Day Eight: How Would You Describe Yourself?

When I was 25, I lived with three young women in a beautiful old Victorian house in mid-Cambridge. One of my roommates was a woman I’m going to call Jen. Jen was four years older than me and one of those rare people who was probably born responsible. She set the timer on the coffeemaker every night before she went to bed, woke at 6:30am every weekday morning, and had a steaming hot cup of coffee waiting in the pot by the time she was dressed at 6:50am. She wore button-downs and khakis or simple t-shirts and knee-length skirts every work day and sports sweatshirts and beat up pajama bottoms every weekend. Jen made sure we had toilet paper and paper towels and did her laundry every Sunday night like clockwork.

Jen was a loyal friend and a family girl, through and through. She often attended Saturday night Irish dances with her octogenarian grandparents. She was in the marching band in high school and went on to get a degree in a science-based field from a large state university. She watched cheesy movies from the 80s and 90s and spent some weekends binging on Lifetime movies or romantic comedies. She longed for a boyfriend but could be awkward and overly eager when flirting which seemed to petrify the men she talked to at the bar. She was a Red Sox fanatic who wore man-sized versions of her favorite players’ jerseys to Fenway Park.

These are all objective observations of Jen based on my four years of living with her. I have been deliberate in my recollection because I am striving to report facts about Jen, rather than impressions or interpretations of her behavior.

The reason for this methodological care is because Jen has a COMPLETELY different memory of herself from the time she lived in that shared rooming situation in Cambridge. She moved out to the middle of nowhere (kept vague intentionally) to lead a work project and hooked up with a guy on her crew eight years younger than her. A year later, they were engaged to be married.

By that time, she had been living in a small town for over a year, and the “How We Met” section of her wedding website described the story of an “on-the-town City girl” falling for a “simple Country boy.” I read with fascination as I realized that Jen had made herself a heroine from a romantic comedy. You know, the one where the harried and sophisticated urban woman learns life’s most important lessons thanks to the love of a gentle and down-to-earth rural guy (who is likely a cowboy, farmer, etc). 

I understand the need to frame our experiences as narratives: ordering our lives as if they are sequential events that lead to a conclusion provides a comforting rationale for why things happen. I get the longing to be the hero in your own story, described eloquently by my friend Molly here. When I read Jen’s wedding website, that overt desire didn’t stick out to me at all.

I was taken instead by how Jen’s description of herself seemed so far removed from the person I had known for four years. In no way could she ever have been described as an “on-the-town City girl.” She hated dressing up to go out, preferring to meet up for an after-work drink and being home by 10pm at the latest. When she described the epicurean hardships of life in a small town with only pizza and burgers for food options, I flashed on images of Jen making Hamburger Helper for dinner, ordering pizza regularly, and picking bars that specialized in burgers and beer when asked to choose a restaurant. She now has four children and her Facebook is littered with reminisces about her “single days in the City.”

This may all fall under the category of “who gives a fuck?” and in a lot of ways I agree that Jen’s self-perception of her late-20s persona is really of no concern to anyone but her.

On the other hand, I don’t think that self-deception is always so benign. As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of self-deception mainly because I think it prevents me from facing my worst qualities. I can interpret a night of drinking and hooking up with an unknown dude as evidence of my “wild and crazy 20s,” or I can interpret it with the nuanced lens of (still nascent) maturity and remember both the thrill of a night of booze-enhanced daring, and the crushingly empty psychological low the morning after.

As I’m nearing the back half of my 30s, I am noticing an increased tendency for people my age to yearn for past versions of themselves that may or may not have existed. These doppelgangers are almost uniformly remembered as free and daring and open to adventure and experimentation. It’s not restricted to the social self either: I’ve seen people who recount artificially-inflated professional accomplishments after leaving jobs to the (discreet) relief of their coworkers. I see men and women who insist that (abusive, awful) exes of their 20s are the true loves of their lives. I hear people who have photos and journals documenting eating at McDonald’s for entire backpacking trips through Western Europe wax philosophical on their experiences enjoying different regional specialties of Italy or Germany or France.

