On success, failure, and the intersection of the two

I woke up on the morning of April 9 with the thought, “I am never going to feel depressed again.”

I’d spent the first quarter of 2017 doing a lot of work on myself, much of it a survival mechanism forced by a professional situation I needed to get out of immediately. January was the fourth and final month of the most toxic job I’ve ever had, and to get through weeks of waiting to be fired, I needed to get a handle on what was going on with me internally. For four weeks, I sat at my desk with headphones on, taking breaks from job applications, networking emails, and what I knew to be a futile Performance Improvement Plan to listen to snippets of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now as a means of recentering myself.

Every morning I put on my shrug emoji hat as a sort of tacit commentary on the insanity around me and went into an office where I felt, whether it was true or not, like I was anathema. I had no idea who knew the situation I was in, or knew that I’d be leaving soon. I wondered if everyone was simply waiting for my time there to run out so they’d no longer need to tiptoe around me, pretending it was normal for me to be there. I also wondered if maybe no one knew beyond the boss who barely spoke to me, the VP who’d put me on the PIP, and the department head who’d altogether stopped acknowledging my existence in December.

I would have felt isolated and paranoid, except that the situation was so absurd that I knew in my core it had little to do with me. I was surrounded by dysfunction, both from a business standpoint and in terms of the junior-high antics of people in positions of power. While I was half-heartedly jumping through said people’s hoops, I was also making serious progress on my job search. By the time I got fired, I was in the midst of three interview processes. During my firing meeting, I was chill enough to compliment the VP on how she’d handled an unpleasant situation during her first month on the job. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t worried or anxious or fearful. I gave no fucks.

Which was weird. I’d been depressed for pretty much my entire life. From a young age, I’d tied my sense of self-worth to my accomplishments. There are a number of problems with doing so, one of which is that if your standards for what qualifies as an accomplishment are impossibly high, literally everything you do ends up feeling like a failure. Which means the years are basically just a bunch of failures strung together, a series of things I didn’t achieve instead of the things I did.

I beat out a lot of candidates for a job at a major performing arts nonprofit, but I didn’t make the kind of money my friends did. I wrote a few popular blogs throughout my twenties, but I made it into my thirties unpublished in any real way. I got into a top MBA program, sure, but it wasn’t Stanford (or Harvard, as my then-boyfriend was kind enough to remind me during the Admitted Students Weekend for the school I did get into). And having rigid ideas about what qualified as accomplishments robbed me of the drive to create my own path. When you only view a few types of things — things that bring outside validation from a select group of people on whose approval your self-worth hinges — as forms of success, what’s the point in doing anything that doesn’t fit these narrow terms?

Yet once I got fired, I no longer cared. It was like someone had pulled back the curtain and I finally saw the external praise and approval I’d been so desperate for my entire life as the hollow bullshit it was. As an example, I’d expected the head of my department to be the same kind of tough-but-fair mentor I’d worked under at my performing arts job, but instead he was a tyrant who seemed to be working out unresolved childhood trauma on his team. Where once I would have been desperate for his approval, I instead saw him as petty and small. Once that and other illusions about this particular job had lifted, the illusions I held about success, and what it meant for me to be successful, started coming apart at the seams as well.

This new perspective paid dividends. I strolled into interviews like I didn’t need a job. Instead of trying to sugarcoat things, I was transparent about what I’d just lived through. I was also vocal about what I needed from my next employer, and what was unlivable for me. A month after getting fired, I had three job offers.

So, April 9. I woke up happy, next to my boyfriend. I probably performed this weird morning ritual we had called Mussels Face Dance, after a happy face I’d made while eating mussels in Albany en route to Montreal a year and a half earlier. We had sex, then took a shower, then headed to one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Rucola, for brunch. We were in a particularly great place, high off an amazing weekend where we’d celebrated his birthday with a pub crawl with friends followed by a nice dinner out. We asked what that day’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds pie special was and ordered two slices. It felt decadent. He picked up the tab as a thank-you for dinner the night before.

