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JK I would literally rather spontaneously combust
Here is a fact: a huge part of me was terrified to start writing again because I was afraid that I’d start using it as a way of measuring my worth against my friends or other writers whose work I was jealous of. Why? Because I did that a lot before, and after many months away and much re-evaluation and changes to this (my personality) and tweaks to that (my mental well-being), I’ve come to feel like I’m at a place where I can finally say “I don’t think about you at all” like Don Draper, but not mean it in the same way he said it.
For a very long time did a good-ish job of acting like I had figured out that competition wasn’t a healthy way to produce work, but that claim was wildly untrue. Inwardly, I was insecure (still am sometimes, because I’m a person!), petty, jealous, and consumed with what everybody but me was doing. And while I was trying very hard to live what I was claiming to have been working on, the success of my friends tended to reflect only one thing: that I was failing.
Fucking . . . woof. Embarrassing to admit! Shameful, even! Especially when many friends don’t do the same work I do, and their acceptance into, say, a PhD program (I can’t even imagine the work that’s involved in that and how I know in my soul that I am not capable of doing that without melting into the planet) or a promotion in a field I’m not even remotely associated with had nothing to do with me in the slightest. But, when you’re in the headspace of “fuck you, I can do this!!” (when no one is even challenging you), everything is about you. Every victory that isn’t yours is about you. Every book published that isn’t yours is about you. Every guest speaker that isn’t you is about you. Every talking head on a documentary about a topic you’re sure you’re fluent in (even though it’s about the physics of black holes and you have listened to one (1) podcast about them in six years) is about you. You are the main character in not just your own story, but in everybody else’s. And while it’s nice to think the main character is the beloved star whomst everybody loves, it is a lonely, weird, sad place because you’ve set the story in an abyss. “I don’t think about you at all” really means “I am obsessed with what you’re doing,” which is the actual way Don Draper meant it.
A few months before Nobody Cares came out, I had a meltdown. I was overwhelmed by my work, and I was living by myself and writing by myself and giving myself more than enough room to spiral. I cried a lot, and not even about real things. (One afternoon I started crying because there was “just so much day left” while another was because I didn’t feel “zen” after 20 minutes of yoga.) I wasn’t sleeping, I barely ate, and I was glued to social media, putting on the performance of a lifetime. I also believed that should I let anybody in on how I was actually feeling, I’d give everybody a reason to expose me as an emotional fuck-up who couldn’t handle her shit. So: I caved and started spending more and more time at home, went back to therapy (because I’d gone so far as to think that I, a person who needs it, no longer needed it), and confided my biggest fear to my still-therapist: what if everybody finds out that I’m a bad adult?
I’m not going to take you guys through the last five years because honestly I think we’d all like to forget the last three, point blank. But I will say that the rumours are true: I am a terrible adult. I need my family. I need my friends. I need to talk things through and I need to be around other people because people are all we’ve got. (To quote Fleabag.) I like spending time by myself too — hello, I’m an only child and I need at least 12 hours a day to re-watch Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives — but I know I can’t go this mad, mad world all alone. I am not the Hulk. Relationships are important to me. And it turns out that you suck a lot of the fun out of them when you use them to gauge your own success.
I think I’ve written about this before, but when I confided in therapy that I was terrified to be exposed as a weak grown-up who needed her mommy and daddy (my quote), my therapist responded with, “Well, we live in a society where we equate isolation to success” which still sticks with me. At the time, on top of worrying that my work would suffer after inevitably being called out for my weakness (by whom, exactly? I’m not sure), I was consumed with the idea that my next-door neighbours, two people who were my age and had kids and knew me from high school, would tell everybody we’d ever known that I was spending a lot of time hanging with my family and cat, and that I had failed in the great experiment of life. My therapist looked at me and simply said, “I don’t want to make any promises, but they are definitely not paying attention to you.”
I obviously didn’t believe her then, but she was certainly correct.
In fact, I wrote Nobody Cares under the premise that nobody is paying attention to any of us as much as we’d like to think they are. And I did believe that then, even if in the months after its publication, I began to follow that ethos up mentally with “well they are actually all paying attention to you and keeping a running score of everything you do” which is a state of mind I don’t recommend. I quickly became the exception to my own rule and convinced myself that while everybody else on the planet can do whatever they’d like, I must excel because otherwise — extreme Carrie voice — they’re all gonna laugh at you. That, and if my friends did things that I wasn’t doing, they were better than me and they knew that, and it was something they probably talked about all the time.
It took a shit-ton of time for that idea to begin disintegrating. First, when you go through things (and I say that universally: we’re all going and have gone through things), priorities change and you realize that instead of aspiring to be some sort of untouchable queen, you are a person in desperate need of other people. And not other people’s approval: like, literally just them. Their presence, their friendship, their concern, their love . . . genuinely what friends and family are for. When you reach peak vulnerability and take the plunge and decide to let the people who care about you in, you quickly discover that life felt cold and lonely without them. Yes, it made me feel great to be the friend who doled out advice or seemed like I’d learned Big Things, and then use those traits to position myself as someone approachable, but it made me feel whole to set that costume on fire and talk to the people I love and like as though they are people I love and like.
And that includes a lot of things: being truthful, open, apologetic if necessary. It was easy to dismiss my obsession with competition as simply being ambitious when in reality, it was a direct reflection about how unsure of myself I was. I have spent a lot of my life trying to achieve some semblance of perfection, and while I’ve never succeeded, I took that failure as another sign that I just needed to push myself harder and ignore the fact that I needed to be a real and vulnerable person. And what’s more is that vulnerability isn’t a static descriptor, either: I’m still very choosy about who I confide in and what I say, but that’s because I need to think through and process my shit first. Other people can go tell it on the mountain, and I love that for them. Everybody’s relationship to vulnerability is personal. Much like our relationships with ourselves, with work, and with the notion of “adulthood.”
It hit me that I’d reached a turning point this week (fucking finally) when I got a good mark on a paper, posted it to my close friends on Instagram, and did it because I was excited and not because I was trying to show “them” (it’s always “them” — who are they?) what I’m capable of. It hit me again later on when a few pals shared good news and my first thought wasn’t “Oh, so they’re saying that *I* failed!” Instead, I just felt . . . happy. I felt happy that people I care about are doing things that are cool and important to them, and I felt happy that we’d have a reason to celebrate and go out for dinner and revel in the fact that we’re doing things that bring us joy within a world being consistently drained of it. I felt like I was part of an ensemble, not an indie drama nobody wants about some sad girl. I’m still absolutely a sad girl sometimes, but at least when it happens, it’s not a direct result of believing I’ve lost something I didn’t even want.
So I mean, it’s a work in-progress. Will there be days where I’m scared that everything I write now will seem washed and outdated and stupid and when I finally finish Small Tornadoes everyone will say “WHOMST?” Of course! JESUS. But, when those days happen, I know that when I turn to my pals and/or family and/or whomever I’m comfortable confiding in, I won’t have to sift through those emotions alone. I, like anybody else, will never be free of my neuroses and anxieties and general weirdness. But that’s what makes having other people in my life so great: we’re all pretty fucked! There’s no need for us to be isolated, lonely, and pretending, too.
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