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40 By 40

(Updated! Still not quite complete…)

Today is my 39th birthday. I have lots of feelings about the year to come and the next birthday that will end in zero, and most of them aren’t necessarily bad, just… ambivalent. I feel like I should have accomplished more by now in nearly all facets of my life: family, relationships, and career. I see my peers (and those younger than I) who have done so much and I start to feel insignificant and inadequate and a lot of other words that mean I am ashamed of how small my life is, how short my list of achievements, how empty certain chambers of my heart. Then I stop and think: I’m going to be 40. Forty! I never thought I would live this long. There have been days and months and years when I was counting the hours to get through and suddenly it’s all going to add up to 40! On my good days, I try to recognize how much that really means and celebrate the fact that I have survived years of my own brain trying to kill me and I’m still here. On that note, I am making a list. Things I would like to make, do, or see over the next year to celebrate all of the times when I didn’t think I would ever do those things again. Some of the things are small and easy, but I want to make a point of doing them regularly. Some of the things I have done before and wish to do again. Some are completely new and a little scary! (Obviously, this list is going to be pretty self-centered and navel-gazey, so please excuse the indulgence.) In no particular order:

  1. Knit a pair of socks, a set of mittens, and a hat for myself. Sometimes I get so caught up in gift and charity knitting that I forget to make things to wear and all of a sudden my hand knit sock collection is looking a little careworn. I did make a hat and mitten set last year, but once it was complete I ended up not really liking the color as much as I thought I would and ended up giving them to my mom, who lives in Connecticut. Clearly, she will also get more use out of them than I will! I plan to make my set from a lighter weight yarn to get more use out of them in Texas’s so-called “winter.”
  2. Write 52 quality blog posts. That’s an average of one per week, of course, but I’m allowing myself a little leeway by not holding to a specific schedule.
  3. Write 12 “Book Reports”. These can count as blog posts too; I’m not trying to make things difficult. The idea here is more to really focus on at least some of the books I read: think critically, analyze, and record my own thoughts. Sometimes I plow through books so quickly that I even forget the titles and end up checking them out of the library again, forgetting I have read them. I’m not going to write about everything I read, although I should clearly at least keep a list, but I do want to give myself the assignment of spending more time with the special ones.
  4. Complete a “Project 365”. This is a photo every day for a year. It used to be a Flickr group/project years ago, but I’ll be posting mine to Instagram. In theory, I’d like them to be with my DSLR, outside of the house. In practice, I’m sure there will be plenty of last-minute iPhone shots of my dinner. (I will say one rule is that, while I can take as many selfies as I want, they can only “count” once per month.) Really just trying to get back into the photography habit with this one. I’m @soonjung if you’d like to follow along. Already kind of failed at this… I’ve *posted* a photo every day, but have not *taken* one every day. We’re gonna go with the spirit of the thing and just keep going. Also, I may transition this to Flickr after all! It was just purchased by SmugMug and they seem to have the best intentions for making it great again. Instagram is owned by Facebook and even though I mostly treat it like a separate thing, there’s always that fear that it will just become too creepy.
  5. Complete Couch25K and actually run a 5K race. Completing the program is something I have done and know I can do again. Actually registering for and completing the actual event is the real challenge!
  6. Become a Shift Lead at work. Not going to write much about this, as I’ve fully absorbed the Dooce Commandment from Ye Olden Tymes: Thou Shalt Not Write About Thy Job on the Internet, but, in general terms, this is a solid goal. It is reasonably attainable with excellent effort and would represent a great step (and pay increase) in my new field.
  7. Adopt a dog or puppy. Pretty self-explanatory. Has been on a wishlist for years and I finally feel like I am stable enough to make the commitment.
  8. Start making bread from scratch again, and maybe try a sourdough starter. I won’t have a bread maker or mixer this time around, and our oven is kinda uneven, so this could lead to a lot of feeding the birds. I have a whole bunch of “from scratch” and “DIY” stuff, though, for health and environmental reasons, so you’ll see a few more like this.
  9. Record 2.5M steps with my Fitbit/Apple Health. This is basically hitting my 10K step goal five days per week for a year, rounded off. Based on the amount of steps I get at work, this should not be a problem at all, but it feels kind of fun to set a goal measured with such a big number.
  10. Feel comfortable wearing a bathing suit in public. I am actively trying to lose weight, but I don’t like relying on the scale for progress, and I don’t really have a reliable way to track body fat or anything like that. While measurable goals are usually better, I feel like this actually captures the spirit of the goal pretty well, either because I will have the body I think makes me feel comfortable or I will grow more comfortable with the body I have. Either one is a win!