Less than two hours later, back at home, I wandered into the kitchen to tell him some good news from a friend of ours and found him crying. I knew before he said it. “I love you so much,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m happy.”

My world suddenly went hollow. He was saying he didn’t know what he wanted, but I knew he was leaving me. It was a next-level mindfuck, to move swiftly from a perfect morning with the person you were sure you’d marry to the sudden conviction that you were never going to see him again. None of his words made any sense, but the ones I most remember were that he didn’t think I would be a good mother because of my tendency to leave clothes on the floor. It was unnecessarily cruel and something I will probably remember for the rest of my life.

We didn’t actually break up until the following weekend. I spent Saturday morning volunteering at a soup kitchen — inspiring a new rule that when I feel like my life is meaningless, I do something kind for someone else — and at night a person who looked like the person I loved but wasn’t him, could not have been him, erased my plans for the future via FaceTime.

The next morning I remembered the thought I’d had a week earlier — that I’d never feel depressed again — and had to laugh. I made the vegan version of this simple but winning asparagus dish and brought it to my friends’ Easter potluck, where another friend told me, in a comment that should have been too soon but somehow wasn’t, that she was glad I wouldn’t have to deal with a crazy person anymore. That night I went to dinner with her and another friend, where, after I’d thrown a couple of glasses of Côtes du Rhône on top of the mimosas I’d been overserved at brunch, I texted a guy I went out with once in 2005 whom I’d ignored when he’d reached out six months earlier. That was too soon, but I knew inaction would feel worse.

For a while I thought maybe I’d been right about the depression. I was devastated by the breakup, and still reeling from six months straight of career drama, but I was also sort of fine. Once a week, I told my therapist that I was concerned about how OK I felt — that I thought my feeling OK would necessarily precipitate impending doom. I couldn’t just be fine; there had to be a delayed reaction, something coming that would cause this strange levee to burst.

But instead, the not-OK-ness came not as a tidal wave but as a simple undercurrent. Once the drama of the first half of the year dissipated, there was less noise to distract myself with. And then in October, I got sick. Nothing major, just a viral infection that stayed with me the whole month plus a few days into November. But it exposed a crack in my conviction that I was no longer ruled by external accomplishments. When I got sick, I was only a few races away from qualifying for next year’s Marathon, but I had to cancel a 10K and a half. When I was still sick on the day of my next race, a rainy 5M in Central Park, I ran it anyway, because the alternative was to not meet my goal, and that was unacceptable.

Even after I got better, the experience of being sick for five weeks wore on me. In late September I’d felt like I was firing on all cylinders creatively, and I was poised to kick off a bunch of projects — an epistolary essay series, two podcasts, some other stuff. I met my favorite standup comic and her new material lined up perfectly with the concept for one of my podcasts, so she asked if she could guest on it. I suddenly saw open doors everywhere, only to have sickness rob me of the energy to walk through them.

And then it got dark, literally and figuratively. The depression I thought I’d divested along with my prior job and relationship crept back in. There wasn’t a cause, other than the seasonal affective disorder that usually strikes this time of year, but which I’d somehow expected to evade simply through my new identity as a non-depressed person. Augmenting my standard seasonal depression was the fact that I resented myself for being depressed. The new, zen me wasn’t supposed to be susceptible to bad feelings. And I worried that if I was, then maybe I hadn’t changed so much after all.

But there was a key difference between this bout with depression and those in the past. Instead of accepting that I felt like shit and getting in bed to mainline 30 Rock episodes until I felt better, I ordered a light therapy lamp on Amazon. Instead of knocking back a couple of IPAs at my local, I sat down and wrote through my feelings. Instead of spending Sunday watching Christmas movies, I went to a new cafe and edited and uploaded the first episode of the podcast I started with my best friend. I subscribed to some new podcasts, created a workspace in Asana for my creative projects, threw a healing crystal around my neck, and downloaded some self-help audiobooks. This didn’t make everything suddenly perfect, but it helped me feel more at peace with the imperfection.

