#52 How to actually grow up
Breaking, not branching
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Quick content warning: I discuss passive suicidality in this essay.
This Wednesday I’m moving back to upstate New York full-time.
How I ended up in New York in the first place, in summary, is as follows.
In late 2017, while living in San Francisco, I raised a little over two million dollars to build out what was then known as Hip Sobriety1 (later Tempest), and by March 2018, I was unable to find a single local hire. The two hires I wanted to make as well as many advisors, investors, a co-founder, the then-nascent (but budding) sobriety scene, as well as my literary agent, and enough of my friends, were all in New York. That month I floated the idea of relocating the business to NYC to all three of my investors who agreed it was a good move, and a few weeks later my car, my belongings, my cat, and myself were in Brooklyn. I lived in the Airbnb of a semi-famous lead singer of an indie rock band, and I rented four hot desks at the Williamsburg WeWork.
In May I moved into an apartment I’d rented in March, sight-unseen, in Bed-Stuy, and for the next two years I did four things: I Ubered to work so I could work in the car, I went to work and worked, I Ubered from work so I could work in the car, and then I went home and I worked. It was grueling and also I didn’t mind it at all because I loved what I was doing. But I absolutely fucking hated New York, a thing I mentioned frequently.
Over the next few years I finished and published my book, raised more money for Tempest, and grew the company, still loving what I was doing but maybe also feeling ruined and prematurely aged by it. I continued to hate New York and mention that frequently. I bought a house upstate in 2019 as a way to give myself a break from a city I was loath to be in, which I rarely was able to use because of my schedule. I wished more than once I could not go into the city to work after a weekend up there. I wished more than once that maybe, just maybe! I could stay up there forever.
<Cue foretelling music here>
I was halfway through my book tour when the pandemic hit, and I was one of those idiots who was running an office in the American epicenter of what would soon become a global pandemic, responsible for about thirty-plus local employees, who kept the office open days past when she should have.
On February 28th, 2020, unbeknownst, I gave what would be my last book talk in Colorado. On March 3rd I hosted a board of directors meeting for Tempest at our headquarters in New York. On March 4th I signed a year-long lease for an apartment in Williamsburg. On March 6th a handful of people did not come into the office. On March 9th even fewer people came in, and on March 10th I closed our Tribeca office for two weeks. On March 11th, on the drive up to that house that I’d wished I could stay in forever, a part of me was genuinely relieved that finally there was a reason to stop working all the time and I did not mind the immediate personal cost of the pandemic (though I need to be clear I deeply minded everything else about it). A few weeks in the woods with my laptop and my books and being ordered to not be around other people was a bookish introvert’s dream.
I gave up that uninhabited Williamsburg apartment in August 2020. We got out of our Tribeca lease that winter. I left Tempest (unofficially) on April 6, 2021, three years to the day I moved across the country.
And there I was, for no good reason, living in the middle of nowhere, a Californian away from her family and her ocean who wasn’t sure what had happened to her, how she’d ended up here of all places. And because I’d never wanted to leave California in the first place (I’d moved for work, you see), and because I missed California like you might miss a lover, and because New York had been so mean to me, and because living in the woods for an extended period of time by yourself might place you on the razor’s edge of insanity, and because I definitely believe in geographical cures, I began to think my life was supposed to be happening in California. Which is why I moved back there last June.
To be brief, I was wrong.
