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.

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