#47 What you're not good at anymore
On mistaking what is being given to you for what is being taken
Recovering is a free and paid weekly newsletter. If you just want to check it out and read free offerings, you can become a free subscriber. If you find yourself reading this regularly and get something from it, consider becoming a patron. If you cannot afford a subscription, email email@example.com and let me know you can’t afford it and want full access.
On Monday I went to make a quick video for an Instagram post, one I didn’t have to prepare for, think much about or really put any effort into since I was talking about a book I loved and not nuclear fission, string theory, or Web3. I figured it would take 15 minutes but I’m bad at judging how long things take so I was generous and gave myself 30. I put on mascara, a wrinkled denim oxford, some lipstick. I stacked five books, stood my phone on them, turned on a lamp, and hit record. And then six hours, three outfits, one shower, four different shades of lipstick, 127 takes and five depressions later: one final, shitty cut.
15 minutes, maybe 30. Lol, no. Six hours. And then the rest of the night asking myself what the actual fuck is wrong with me while I maniacally scanned the accounts of people I deem or have deemed my peers, watching them effortlessly post reel after reel after reel and post after post after post, comparing and wondering: Why can’t I do that anymore? Why can’t I be who I used to be? Why is what was once simple and second nature to me—that I’d do in a bathroom in between meetings—now this brutal, unnatural, impossible thing that takes an entire day?
I could tell you a lot about what came up for me, what caused me to totally devolve into 127 increasingly desperate attempts at a six-minute video maybe a thousand people will see and that everyone has already forgotten. I haven’t done it in a long time. I cared deeply about doing the subject matter justice. I look different than the last time I showed my face on social media (my neck, my eyes, my still-growing-back hair). It felt foreign and weird talking to my fucking phone and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Etc. Or: I could get into what feeling bad about being bad at Instagram says about our culture and us, how we measure our worth and how insane the whole fucking mess is. Etc. But none of these things are interesting, at least in the context I’m considering. What’s interesting is I’m not who I used to be, I don’t care about what I used to care about, and instead of looking at experiences like this as confirmation of that growth and expansion, I somehow keep turning them into proof of my deficiency.
To be sure, this isn’t yet another meditation on how I don’t like using social media anymore. I’ve made that point at least a dozen times in this newsletter and possibly hundreds of times. This is about how difficult it can be to see a world you used to be part of, a skill you used to have, a version of yourself you used to be, and think that because the old things don’t work anymore, or you can’t do what everyone else is still doing, or because you’re no longer good at what you used to be masterful at, there’s something terribly wrong with you. That you have failed at being who you are supposed to be.
Last week a reader responded to my essay with one short line, no punctuation: I find you so mirthless. I was at lunch with my mom when I read it, and asked her what mirthless meant. She said “Mirth, amused, humored. Mirthless, not amused, humorless.” I took it in the gut and then asked my mom (who reads nearly everything I write) if she found my writing that way. I wanted to know whether she’d found me unrecognizable, or potentially disappointing, as well. Her answer was indirect: Maybe it’s because your book was funny and your writing before has been lighter, and maybe for some who expect that from you, you are mirthless to them. More hits to the gut, and again with this reflexive thought I keep having, that I’m betraying someone I’m supposed to be, that I need to return to some former version of myself, that things are going wrong, that I am being wrong.
We were at Casita del Campo, in Los Feliz, and I looked away to consider it and directly at a photo of an unsmiling Frida Kahlo, who I thought could be taken for mirthless as well, which prompted me to think of every writer or artist I admire, all complex people with a range of affect that could include (depending on the piece, depending on the period) the same term, but never be reduced to it. Here, I subverted a perceived attack into a compliment, and it occurred to me, however briefly, that I cannot fail at being who I am, or being where I am. That this as much as anything else is the point of being a human: how we change into unrecognizable things, our multitudes, our complexities, our capacity to be so many different things.
I keep thinking about alcohol. About how many years I tried to make it work, how I clung to the memory of the (very few) times I had managed it perfectly and glorified them as some potential within me. How when it stopped working and threatened to destroy everything precious to me, I tried harder to make it work, tried everything to make it work, and not because I liked alcohol or what it did for me or because it made me feel good or made me a better human or increased my capacity to love and live, but because it was what I was supposed to do, or what I imagined I was supposed to do, and who I was supposed to be. A drinking me fit within the expectations I had for myself, the vision I had for my life, and the thought of removing this silly little liquid was equal to the death of every dream I seemed to have.
I didn’t want addiction, I would have never chosen addiction and all its requisite sacrifice, and thankfully, I didn’t have to choose. It was given to me. Forced upon me. And then this: a beautiful world I could never have imagined and would have never had access to bloomed. Beyond the fear of losing everything I thought I was supposed to have and be was a whole life I hadn’t considered, and a better one.
A thing I’ve joked about many times is that my God isn’t subtle. I don’t get the fuzzy inclination that perhaps I should go in this different direction. I get a wrecking ball, and by instinct, instead of bowing in gratitude for the flattening of all that guesswork and the clearing of the way, I stand atop the detritus and try and reconstitute it into a structure that will house a version of myself I no longer am and no longer could be, that at my core, I no longer even want to be. What would my life look like if I hadn’t been forced to quit drinking? Small. What does it look like because I was? Big. What would my life look like if I hadn’t been forced out of the last version of it? Not sure, but it would probably be miserable. What does it look like now because I was? I don’t know yet, because I’m still in the part where I think a mistake has been made, and just like the me who couldn’t fathom a life of sobriety—who kept trying to make things work that were hurting her because of her fear of the unknown and the very fixed and firm ideas she had about how her life should go—I’m still looking around at what other people get to do and what I should get to do, instead of allowing myself to step into all that possibility, all that unchartered territory, all that beauty and wonder and mystery.
All that potential, if only you surrender to it, if only you stop mistaking what is being given to you for what is being taken. If only you allow yourself to consider the delightful and terrible thought, that this is a gorgeous process—even this part—and not some terrible mistake.
A Pema Chödrön quote that’s relevant: “When [my] marriage fell apart, I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off.” I think that’s the point I’m trying to make (to myself, mostly). When the old things don’t work and the new things aren’t solidified, it’s such a natural thing to look back and imagine we’re betraying something we are supposed to be, going the wrong direction, being wrong, missing some opportunity, failing at who we are. There’s a panic for what we know, for the tried and the true. We keep putting on clothes that don’t fit and it hurts, and not because they don’t fit, but because we think because everyone else’s clothes still seem to fit, there’s something deeply wrong with us. I’m just thinking: fortunately for me, these clothes no longer fit. I can’t pull the familiar off anymore.
PS, I didn’t realize the last few posts didn’t have comments on! Sorry to everyone who kept hitting the button lols and thank you for the many emails re ADHD. A blessing, you all are. PPS, I do not believe I’m mirthless, or any of the things, good or bad, people tell me I am. I share feedback I get sometimes not to receive validation, but because it’s part of the experience of being out there and it can loop you sometimes, and that’s interesting. I appreciate that enough of you will want to reassure me, but that’s never a motivation for me to share something.
Fifteen Things Right Now
A book I can’t put down, my favorite podcast, my favorite show, the gifts of failing Dry January, is sobriety for white women, the damage of perpetuating the idea that “everyone” is on Ozempic, WW and that whole “we’re not a diet company” thing, is drinking a Borg harm reduction?, drunk shopping, how even though I’m hungry for a gay dad story I will not be watching The Whale, actual documented behavioral disorders requiring treatment caused by Tik Tok