All this yearning and self-deception and recalling a falsely adventurous life boils down to one thing: a lot of us have a hard time with the idea that our best years may be behind us. It’s hard to face the reality that our lives have walked down certain paths and that we aren’t going to have all the adventures or all the drama or all the possibilities that we are taught is our birthright. Conversely, choosing to live in a rose-colored past makes it almost impossible to age gracefully or to develop any type of wisdom.

The public health research nerd in me wishes this phenomenon could be quantified in some way to create a screening checklist that measures various degrees of self-deception. I feel like there must be a correlation between remembering your past with a high level of self-deception and life satisfaction in your mid-life years. How happy can you really be if everything good has already happened to a version of yourself who never existed?

For now, I will try really hard to resist the urge to practice self-deception in my own life: I was a selfish asshole for a lot of my teen years and into college and probably beyond. I used alcohol as a way of feeling comfortable with my body for a long time. I pushed aside good friends because I didn’t know how to address problems head-on. I mistakenly believed that relationships with men should have a lot of drama because drama=passion. I was flagrantly immature at work.

I also fell in love for the first time and have never felt that intoxicating, all-encompassing, soul-crushing constellation of emotions ever again. I sneaked past locked gates late at night to walk on moonlit beaches. I danced in darkened clubs while music and alcohol coursed through my veins like some sort of heady drug. I spent entire weekends with girlfriends who felt like sisters. My credit card bill used to be only clothing stores, restaurants and bars.

Like the life I am living now, there were amazing times and there were awful times. I was the best version of myself and sometimes, the very worst. I assume this cycle will continue indefinitely. The best I can hope for is to enjoy the good in life gratefully, and face the hardships gracefully.

No self-deception allowed.



Day Four: A New Week

Last night, E and I went to a show at the Burren. It was a session of friends from the early-aughts (I still hate that term but what can you do?) who had “grown-up” into marriages and kids and graduate school and big jobs who got together to recapture the open mic days of their 20s.

One of the women is someone I know from work who would likely describe herself as neurotic and Type A and a bit of a control freak. I met her when she was pregnant with her first child (she now has two) and knew her primarily as a work friend who seemed to have a difficult time negotiating work and parenthood (who doesn’t?). After the birth of her second child, she left work and we lost touch until E and I bought this house in the neighborhood next to hers.

Her youngest child is four, about to go to kindergarten and she is working outside the home again, as a postpartum counselor and doula. Though she had shared one-off stories of her days busking in Harvard Square and trying to make it as a musician, I hadn’t fully realized that this meant she likely had musical talent since I saw her as a professional mom-advocate (which is silly of me to admit but there it is).

When E and I came into the back room at the Burren, she hugged me tightly and the joy in her face was mixed equally with a nervous fear. “How are you feeling?” I asked her. She looked lovely in a simple black dress, a far-cry from her usual attire of v-neck t-shirts and slouchy JCrew pants.

“I haven’t done this in 13 years,” she said, grimacing and smiling at the same time. “I’m so fucking nervous.”

E and I settled in at the bar and ordered drinks and food. The mood in the room felt convivial and familiar, like a high school reunion with hugging and exclamations and a lot of people who looked like older family members of the four performers who gathered near the stage talking closely to one another.

When the room dimmed, my friend sat in the center of the stage, holding a guitar easily. On stage, her neurotic energy was charming and she was self-effacing and openly grateful to be back on stage after her long hiatus. When she began to sing, I felt a shocking strong wave of pure emotion wash over me and tears rolled down my cheeks. Her voice was lovely; her presence luminous.

After giving birth to my daughter, the biggest change I’ve noticed in myself is my openness to emotion. I have always felt very deeply but now I am effusively emotional: I cry when I’m happy or sad; I laugh easily; I am often overcome with tears when I feel love in a room full of people. I know this sounds incredibly cheesy and overwrought but having my daughter in my life has connected me to some part of myself that finally understands the ephemeral nature of life,

So sitting in that bar, listening to my friend give space for her talent to bloom again, I couldn’t help but cry. How many of us sit on our talents? How many days and months and years go by when we forget the music or words or art that live inside of us? How long does it take before it’s gone forever? When does the lack of attention to our talents cause them to atrophy permanently?

I didn’t have these thoughts at that moment, of course. In that moment, in a room full of family and friends and watching four former friends reconnect with a part of themselves that had long lain dormant, I felt incredibly lucky to be there. To be witness to their renaissance and to have been a part of it. A lovely night.