To be not brief, it wasn’t just that I didn’t like living in California again, which I did not, it was that I was still in the middle of what I’ll forever refer to as ‘the worst period of my life’, and being in Los Angeles during it, post-pandemic, in a tiny apartment on a busy street where my upstairs neighbor was a fucking DJ and the wealth disparity was so violent it made my hair follicles hurt and no one ever followed through on any plan and my landlord got mad at me because I wouldn’t call the police on a tiny old unhoused man washing his toupee with our garden hose because he posed a threat apparently and oh my god, the traffic, etc., made me want to not live. (I don’t say that to be extra. I mean I was passively suicidal, and I recommend reading this footnote2 about it. )
It was also this: I’d spent the past four years living in a place I thought I wasn’t supposed to be living because I thought I was supposed to be living in California. I spent all my time in New York thinking my ‘real’ life and ‘real’ home were back where I’d left them in 2017, South of Market Street in San Francisco. And while I was doing all this looking back and imagining different outcomes in some divergent timelines concept in the style of Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow, I didn’t notice I was making the home of my present and future where I actually was. A thing I couldn’t have known had I not, unfortunately, moved back to California.
I’ve tried pretty hard not to make these newsletters about ‘lessons’ because that’s always where I want to go and it’s an exhausting trope to turn every story and every event into some kind of earned wisdom. But here we are.
It was a terrible and costly mistake to go back to California. Hateful. Regretful. Regressive. Stupidly expensive. I’ve said 2021 was the worst year of my life but now I have 2022 and it’s a genuine toss-up. That is, living in LA was equally as bad, if not worse, than the year that included public shaming and cancellation, the loss of my income and wealth and company and career and hair and purpose and most of my friends, and the tail end of a global pandemic.
But also: It was only through this entirely unwanted experience that I know things I know now, that I could not know otherwise, that I am grateful to know, and that I’d do it all over again in order to know. And what I mean by ‘know things’ I don’t mean things like where I want to live or the fact that I’m a bonafide New Yorker now because it’s actually what’s in my heart, or even that I know what home feels like and I already had it like Dorothy. I mean things like what I value or how I want to spend my life and time or who I want to surround myself with or even how much money I need to be happy, etc. A cornucopia of information about what I actually want, available only because I experienced what I did not.
I’ve said some version of this exact thing so many times in this newsletter I’ve now lost count, and there’s always that sense that I’m a very annoying broken record telling you pain and suffering and the thing you did not want are all magical little gifts, over and over again, like we don’t already know that. But the thing kind of is, we don’t already know that, or at least we don’t when we’re in it. Most of us (self-included) still largely believe it’s not supposed to hurt like it hurts, suck like it sucks, be unpleasant, be horrible, be terrible, be the worst thing we’ve ever experienced, make us passively want to die, press us to the ground until we say uncle, grind us into dust and blood and snot and tears and surrender. We think those things are a sign that something has gone wrong or that we’re doing it wrong or that we’ve regressed to previous stages of wrong or whatever terrible things we think about ourselves or the world when life is inconvenient or miserable or barely survivable. We forget that change—at least the lasting, transformative kind—often enough comes only when we’ve suffered enough to change3. Diamonds are made under pressure and oaks grow strong in contrary winds and all that4.
We forget the way we find out what we do want is often enough found only through all that we don’t, or lives that we actually want to live come only after we’ve lived through the ones we didn’t, or that the will to choose rightly for ourselves frequently comes from information received from choosing wrongly, and sometimes that means choosing wrongly over and over and over again, and even making a disaster of our life, and even making a disaster of our life for longer than anyone is comfortable with. And so on.
To take this a bit further.
I could have also potentially had a totally different and less traumatic upbringing, or made different choices for myself as a result of that childhood. Maybe I could have not started dieting in the fifth grade or drinking in the 10th or, or had any number of the horrible things that happened to me happen or make any of the absolutely stupid consequential choices I chose. But again: It’s because of all that bullshit and fucking awfulness, because of every unwanted thing and painful occurrence and grief and loss and struggle and bad impulse that I have a depth and awareness and compassion and empathy and intuition and confidence and joy and appreciation and all number of good, meaningful things I would not otherwise have.
Similar to whatwrote this week in her newsletter about reading the journals of her former self: ("as if I’d been visited by a phantom who both buoyed and scared the bejesus out of me...How did she become me?"), it's because of all this terrible fucking shit that my operating system is almost entirely unrecognizable from the one it used to be.
