39 | The Full Helping

The annual birthday post.

Maybe you can relate to this:

At some point, something happens. A loss, a disappointment, a hurt, a reopening of trauma. Maybe a combination of those.

Things fall apart. Maybe not immediately, or obviously. But enough to make your life feel unrecognizable.

As you pick up the pieces, it seems obvious that you should try to figure out where and how you went wrong, so that you can avoid making a mess of things again. You comb over your mistakes. You spend a lot of time thinking about your regrets, which seem to have multiplied exponentially.

You cultivate something that feels like caution. You become more bounded and careful in how you connect. Risks that once felt reasonable suddenly seem to be too big, too much. Openness that once came easily becomes difficult.

Routines feel more important than ever. You know the dangers of being overly attached to routine better than anyone, but you can’t help feeling as though habit is the only thing you have left. You burrow into your daily rhythms and creature comforts. You retreat further into yourself.

Over time, you enter a space that feels sort of like safety. The great open wound you were trying to stitch up is no longer bleeding. But at a certain point it occurs to you that, while you’re no broken open, you can’t remember the last time you felt joy.

This is what happened to me in my thirties. In my case the joylessness turned into depression, and depression became despair.

Geneen Roth says that “most of us spend our lives protecting ourselves from losses that have already happened.” The sort of miraculous thing that happened this year is that I stopped trying to keep myself safe.

I can’t really tell you how that came to be, but I think I can tell you why. Covid had a lot to do with it. Countless hours of total solitude in the midst of a global pandemic will get you thinking.

What I figured out during lockdown is that I don’t want to keep living the way I have been. When I say this, I don’t mean that I want the shape or appearance of my life to change, though there’s plenty about my circumstances that I’d like to be different.

I mean that I’d like to change how I approach living. The pandemic woke me up, made me realize that it was time to start taking chances again. This wasn’t a conscious thing at first; rather, I was so starved for interaction and experience that I hurled myself back into living as soon as it was safe to do that.

As I re-entered the world, though, I realized just how stuck I’ve been. I was able, for the first time, to see how angry and resentful I’ve felt, how envious of other people, how attached to self-loathing, how stubborn in my refusal to hope.

A lot of this stuff is symptomatic of my depression. But I learned long ago, in recovery, that it’s within my power to notice and challenge my own patterns and triggers, whether or not I can entirely change them.

Useless, crazy-making self-rebuke is a good pattern to notice. I’ve spent the second half of this decade awash in remorse. I’ve dwelt on my failings, overanalyzed the ways in which I’m broken, and hated myself for being depressed (which is, of course, a very effective approach to managing depression).

Something has shifted, though, because I don’t feel those things today. Today, if I could, I’d go back and give thirty-five or thirty-six-year-old me a hug. I’d tell her that she’s OK, though it doesn’t feel that way to her. She’s doing the best she can, and she always was.

A few weeks ago, I started reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I haven’t made it very far, but the premise is that a young woman, Nora, dies by suicide and ends up in a place called the Midnight Library. This library is lined with volumes of books that contain Nora’s multitudes of regrets. And she’s given the chance, as she hovers between life and death, to slip in and out of the lives she would have had if she’d made different choices.

I don’t know, but I strongly suspect, that as Nora visits her unlived lives, she’ll discover that life itself is the point of life.

That’s what I figured out this year, anyway: life is the point. Living, breathing, and being, no matter how difficult sometimes, is the point.

There have been beautiful high points since last June. I took some risks, took action on things that were important to me. I reconnected with my friends. I laughed often and hard. I felt love again.

For every shining moment, there was a dark one. My thirty-ninth year was filled with heartache to match the joy. I cried a lot, got a taste of being broken open again. I remembered how terrifying it is to hope. But I was feeling, which meant that I was living, which is what I wanted.

This is my tenth annual birthday post. It all began with the big 3-0 in 2012, a post that embodies how cringe-inducing it sometimes is to have the ramblings of one’s younger self live on the internet.

I can’t relate to my blithe-sounding voice in that post at all. I grimace at my cheery, oversimplified perspective on biological clocks. I want to apologize to every women who may have read that post as she was aching with unfulfilled desire for partner or family, as I often am, and been hurt by its naïveté. I want all of the types of stability that I was once so dismissive of, whether they’re illusory or not.

But I have to smile at the confidence and buoyancy of thirty-year-old me. I remember that moxie. I set out to become a doctor at twenty-eight, undaunted by the challenges and unlikelihood of it all. I moved to a new place, made a lot of friends whom I still cherish today, and learned chemistry, of all things. I doubt I’d have the guts to do any of it now.

I especially have to to smile at this paragraph:

So, here’s to being thirty and uncertain. Here’s to not being sure if I’ll be a doctor or some other sort of healer, to not knowing whether I’m going to have children or not, to not knowing where I’ll live, who my companions will be, where I’ll travel, or who I’ll meet. These open ended questions are as exciting and liberating as they are frightening and strange. May the next decade of my life—and all the ones after—make me braver, bolder, and more courageous. May they enhance my sense of humor and increase my sense of fun. May they fuel my passions and give rise to new ones. May they continue to teach me things. Most of all, may they give me the strength and agility I need to deal with all of the uncertainty that lies ahead.

At least one hope came true: I learned a lot in this decade. This includes learning to deal with uncertainty, a skill you can’t avoid acquiring as you become old enough to realize that nothing is certain.

As for “braver, bolder, and more courageous,” I don’t know. Basically, I’m more fearful and self-doubting than I used to be.

For the first time in a long time, though, I feel a little more like the person who wrote that big 3-0 post, hoping out loud for a big, brave life. And I feel a little less like the wounded, shut-down person I had become by thirty-six. Just when I think I know what it’s doing, life has a way of taking me by surprise.

Thirty-nine-year-old me doesn’t have as many big hopes and dreams as thirty-year-old me did, which isn’t to say that I’ve stopped dreaming. I just do it privately, and my dreams look different than they used to.

But there’s a little prayer I’ve said to myself when I wake up lately: “may I be able to appreciate the gift of today.”

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my thirty-ninth birthday than to share that prayer with all of you. May I be able to appreciate—and enjoy!—the gift of today, and many of the 365 days to come. I wish this for you, too.

Thirty-year-old me couldn’t possibly have guessed that some people would have the kindness and interest to be reading this blog ten years later. Deepest thanks to those of you that have, and to any person who is reading today. My heart is full.


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