  11. Explore a new city. Depression and anxiety have robbed me of the will to travel much of the time, and I want that sense of adventure back. Not making this too lofty; it can be something as close as San Antonio or Houston, but the idea is to really spend time poking around and finding things outside of the big tourist attractions. (Although, if I do go to Houston, I have to see the Space Center.)
  12. Go to a Patriots game, preferably at Gillette, but an away game if I have to. I want one more chance to see Tom Brady play in person. (Yes, I made this #12 on purpose.)
  13. Limit hair-straightening to 12 times per year. (Similar to the way 52 really means once a week, this is roughly once per month, but I’m going to be a little looser and avoid the timetable.) I started to write an explanation for this and it got to be super long. Apparently, I have a lot of feels about my hair, so I think I’ll save it for one of the 52 blog posts.
  14. Related to the above, fully commit to sulfate-free shampoo and silicone-free conditioners. I’ve been back and forth on this a few times, but now that I won’t be heat-styling often, there’s really no need for silicones and, thus, no need for harsh shampoos to clear out the buildup.
  15. Make hand, body, dish, and surface cleansers using DIY recipes. This is both to reduce the chemical load on my body and reduce the amount of plastic containers I buy and use. Goal is to test options and have a reliable recipe for each category as soon as possible, but at least within the year.
  16. Start composting kitchen scraps. This is another one I have done in the past and just need to get into the habit again. I am not great at gardening, but I do like to at least grow herbs, so I will have a place to use the compost once it is completed.
  17. Join a CSA. Luckily, there are several options in Austin, and one even includes an option for fresh eggs!
  18. Buy a used/budget sewing machine and learn how to use it. I want to reduce my reliance on cheap clothes from unethical sources, but I also cannot afford a completely artisanal wardrobe. Learning how to make clothes, or at least modify thrift store finds, is a good compromise. To put a number on this, let’s say the goal is to make or tailor at least one top or dress and one skirt or pair of pants.
  19. Institute a two-week waiting period for all purchases over $15. (Excluding necessities such as groceries, gas, medical expenses, etc.) This is especially aimed at clothing, accessories, and sport/hobby equipment. Not that I can’t buy it, but I need to curb impulsive and “retail therapy” spending.
  20. Try soap nuts and wool dryer balls for laundry. I already buy a particular type of laundry soap due to my reactive skin, and soap nuts seem like an even more natural solution. As a bonus, I will also be able to use them in a lot of homemade cleaner recipes for #15.
  21. Get back into coloring and drawing. I’d like to take at least a couple hours each week to unplug and settle in with my colored pencils.
  22. Yoga! Once per week, at least! In-person or video classes are both okay due to my fluctuating work schedule, but I hope to prioritize studio classes as long as I can afford them.
  23. Continue to explore yerba mate as an alternative to coffee. I’ve massively cut back on all caffeine, but even decaf coffee bothers my stomach a bit. I’ve yet to find a yerba mate blend I really like, but there are so many that I’m sure it’s just a matter of trying enough of them.
  24. KonMari the crap out of my closet. I am guilty of hanging onto things for way too long, getting fed up and doing a purge, and then finding myself back in the same spot three years later. I am going to try putting some items in “purgatory,” i.e. store them out of use and out of sight, but not donate them, just to prevent my feelings of “what if I need this” and also to protect myself from having to re-buy a winter wardrobe when I move back to a place with civilized seasons.
  25. Related to that, I want to try out the capsule wardrobe concept. Since I work with dogs and get really messy, I may make two mini-capsules instead: one for work/exercise and one for “regular” clothes.
  26. Do not buy any new clothes (other than emergency necessities, such as shoes that start to hurt or a bra that pops an underwire, etc.) until AFTER completing the capsule project for a season. I want to see exactly what I use the most and what I could live without and actually plan my wardrobe instead of just randomly collecting things I like, but never feeling like I have a complete outfit.
  27. Carefully curate the time I spend online. This is a wibbly-wobbly concept and not really measurable enough to be a true goal, but I’m not quite sure how to quantify it yet. There will be updates on this for sure, but the main idea is to avoid just clicking and scrolling when I’m bored. (Unless I have set aside time to do that! Discovery is great. I just want to be doing it consciously.)
  28. Write an actual paper letter to a friend each month. (I guess we’re just gonna start this one in May. ;)) I would of course like it to be more frequent than that, but I’m trying to start small. I arranged a Secret Santa gift exchange with a big group of my best friends last year, so I even have their addresses!
  29. Write an actual paper letter to my mom each month. (This is in addition to the friend letter!) She doesn’t really use texting or email that much and I don’t like to talk on the phone, so we don’t communicate as much as I would like. Hopefully this will be a nice step in the right direction.u
  30. Try a ballroom dancing class! I have a friend who has started lessons and really enjoys and gets a lot out of them and I want to at least give it a try. I took ballet/tap/jazz for ten years and still miss dancing sometimes. (Hi Allie! Get better and come to the Austin studio with me!)

