saying, “Gotcha!”

Sometimes he’s just so happy I could swear he is smiling.

Have you ever felt so at home in a place that it makes you forget your real home? That place is Folly Beach for Oliver and me. When I reach the connector from Charleston to the island, I always roll down my windows and open the sunroof. Oliver hops up on the center console and pokes his head out, lips flapping as I laugh from below.

“Yes Buddy, we are home,” I said to him on June 8, as we drove in for the first day of my month-long sabbatical.

I was all at once thrilled and nervous about this break from my routine. Thrilled because I knew down to my bones that this was needed. In Greenville, I hadn’t been sleeping, and my doctor said my cortisol levels were “through the roof.” I found myself feeling lucky if I had “only” five meetings in a day, and I was crying—a lot.

It wasn’t that things with TealHaus were bad; quite the opposite. They were actually really good. We’d just hired a sales executive and were about to hire another designer. New clients were coming in like wildfire. I told the team that we were in “the vortex”—my way of saying we’d found the good energy and should keep riding that wave. But still, my heart felt heavy. And I didn’t understand why I felt that way when everything was going so great. I needed this time to figure out why my feelings didn’t match my reality.

Hence the nerves. Figuring myself out in 29 days was a tall order.

So I got all the books. I listened to all the podcasts. I journaled, meditated, and even started a manifestation routine. And that first morning of my sabbatical, as Oliver danced his way down the beach, I looked down and saw a starfish at my feet. I picked it up, flipped it over, and noticed its little tentacles were still moving—a live starfish, at that! After tickling him with my fingers for a minute, I turned to the ocean and hurled him back in.

This find felt too distinctive. It had to be a sign. I pulled out my phone and googled “starfish meaning” only to find that they are symbols of “good luck, fortune, regeneration, and renewal.” Timely, wouldn’t you say?

The next day we went for our second walk, and I found another starfish! And the third day, another! Surely I was on the right track. Surely this meant I was here for a reason, and all of the books would show me the way. The fourth day, I found a starfish, but one of his legs was cut short. At first I was a bit saddened, but I knew that starfish grew back their legs on their own, so I took it, again, as a good sign: “I’m going to be renewed!”

But the fifth day, I didn’t find a starfish. I went back on the sixth, and still no starfish. And I felt my hope begin to dampen. Maybe I wasn’t here for a reason. Maybe I was a starfish with a shorter leg that just didn’t grow back. Maybe I needed to lose a leg? Maybe I was about to lose something? The thoughts spiraled. And I began to read feverishly. Research feverishly. And I was going to meditate, dammit!

Days later I walked down the beach and watched a girl sitting in a tidal pool. All of a sudden she pulled a starfish out from the water in surprise. She ran over to show her parents in pure delight.

And me?

I was jealous.

She found my starfish. Why did she get the sign and I didn’t? What was I doing wrong?

One of my favorite quotes is from the late American writer Flannery O’Connor. “My struggle to submit … is not a struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy—fully armed too, as it’s a highly dangerous quest.”

I love this quote for so many reasons. The juxtaposition of someone with ground teeth and joy is hilarious and interesting. In addition I, too, struggle to submit: to rules, to trends, to culture … really, to life. Part of my struggle to submit is definitely a control issue.

But also, like O’Connor, I just don’t want to submit. I want to live life with passion and joy. Good enough is never good enough for me because I want to feel everything to my core. I want to run so far that I stop breathing. I want to sweat and get dirty, laugh until my stomach hurts, lie under the stars, and cry until there are no tears left.

And that’s when it hit me, standing on the beach that day, grumbling at the Chosen Starfish Girl: I haven’t been living into myself. That was why my inside didn’t match what was happening on the outside, no matter how great the outside seemed to be.

Building TealHaus forced me to focus outward: Are clients happy? Is the team solid? Do we need to hire more people? Do we have processes in place? And I was also still taking care of two kids, tending to their very needy needs, attempting to keep in touch with friends, remembering birthdays (which I am terrible at), getting dinner on the table, going to the grocery store, getting my oil changed, trimming the hedges … I had gotten wrapped up in the system of life, with all of its drudgery, productiveness, competitiveness, expectations, and materialism.

And no, the answer to my unhappiness is not simply self-care. It’s deeper than that. Getting a massage doesn’t cure the pit I was feeling in my gut.

We’ve all been conditioned to work a 9-to-5, put on a smile, exercise, cook healthy meals, volunteer for the field trip, and make more and more money. And we’ve been taught that if we do this all day every day, we’ll be happy. But this conditioning doesn’t serve me; it serves the system—one that is dependent upon my engaging with their apps, buying their products, and “needing” their services.

One of my favorite songs is “Wild” by Evan Bartels. In the song, he sings:

When all the proud men
All the please-the-crowd men
Get everything they want
Before they realize it’s not
Worth the life of lying to your nature
When the truth is something greater:
To know yourself for who you really are.

The answer is more than self-care. The answer is being aware enough of my soul and my surroundings to know what I need to feel content.

So I quit looking for starfish. I quit reading the books and charting the goals and searching, searching, searching. Instead, I ran, I painted, I went to yoga, I wrote in my journal, and I asked myself who I was and what I needed.

Admittedly, I don’t have the answer to that yet. I’m starting to realize I may never have the full answer. But I know I belong outside under the sun instead of behind a computer all of the time, that I need to move on a daily basis, and that as much as I love to give to others, I also must ask what I need for myself. I can feel in my bones that I am ready to create again.

What does this mean for TealHaus? We’ll still keep doing the great work we’re doing, but some changes are afoot in how we produce and the types of clients we work with. From here on out, we are determined to “stalk joy” by only partnering with clients who share our values and who believe in empowering others as much as we do. We’re also starting a new sister company solely focused on helping women avoid (or survive) what I’ve been experiencing and feeling for the last few years. More soon on that.

A few days before I left Folly, I was walking down the beach with Oliver. I’d since given up on finding starfish and was just enjoying the way the rising sun reflected on the water. I looked down at the tide and noticed what looked like the outline of a starfish. My heart did a little flip-flop. But then I looked closer and realized it was simply the outline of where a starfish had once been. I smiled to myself. It was as if Mother Nature was reminding me that there would always be more starfish, more signs, more reasons to look outward instead of inward.

But I don’t need that starfish anymore.

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