The Drinking Update: I had a couple of gin and tonics last night but surprisingly, there is no effect on my productivity today. Perhaps there’s more going on than simple drink=no creative energy? We will see…

Day Three: Four AM Wake Up

My partner, E and I are trying to teach our daughter to sleep through the night in her own bed but like most things with toddlers, she is superbly resistant to the idea. Most of the time, he puts her down for the night in her bed and then I’ll move her to ours when I go to bed between 12 and 1am. If I don’t move her, she gets up in the early morning hours (usually between 3 and 4am) and wails until we bring her to our bed, where she proceeds to whine and sing and chat until the sun comes up. If she’s been moved in her sleep to our bed, she will stay asleep until 7:30 or 8am every morning without fail.

So. I move her.

In all honesty, part of the reason that I move her is because I’ve noticed that I cannot handle a sleep disturbance in the middle of the night and I’ve long thought this was part of the whole getting-older-and-not-handling-my-liquor-so-well change of life. If I don’t get enough sleep (about 6 or 7 straight hours), I feel sluggish and irritable and unable to express myself clearly at all.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that I was right about my sleep being more affected by liquor now than when I was younger. Last night, E and I left our toddler in her bed and she got up calling for dada at 4am. He got her and then she lay on me wiggling, moved to the bed to kick her legs around, sang “Five Little Ducks” softly, told a story to herself, lay on E for a bit while we whispered, “Shhh,” and “Go to sleep,” to no avail. At 5:30am, E got up to take a shower and he took her downstairs with him when he was done. They had breakfast together and at 6:15am, she came back upstairs and promptly fell asleep next to me until I woke her just before 8am.

I woke up at 7am, exhausted from being up for so long in the middle of the night but the feeling was manageable. I washed my face, got dressed, and checked my email while I let her sleep for a bit longer. By the time I woke her, I was fine.

This realization about alcohol and sleep seems very mundane and almost mind-numbingly obvious and it is. The inherent humor in a former alcohol researcher realizing the extent to which her sleep is affected by alcohol is also not lost on me.

The reason that I’m mentioning this here, in this vaguely public sphere, is to record how easy it is for me to get trapped in a mindless pattern of alcohol use. (I am not talking about dependence here, and I firmly reject the idea that thinking critically about your alcohol intake is a sign of a problem.)  I am thinking instead about the ways we get trapped in cycles of consumption, be it alcohol or food or shopping or going out or whatever. It’s almost easier to keeping doing what you’ve always done than to take a step back and assess whether or not this is really what you want to be doing. Do you really want a drink every night at 5 o’clock? Do you really want that adorable pair of sandals? Do you really want to go out every Friday night?

I think a lot of the reason that it’s difficult for me (and maybe you?) to think critically about these things is because there are almost no examples of how to live mindfully without engaging in acts of deprivation or abstinence. There is a pervasive belief that the simplest way to cut out unnecessary habits or patterns of consumption are to ask yourself if you “need” it. Obviously, you don’t need much of anything. You never need a cookie. You never need a pair of gold shoes. You never need a cocktail. Framing an analysis in this way just sets up failure from the outset, doesn’t it? Here’s how this “all or nothing” approach to analysis usually plays out for me: In order to assess my drinking, I need to CUT IT ALL OUT for a set time period. In order to see whether what I eat is good for me, I need to abstain from everything that is supposed to be bad for me (Whole 30 comes to mind here). If I’m questioning my social life, I need to stay in for a month and see how I feel. Predictably, all that ever happens as a result of deprivation is a pervasive itch to just get back to IT, whatever it may be.

So this experiment in mindful drinking is about my wants. I want to keep drinking wine. I also want to establish a career as a writer. I want to work from home where I’ve created a lovely workspace. I want to learn how to work efficiently. I want to enjoy my time with my family. I want to be productive when I’m working. I definitely want to eat cookies forever.

So at the end of my first half-week of work without nightly drinks, I can say unequivocally that I’ve been more productive during the days, writing and researching and reading more than I have in weeks past. Does this mean I’m NEVER going to drink during the week? Not at all, but it’s nice to know that I should have some work options ready that factor in my decreased creativity the day after consuming alcohol.

Not bad for a first week, right?