And I don't mean linearly progressed or normally branched kind of development here, kind of the same person just bigger and wiser, and I don't think Cheryl means that either. I mean: there are leaps and symmetry breaks in my development, fracturings and missing links between the one I am now and the phantom-self I was, and they occur exactly at the points in time where there was unfathomable loss and grinding pressure.
To take it a bit further.
I read Sapiens and his (Yuval’s) two subsequent books years ago, and what I remember from them is his insistence that right now, compared to what we’ve experienced in the significantly short human record, is a cakewalk. We live longer, we have modern medicine, slavery is abolished across all industrialized nations (not counting the prison industrial complex or other covert forms of slavery), there’s democracy, violent deaths are nothing compared to what they were even with all those assault rifles, we can drive through a Starbucks, and so forth. This is all coming from memory of a book I read in 2018 so forgive any mischaracterization but the point I took from it was that it’s not so bad right now, it only appears that way because of the speed of information and our ability to know essentially every terrible thing that’s happening literally anywhere and our fascination with terrible awful things over good and lovely things.
And he’s right, violent deaths are down, we no longer have chattel slavery. But also, for the first time in our history we have multiple pathways to assured destruction and multiple coalescing threats to our survival. Nuclear war, AI and the flood of misinformation (or AGI in a matter of a few decades), increasing divisions and polarization, a climate crisis that isn’t 'coming' but has come and is a living reality for enough people in LMICs5, financial and economic collapse, collapse of American democracy, a mental health crisis where 1/3 of teen girls think about suicide, rampant and increasing addictions (of all kinds), to name a few but not all of what are entirely out of control issues that each taken alone are threats and taken together are…I don’t know. There’s not even a word for what they are taken together.
What I am saying is, it’s not a wild and crazy thought to be thinking that we’re entirely fucked—more than we’ve ever been—and that the whole thing is on the edge of collapse. It is a painful, painful time to be alive.6 We have made terrible, horrible choices, and we continue to do so, and there doesn't appear to be much of a unified attempt to stop any of it, which I guess means maybe it's not painful enough yet. I don't know.
In Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, Ken Wilber talks about our capacity (‘our’ meaning holons which means, basically, anything) to self-transcend or go beyond what came before. Societies, cultures, environments, organisms, all do this naturally—they evolve. But not in the way we have come to think of evolution, as some natural, linear progression. Rather, he asserts (by referencing multiple scientists and philosophers (Laszlo, Gould, Simpson)) that evolution happens through sudden leaps, deep-seated transformations—not piecemeal adjustments. He also points out the theory of quantum evolution, which shows that ‘abrupt alterations of adaptive capacity or bodily structure’ are what account for missing links’.
In other words, he posits we don’t move forward by branching, we move forward by breaking.
And only when enough pressures amount.
And then we become unrecognizable.
And then we are left looking back at the record left by a phantom self we can’t fully grasp we ever really were.
How did she become me?
I’ve tried to write this ending too many times now and I can’t really sum it up. It’s what I’m thinking about every day all day, it’s an ongoing thought process. So please accept this untidy essay as food for thought and me working out some ideas rather than some persuasive conclusive argument.
What I will say though is that I could have stayed in New York and saved myself a lot of money and pain and lost productivity and wrinkles and nihilistic anxiety this past year. I could have done a lot of things differently over the course of my life that didn’t completely annihilate the versions of me I was at the time. I’m glad I didn’t.
Have a good week everybody! Ily!
*Please make sure and read footnotes before commenting!
Fourteen Things Right Now
A way to organize my notes and research that has me giddy, two good books, three good songs, an entirely underrated show, a YouTube wormhole, on finding the right balance between fucking off and being disciplined, writer’s routines, why art making has to hurt, what our treatment of John Mulaney says about our treatment of female celebs with addictions, how that Big Alcohol alcohol study imploded, how alcohol became a health food, how to get blocked in my phone. More.