There will probably never be a day where I can accurately say I’ll never be depressed again. I know better than to think it now. But more than anything, what I learned this year was how to get out of my own way to take action when things are shit, and I don’t see that skill going anywhere.

September

I spent a lot of time in August thinking about how fucked-up and traumatizing the past year of my life has been. August is always a rough month for me, as the two most difficult things I’ve lived through both happened the first week of August, in different years. But taking inventory of what I’ve dealt with over the past 12 months has been a different beast altogether.

In the past year I’ve gone through two job changes, four months of the most toxic professional experience of my life, and the person I loved breaking up with me basically out of nowhere. Beyond that, there’s trauma around the good things that have happened.

I’ve run two half marathons and am in the process of qualifying for next year’s NYC Marathon. Before 2016, the farthest I’d ever run was five miles. Believing I’m not a runner is only one of the stories I’ve stopped telling myself.

I’ve gone from believing I had an anxiety disorder and a broken brain to having basically no stress in my life and reincarnating the Type A, hyperorganized, clear-thinking Business Kat I thought was Old-Taylor-style dead. I’m newly bereft of the constant feelings of guilt and failure that had been my companions for seven years. I love and forgive myself daily, and most of the time I truly believe I am perfect exactly as I am, flaws and all.

I’m less judgmental and more optimistic. I’m palpably less afraid. I can detach from outcomes and trust in the universe with the most spirited of spirit junkies. I believe in The Power of Now.

But all of this is unfamiliar territory. All of it seems to apply to a person who is not me.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to let someone get to know me when I’m not even sure I know me anymore. I’m usually warm and open and easy to learn. But now I have walls up, and I don’t know how to tear them down. Instead, it seems like I’m always trying to build them higher. Where I look for the unwavering romantic I used to be, I find something more akin to an acerbic witticism generator.

I’ve barely cried this summer. I actively avoid crying by never letting myself think about what I’ve lost, or more accurately by only thinking about the bad times. I think about the Sunday tantrum instead of the perfect weekend that preceded it. I think about the panic attacks that accompanied flurries of texts instead of the serene summer morning spent kayaking. The times I felt scared, not the times he was the only person who made me feel safe. When he told me I was incapable of empathy, that I wouldn’t be a good mother, that I didn’t appreciate the things I had — not when I was exceptional, a goddess, the best woman.

I spent this summer trying to run away from what was left of my life. I went to Florida, Mexico, Cape Cod, even fucking Indiana.  I made new rules: If I start feeling like my life is pointless, I do something kind for someone else. If someone or something disappoints me, I eat burrata.

I have eaten a lot of burrata.

When I was in town this summer, my schedule was full. Tuesdays were my only free weeknights in July and August, and most of the time I filled them up as well. I dodged plans with people who hadn’t had a front row seat for what I went through during the first third of the year, unless they could provide a sensory distraction from it. I didn’t want to tell the story again. I still don’t.

I’ve been distancing myself from the person I was. I don’t cry, I don’t get anxious, I am zen and above it all. The person still suffering from emotional whiplash, well, that’s someone else. I’m a shiny new person with an always-clean apartment and Crème de La Mer skin and minimalist clothing you can only buy in Copenhagen. I manage my stress through a steady diet of self-help audiobooks and an endless roster of races.

I want to take the average of where I am and where I was. I want to believe I can fall in love again — hell, that I can fall in trust again — but I need to do it with my eyes wide open. I want to remain aware of my emotions without trying to control them so tightly. I want to get through my to-do list but still have blank dates on my calendar. I want to be at peace yet feel a deeper sense of urgency around what I intend to accomplish. I want to meet someone I’d commit arson for without letting him burn down my life.

