Whenever I make a new friend, somewhere innocuous like the soccer sidelines, or a new neighbor, (as opposed to through a recovery, business or internet connection where someone already knows me, or knows of me) there is inevitably that moment. The one where they say, "and what do you do"?
One of my first-ever blog posts ranted about the awkwardness of this seemingly innocent interrogative. Back in my single working days this question never gave me pause. "I'm a Blahbity Blah" I'd rattle off without thinking, my identify safely wrapped up in my Job Title Du Jour.
Becoming a full time Mom added a layer of puzzlement on how to answer this. I hated how often I felt the question mark at the end of my reply, when I'd mumble out "I'm a Mom?" Sometimes I'd even say, "I'm just a Mom", as if the merits of raising a child were lacking in some key way.
After I started my jewelry business, the question mark still loomed: I make jewelry?
When a person expressed an interest in learning more about this, I struggled. I didn't own my creativity, refusing to believe I was an artist of any kind. "Oh, it's no big deal," I'd say. "It's just a little Etsy shop. Something to keep me from getting too bored."
Blogging added another layer of complexity, especially five years ago when more than half the people would say, "You're a what?? What's a blogger?"
Again the question mark reared its ugly head. "Um, I write about my life on the internet?"
This was almost always met with a puzzled expression and a "Why?"
Back then I didn't know why. It was just something I couldn't not do, but that answer seemed ridiculous. And blogging carried for me more than a whiff of narcissism, of navel gazing. I couldn't understand why I blogged any more than I could understand why on earth anyone would read it.
The awkwardness factor ratcheted up a notch when, left unsatisfied from my self-deprecating mumbling response to why I blog, the person would inquire, understandably, "well, what do you blog about?"
"Well, er, I'm an alcoholic in recovery, and I write about that," I'd sputter, bracing for the person's head to jerk back, for them to stare into the middle distance and concoct an excuse to walk away.
Most people had this response, because the of the uncomfortable vibe radiating from my pores; if I felt embarrassed about it, they felt embarrassed for me.
Little by little, my jewelry business and blog grew, but my self-deprecating manner did not keep pace with the public response. I'd frame my answer to the what-do-you-do question with "Well, I'm a Mom and kind of a writer. Oh, and I make jewelry."
I wouldn't hand over the business cards I carried in my purse, feeling that was to pushy. If they asked for a card, I'd give them one with a tentative smile. "You totally don't need to buy anything," I would say, as if that person possessed no free will.
I cringe just thinking about it.
Then I founded my non-profit, Shining Strong, encompassing all my internet outreach projects that were growing by the day: The Bubble Hour podcast, Crying Out Now, and my advocacy work with other organizations working in recovery advocacy. And I started my Arbonne business.
Still - STILL - I stumbled over how to answer the what-do-you-do question. It all came tumbling out in one vomitous reply: I-run-a-non-profit-and-make-jewelry-and-blog-and-am-an-Arbonne-consultant? And a Mom of two kids?
The middle-distance stare. The shuffling feet. The poor person wouldn't have the first clue how to respond to my rapid fire and apologetic answer that landed at their feet like a stone.
About a year ago, I wrote about this phenomenon in my post Killing The Question Mark. I was preparing to meet Brene Brown, of Daring Greatly fame, and I was trying to own my successes without apology. I sound all put together-n-shit in that post, but the only reason I gave a copy of my book to Brene Brown was that my Mom brought one. I left mine at home, feeling too sheepish about self-promotion. To Brene Brown, for crying out loud, the QUEEN of overcoming shame and embracing vulnerability. The question mark came lurching back like a zombie from a bad B movie.
Now Shining Strong is really growing. I incorporated as a non-profit. I have a fantastic board of directors, and a gorgeous and informative website, thanks to the talents of my friend Amanda.
Suddenly I find myself standing in front of rooms of people, or being interviewed online, or advocating for The Anonymous People, a movement all about owning your recovery and speaking unabashedly about your recovery to help others.
The critics are loud in my head, but only I can give them power over me. Only I can allow them to fuel my Question Mark Syndrome. They are a minority. Most people are a combination of curious and supportive about Shining Strong's mission. The question mark is weighing me down, and starting to smack of false modesty.
I have always been an introverted extrovert. Talking to me you would likely never know that I am cringing inside a lot of the time: do I sound like an egomaniac? Am I making sense? Are you bored? Did you just look at your watch? Do you like me?
I don't know that the introverted extrovert will ever go away. I am learning to love her, to embrace her and tell her: "It's going to be okay. You're not an egomaniac, and the mission is worthwhile". Now and again someone in person, or through the grapevine, or on the internet, will criticize my efforts to raise money for Shining Strong. Or even my jewelry business, implying that I'm hawking my recovery to make money.
That hurts, and the question mark gains power.
But in my heart, I know that's not true. I named my non-profit in memory of my Dad (my maiden name is Strong) who gave back to the communities he served his whole life. My Dad doesn't want me to cringe. My Mom is my biggest cheerleader, carrying the flag for me at every opportunity. My best friend is now in recovery with me and is as essential to me as oxygen.
It's time to kill the question mark for good.
I will advocate now and again on this blog. I will talk about the mission I believe so strongly in. I will even, on occasion, ask for financial help if you can spare it. I will often ask for help spreading the word.
And, just recently, when I met my brand-new neighbor at the end of our driveway as we waited for the bus with our kids, and she asked me, "what do you do?"
I smiled and said "I'm a Recovery Advocate and an Entrepreneur, when I'm not Mom-ing, which is most of the time".
She smiled back, and said, "Tell me, what is Recovery Advocacy?"
And so I did.
I even gave her my business card.