Another fucking fantastic guest post from my friend Melissa. #wisdomwednesday
I am your classic high-strung overthinker. I have dutifully kept a planner circa sixth grade, routinely set dozens of Google Calendar reminders and often find myself lying awake at 2:00 a.m., leaping out of bed periodically to jot down the action items ricocheting through my head in said planner. As my fellow worriers will attest (shoutout to Sarah and DC!), anxiety thrives on unpredictability – nothing feels worse than sitting still and not knowing what will come next.
That dread guided the better part of my young adult life. I earned exceptional grades and attended a prestigious university. My first boyfriend had a cushy accounting job. After graduating, I worked at a research lab, with plans to apply to med school in a few years. Then my boyfriend and I would marry and baby makes three by the time I hit 30, that magical age when all the pieces would fall perfectly into place, and life would really begin.
And then, my painstakingly conceived 10-year-plan began to show cracks.
Biology fascinated me, but I had always known I was a writer, and so did my English teachers and professors, who found my chosen pre-med path frustrating and bewildering. On Saturday nights, my boyfriend cloistered himself with Fallout 3 as I cajoled him to at least grab dinner. He moped when, listless, I made plans with family and friends. We isolated ourselves, two planets orbiting each other.
Slowly but surely, things began to give. I could no longer ignore that quickening in my chest, urging me to write. I quit my lab job and headed to journalism school. That summer, I uprooted myself from the Bay Area to take an internship in L.A. – boyfriend in tow – that unapologetically glamorous yet gritty place where I knew no one, what I imagined would be the perfect antidote to my restlessness.
Meanwhile, one by one our mutual friends got engaged, stemming from what, to me, felt uncomfortably like a business transaction – as if it would be a waste not to sign on the dotted line after investing so much in each other. They predicted we would be next to walk down the aisle.
But after nearly seven years together, I couldn’t. He was my best friend, but I wanted more — someone who would gaze at all of me, gentle curves and harsh edges, and not recoil, who took a genuine interest in what I read and wrote, and understood my self-doubt. We were scared. We couldn’t imagine a life without each other. I broke his heart, and my own. As I watched him speed off through the 2nd Street Tunnel, I felt like I had just wrested the earth from beneath my feet.
I moved back in with my parents up north. Breakup brain hit hard. Hundreds of miles from L.A., where the last threads had unraveled, I felt fine, which I thought must have meant I was. In true Type A fashion, I wanted to breeze through the grieving process, cross “break up” off the list and move on. I wanted to date again, dammit.
So I hopped on Tinder, of course. One of my first matches was a chef who dug my pixie cut. My anxiety cresting after a series of back-and-forths about his favorite restaurant in Oakland, no date plans in sight, I finally messaged him: “So… when are we gonna check out this place?”
That first exchange pretty much encapsulated our relationship. I constantly initiated dates, grasping for something that always felt just out of reach. Six months in, I dropped the dreaded “What are we?” question. He didn’t want to label us. Maybe I was too anxious? Too controlling?
Toward the one-year mark, he began standing me up and evaded requests to Talk. I wasn’t insane after all. He was pulling the classic fadeaway, a prelude to ghosting. After a year of dating. What in the actual fuck? I resorted to a text breakup, tired and out of fucks to give.
In hindsight, chef reminded me of my ex (albeit douchier) — an avid sports fan, a foodie, funny. And like with my ex, I didn’t feel seen. A few weeks before chef’s disappearing act, I confessed that I still felt like I didn’t really know him. “Is there anything you want to know about me?” I ventured. He responded that he “wasn’t concerned” about my past. As long as nothing incriminating lurked beneath, he couldn’t care less about peeling back the surface.
But I had been guilty of the same. My ex called me his girlfriend weeks after we had met, and I obliged, relieved to tie any remaining loose ends. All I knew about him was that he worked in accounting, and sang and played guitar. Terrified of the emptiness he had left behind, I fled to what felt familiar. I wanted to call a blasé chef I barely knew my boyfriend.
Things started to give again. Ready to embark on the freelance career I had always dreamed about, I pulled the trigger and left my staff writing job. I moved out of my parents’ and rented a room in Oakland, forcing myself to make a living freelancing full-time.
Meanwhile, I had begun seeing a therapist, practicing yoga and meditation, reading Rumi and Thich Nhat Hanh – all those mindfulness practices I had once pooh-poohed as New Age-y bullshit. But I didn’t want live out of anxiety anymore. Mindfulness helps me quell my racing thoughts, to pause and sit with my negative emotions instead of fleeing from them. It reminds me that the past and future exist only in my imagination, and to savor the present, the only thing that exists in reality. (They call mindfulness a “practice” for a reason – that shit’s hard!)
Mindfulness also taught me self-care, the idea that I’m worth taking the time to care for. Hanh talks about cradling your wounded inner child, which I had written off, again, as clichéd. Until I remembered my own 10-year-old self, owl-eyed and ungainly, anxious for approval — and broke down sobbing. I remembered everyone who had ever made me feel like shit (strangers, friends, guys, chef) and told myself I could never, ever let anyone treat me like that again.
Around the same time, I discovered my neurotic woman crush in Heather Havrilesky, a.k.a. advice columnist Ask Polly. In one of my favorite responses, she advises a successful 33-year-old woman who thinks that if she only works hard enough, she can lock down a relationship. Havrilesky tells her not to let singlehood undermine the happiness she’s already built. “Don’t speed through these days to get to the good part,” she writes. “This IS the good part. Savor it.”
As someone who’s always viewed life as a series of milestones toward the good part, I need to constantly remind myself to make now the good part. What can I do now so that I don’t feel as if the earth has crumbled beneath me if some other guy drives away? So far, I’ve formed friendships with women I admire, with one even blooming into a kickass creative partnership. (Hayy, DC!) And thankfully, I’m a bit of a workaholic — I relish in the exhaustion of a hard day’s work, which these days consists of building my freelance business
At a freelance retreat a week before I moved, we talked about embracing the process, because in the end, the process is all there is. The good part is illusory; even Pulitzer Prize winners need to return to the dreaded blank Word doc day after day. It’s helped me stop comparing myself to others who are further in their careers, and to savor the start. Even my dingy room in the too-cold house, with the mattress on the floor and my cluttered writing desk, which is actually just a plastic foldout buffet table from Wal-Mart. Even as I brew coffee at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of my neighbors screaming at each other, on a trash-strewn street that reeks of kush and dog shit. Even as I eat canned tuna and rice every night, agonizing over whether a check will arrive in time for rent and wondering if I’ve just made a terrible mistake. But as my therapist pointed out, “It’s actually kind of romantic, isn’t it?” Whatever happens, I’ll look back and feel proud that I found happiness in the face of my anxiety. Besides, I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is the truth now, and it’s all I have.
Also, I’ve recently started dating someone. But this time, I’m trying to savor the process of getting to know him, of letting him unfurl – slowly, patiently — rather than treating it as a way station to the good part. And I really like what I see so far.
In fact, life in general is more romantic than it’s ever been. Last month, DC and I organized a five-mile run and chug for my 29th birthday. We ran through Berkeley’s near pitch-dark residential streets, giddy from liquor and the heady scent of flowers, and arrived at Jupiter’s, breathless yet exhilarated. We stuffed our faces with Oban-laced cupcakes, and the entire courtyard broke into “Happy Birthday.” This is the good part, and it’s terrible and beautiful, and I intend to savor it, every last minute.