I fell down an internet rabbit hole recently that led me to the final stanza of the Mary Oliver poem “Starlings in Winter.” It’s one of the only things that makes sense to me these days:

I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

 

The aspirational version of myself

Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash

  • Reads The Economist and the Sunday New York Times cover to cover each week
  • Reads Harvard Business Review every month instead of just paying for the digital edition and letting it sit unopened on her iPad
  • Always has a perfect manicure
  • Runs five days per week and goes to five yoga classes per week
  • Is using all six domains registered to her
  • Travels abroad at least once a quarter
  • Has been to Palm Springs
  • Is conversant in French
  • Writes every day
  • Always has champagne and sparkling water in the fridge
  • Never wears an outfit that isn’t exactly right
  • Subscribes to Women’s Wear Daily
  • Goes to plays more often (read: ever)
  • Always sends thank-you notes within a week
  • Hasn’t killed all the plants in her apartment
  • Lives every day like it’s a fucking Mary Oliver poem
  • Enjoys the music of Pitbull ~13% less (JK not happening)
  • Wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to meditate/goes to bed at 10 with no screentime after 9:30
  • Has an espresso machine and a cupboard full of Stumptown
  • Knows how to program her Roomba
  • Has unwavering faith that everything will work out just fine

On not settling

Note: I wrote this three years ago, but after rereading I wouldn’t edit much, though I think I probably value simple companionship a bit more these days. (Originally published on Medium.)

When I was in college, I attended a Take Back the Night Rally where an adult survivor of child sexual abuse spoke about writing a list of everything she wanted in a partner, down to his height and eye color, and then finding that person. It was a story about healing from trauma and the recognition that she was deserving of the things she desired, so I hate that it sticks with me most as an example of a successful visualization exercise. But a few years later, I sat down and wrote my own list of what I was looking for, and a month later I found him. Over the next few years, he gradually turned out to be a different person, but I had proof that such an exercise could be successful, and that the exact person I was looking for might even be out there somewhere.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to replicate the success of the list I made when I was 23. It should be easier, because I’m older now, and therefore clearer on what I want. But I find that when I sit down to put pen to paper, I’m nearly always blocked by having a specific person in mind. Do I really want this list of attributes in a future partner, or do I want them simply because the person I want has them? Does it mean anything that the last three guys I’ve had serious feelings for have had green eyes? Do I really have better chemistry with guys who are around my height, versus the four-inch-taller guys I dated in college? Do I need to be with someone who loves to travel as much as I do, or is that a holdover from a man whose adventurous spirit I admired years ago? Which of these traits are must-haves, and which are simply an attempt to hoodwink the universe into delivering the person I can’t get out of my head to my apartment door?

I need to get clearer on what I want so I can be sure to find that exact person. I will make compromises elsewhere in my life but on this I am unyielding. I want to get married, but only if I meet the right person. I can see other lives for myself, and none of the potential outcomes makes me sad. I will travel, I will adopt a daughter, I will have a career where I can work from anywhere. I will learn to code, I will finally play “Panama” on my guitar, I will continue to develop the dynamic and complex female friendships I’ve built over the past couple of years. I will get a design degree and become fluent in Japanese. Or I will meet him and we will do some of the above together.

People write articles advising women that we are asking for too much, that we must lower our standards, or apply different standards, lest we end up alone. The thing about these pieces is that they seem to assume that being alone is somehow worse than waking up every day next to someone who doesn’t excite and challenge you, who doesn’t share your values or your vision for the future, who doesn’t make you want to be the best version of yourself. I get bored easily. Every day I seek out ways to grow and change, to broaden my perspective on the world, to better understand the future, to become more interesting and complex, to be a better version of the person I was yesterday, and I need to be with someone who does the same. I want to marry someone I can build something with, bounce ideas off of, talk to for hours and still not want to sleep for fear of missing out on something going on inside of his head. I love to be alone more than almost anything else and I want to find the one person I could be with all the time and feel equally at peace. I want someone whose brain moves faster than mine and in a million different directions so that I have to get smarter just to fucking keep up. I want someone who plans for the future — not just his own future but for what the world will look like 5, 10, 20 years out. Someone who ravenously devours information, who quietly analyzes everything he takes in but in a way where I can see the wheels turning in his eyes.

