Note: I wrote this after a walk the other day and I’ve been sitting on it for days. My inclination was to keep it private. And as I’ve ruminated over it, I think the reason for that (other than basic privacy) is because I don’t want it to be used against me or for people to think less of me. Is that weird? I don’t know, but maybe, that is a sign in and of itself. As I thought about it more, I came to this: I like people to know me in an authentic way. I want to surround myself with people who know me — for real. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to please people and I really don’t feel like doing that anymore. And If one person reads it and decides to think more deeply about their own mental health, it’s worth it. So, here it is.
My husband texted me in the middle of March one day while I was walking and said, “You are going to wear those shoes out.” And it’s true. If figuring out life’s problems while walking were an Olympic sport, I’d be the gold medalist, the five rings, and the grumpy Russian judge. (Old trope, I know. Also, are the Russians even allowed to judge anymore? I’m not sure, but I’m too lazy to look that up right now.) But give me three miles, a good playlist, and a pair of sneakers, and I think I could figure out almost anything.
I’ve recently had to strip away all that I’ve “known” and relied on for much of my adult life. And what I’m left with is good — SO GOOD — but it’s not an easy process to get there if you’ve been through it. And the time you spend doing that work requires, as I told a friend recently, a phase akin to “nesting.” The work is hard and requires shutting out many external stimuli, not unlike when you bring a new baby home. Your sanity is truly that delicate. It requires quiet and gentle food and fresh air and movement and not answering each text like a dog in a Pavlovian experiment. And to those who are used to pleasing the important people in our lives as a sign of love and commitment, it feels like you are being mean. You are not, of course, but it takes time to understand that.
Another friend, who is a psychologist, told me the other day that the work is truly that hard. It occupies your every thought and your brain is doing so much to reconcile memories, early trauma, and patterns of behavior in adulthood. And yes, it is trauma. I know it’s cool to make fun of “trauma and triggers,” (Cough. Trumpers.) but who is anyone to judge? We are all humans with anxieties and fears, addictions, inadequate coping mechanisms, and behaviors that don’t serve us. My trauma might not be deemed worthy by some. I grew up with everything I needed. My parents are still together and took amazing care of me. My grandparents and extended family were there too. I love my entire family. Home was a place of safety for me. But trauma still happens in the wider world where you parents can’t protect you.
(And how about rather than making fun of someone’s trauma that you don’t deem worthy of the term, we acknowledge the big and small ways we were fucked up over time and acknowledge how much worse it could be? And then serve those who have trauma that is worse than our own? Just a thought.)
The work that I am doing has led me to give up drinking alcohol. And that is a big deal for me. What was an every night occurrence is now reserved for special occasions. Random Tuesday night? No need. At a bistro in Paris? A glass of champagne might be in front of me. (For me, that works. It might not for you.) And after giving it up and many days that felt like I was the most boring person on earth at 5:30, I have arrived in a really good place. I hate to say it, but the sober people are right: you don’t get clarity until you stop creating all of the clouds in your brain. Trust me, I felt the same internal mix of annoyance and guilt when they talked about sobriety. “I can enjoy alcohol without having a problem. It is part of my family and my culture. A glass or two of wine every night is healthy!” And, of course, it might be fine for you.
But it isn’t for me. It is a depressant. We learned that in health class, didn’t we? It’s not good for us but giving it up feels like punishment, doesn’t it? “One more thing I can’t have.” How do we deal with (motions wildly) ALL OF THIS, if I can’t have a glass of wine at night? Well, it turns out, when you aren’t dependent on that drink, your brain is much more capable of tuning out ALL OF THAT. And the negative patterns of behavior and toxicity in your own life become crystal clear. And I mean CRYSTAL. Suddenly everything makes sense and you know exactly what you need to do. Your daily struggles are more tolerable. You can sleep without the 3 AM time-to-worry-about-everything session.
And newsflash: everyone has emotional struggles and mental health disorders that they are dealing with. Some are just dealing with them well, and some are not (or cannot). Some are in the middle and struggle, but function. Some have support in the way of counseling, medication, and healthy coping and love. And some do not. Or they might need help to just figure out that they could use some damn help.
What this has all required has been stripping my ego down to its bare-naked, newborn-baby ass status and giving it a big slap until I cry. And then cleaning that ego’s butt, putting on a fresh diaper, and a clean, soft, cottony onesie. And then asking my baby ego, “What have I been wrong about? What am I being stubborn about? What am I avoiding? How have my own problems or traumas impacted others? What stories have I been telling myself for my 51 years? What have I been doing to survive? How has that hurt others?”
You don’t get sanity until you have a sober conversation with your ego.
Because as I learned, “It’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility.” (We Are the Luckiest, Laura McKowen) The things that have happened to us (especially in childhood) are generally not our fault. But when you become an adult, it is your job to fix those things so you don’t share them with the next generation. Seems simple enough, but how much better would the world be if people could/would do that?
If you strip your own ego bare, I’m sure you can come up with traumatizing events or things you always go back to that have scarred you, or made you sad, or made you feel ashamed or angry. That’s all it takes. Your coping mechanisms to bury the pain start the minute after it happens. And then they morph into a Frankenstein of unhealthy survival skills. Alcohol was my first and foremost. And it became a crutch for the anxiety and pain that made me hobble through life. And let’s face it, it’s a fun crutch! It lights up and it has streamers and all of your friends names signed on it! It gets you on the dance floor and makes you laugh, gets you talking, and sometimes is fun just passing the time on a Sunday Funday.
But after the last three months of avoiding it, I feel stronger and more alive than I have ever felt. I sleep soundly and I am protecting my sleep schedule like a mother of that newborn baby (babies suck at sleeping so the metaphor ended here, I guess). I am more present. I am happy in the morning. Who knew that could even be a thing?
Most importantly, I can say that nothing bad is happening in my life because of my own alcohol use. No delusions or mental gymnastics required. That is with 100% honesty and after a big thumbs up from baby ego.
I haven’t written this to be preachy. I know even talking about the subject comes off as preachy. “Do what I did because I’ve finally seen the light!” No. What am I trying to say is this: find the thing that gives you peace and clarity whether it is walking, playing music, volunteering, meditation, writing, gardening, or going into the woods. Nature and music help me a lot. If you can’t find that clarity, find a counselor to help. (But Jesus, that is hard right now. Time to fix that, people in charge.) Take some time for silence and sit with your thoughts. If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t drown it out with your computer or bingeing shows or doom scrolling or alcohol. Think about why the thoughts or alone time make you uncomfortable. Be introspective.
Not going to lie, it’s tough work. But feeling like shit does not have to be a hallmark of adulthood. And passing your shitty feelings and coping mechanisms onto your children is not the legacy any of us should want to leave. That I will preach about. And keep working on every day.
When I got home from my walk the other day, my playlist ended and Apple Music decided to play “Amen” by Andra Day. It’s now on repeat just so I can hear this line:
“I might have not the answers, but the questions make more sense.”
Another Note: I have zero credentials and I don’t even have a lawyer who asked me to say this, but it seems logical. I say all of this from my own perspective only. Clearly everyone is different and what has worked for me might not work for you. Some mental health issues are way more complex than mine. And also, I’m on a lovely dose of an anti-depressant that has changed my life. And I think I am through the worst of menopause and for now, I have good medical care, I am fed, clothed, and sheltered and that is privilege. Another thing that some make fun of for acknowledging. Cough. So talk to your doctors, friends.