And if I don’t meet this person, my backup plan is that I will become her. My backup plan is that I will spend my life with ME, and I will only let in a person who can compete with that scenario. I won’t settle for someone who doesn’t make me feel ferociously alive just because he checks all the boxes. I will not force things with someone I’m lukewarm about and risk not being available to meet the guy I’d commit arson for. I don’t believe in slow burns, I don’t believe in settling, and I don’t believe in dating — or marrying —someone for the sake of not being alone. Insert Jeanette Winterson quote.

I don’t know what kind of year this is

I don’t know what kind of year this is.

On February 1, I lost my job after four months of knowing I’d made a mistake in taking it.

I crushed my job search and ended up with three offers. I chose one, then turned a surprise equity check from my previous job into a trip to Copenhagen.

Last week my 95-year-old grandpa fell, sustaining a serious injury. He’s in good spirits; he’s lived through worse. I don’t know how worried to be.

I needed to pick the right job this time, and I did. I love the people on my team, and I’m working on something cool and innovative.  I cherish the small acts of kindness I receive at work because I’m used to being undervalued.

I ran 10 miles yesterday, and for the first time it wasn’t hard. But the sunscreen I wore on my run caused my skin to break out, alongside the eczema I have for the first time since I was a child. I’m self-conscious upon meeting new people, which is all you do at a new job.

I can afford the $50 face wash I waited in line to buy as I wrote this, and the stupidly expensive phone it was written on. The woman at Sephora was nice to me, sensing I was struggling. I didn’t cry at the register.

In January, I dealt with my impending job loss by learning how to be present, so I am now free of anxiety for the first time in my life. I now know how to access a deep sense of peace when I need it. Most of the time, anyway.

Nine days ago, the person I was sure I would spend the rest of my life with left me.

I have wonderful friends. I have a mom who will cry on the phone with me through my heartbreak. I have a brother who will buy me ice cream and try to say the right thing, and a father who has always been my biggest cheerleader even if I can’t talk to him about this particular type of devastation. I love my apartment.

I can’t stand to be in the apartment I love.

I’m surrounded by people to the extent I need to be.

I am all alone.

My dance card is full.

I have never felt less like dancing. Music, any music, makes me sick.

I turn 35 next month, which wasn’t an issue until my birthday plans got canceled along with my relationship.

Since you’ve been gone I can do whatever I want.

All I want are the plans we made.

I want to meet someone else immediately. I want to be alone forever. I want to die. I want to feel alive again.

I don’t know what kind of year this is.

How to look vaguely normal when you have the driest winter skin on the planet

To cope with dry winter skin, stare pensively into the mountains. Or, check out the list below.

As I’ve mentioned, I have what my mom calls “lousy Irish skin like [my] father’s.” During warmer months, this works out OK, but I live in the Northeast, where we have this thing called winter (the occasional warm spell notwithstanding). No matter what I do, my winter skin is bright red, extremely dry, and susceptible to becoming more of the prior two descriptors at the slightest provocation. Sound familiar? Below, a few pieces of advice  on how to look vaguely normal (the best I can hope for) in even the harshest weather: Continue reading “How to look vaguely normal when you have the driest winter skin on the planet”

5 ways to fake a vacation (when you can’t take one)

Sometimes, as Rose tells Sue Ellen in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, “I really need to get away.” Unfortunately, that need doesn’t always coincide with periods of my life in which I can actually skip town — or the country. Work, volunteering, and social obligations may keep me tied to NYC, or my bank account may not be in the ideal condition for an impromptu jaunt around Eastern Europe.

What I love most about traveling is the feeling of being taken out of my daily routine. The good news is that even when I can’t get away, this feeling is something I can replicate — often without even leaving my neighborhood. Below, a few ideas for how you can do the same: Continue reading “5 ways to fake a vacation (when you can’t take one)”