What Do I Want to Be?

When I was little and someone would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always answer, “A star.” I didn’t know if I would be a dancer or singer or actress or genuine triple-threat, but I just knew that I would be recognized and acclaimed for the innate talent I certainly possessed. As I grew older, the answer changed over time to writer, lawyer, or journalist. I would instead use my empathy and intelligence to protect and educate and inspire others so we could all change the world together.

Then, somehow, something broke.

I could no longer see a limitless future with endless possibilities and every opportunity. Slowly, and then all at once, I stopped seeing myself as an asset to the world and instead became a burden. Talented? Pfft. Nope. Time to put away those childish delusions. Change the world? How could I change the world when I couldn’t get out of the house? Or even out of bed? Why can’t I get out of bed? What is so frakking hard about getting out of bed? Everybody does that. See them? That person? They lost a limb and they can do it. That one over there? They lost their family and they can do it. Those others? They have anxiety and depression too, but they can live and work and even create beautiful things while they are suffering and all of that? Out of bed. How dare I even imagine or hope or dream when my life is reduced to the size of a queen-sized mattress?

There have been ups and downs, some long past and others documented here. (Some are still happening even now, as I’m writing this, gathering the courage to press publish when I’m unsure how much of this matters or helps or even makes sense to anyone but me.) There are weeks and months of feeling pretty good, of moving forward with my life, and of planning for the future. Then there are other weeks and months when everything becomes grey and dull and dim and tasteless again. (To paraphrase Mr. Incredible, “Why can’t I just stay saved?!?”) The problem is that even when I am feeling “better,” when I am not suicidal and when I can ignore some of the constantly churning self-hatred in my head, I still can’t quite answer the question of what I want to be. (Since I am, unfortunately, most definitely, already grown up.)

I want to be someone who shows empathy and care for other people, but also for myself. I want to be courageous and brave without being reckless. I want to be calm and logical and still be the kind of person who believes in magic and dreams. I want marvel at everything from space and time to the iridescent rainbow reflected on a soap bubble. I just don’t quite know how.


That video electrifies me. It gives me goosebumps and makes me cry and gives me back that feeling of being able to do anything, to be anything, including myself. Part of it is just the song; those guys certainly know how to write an uplifting anthem. (See also: “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen) The other part is the emotion of Keala Settle and the way she creates emotions and energy in the rest of the room and then the whole thing just becomes magic. I adored the song in the film, but this particular version is transcendent. I have listened to it at least five times per day in the last week and, if anything, that is a low estimate.

That is what I want to be. Brave. Bruised. Not scared. No apologies. Just me.

Two Uncomfortable Topics

I’m going to write about two things that are uncomfortable and can trigger resentment: money and mental health. This is hard for me, and it’s really only the start of a much deeper conversation, but I wanted to start with something simple in the vein of my “how to help a friend” posts. I’ve been doing verbal gymnastics trying to figure out how to broach this thoughtfully and I have a million mental asterisks and footnotes and follow ups, so please understand that I *know* things aren’t this way for everyone, but I felt like it needed to at least be addressed and, wow, do I feel poorly equipped to do it and, yes, I am stalling, why do you ask?

Put simply, please, when trying to help a friend who is struggling with mental health, consider that they may be struggling financially as well.

(This is *not* about you giving them money or helping in that way *at all*. Just had to clearly state that.)

Using myself as a hypothetical example (I don’t actually enjoy manicures, but the actual activity isn’t really the point, so I’m generalizing): getting massages and manicures together is a fun way to relax and reconnect, and we have done this a few times previously. You notice that I’ve been withdrawn lately and you thoughtfully invite me to repeat this outing we have enjoyed in the past.

Beyond the usual inclination to withdraw when I am depressed lies the very real fact that I cannot afford a professional massage, manicure, and inevitable lunch out. My personal and vacation time is long gone, for doctor or therapist appointments or simply days I could not trust myself to leave the house. Co-pays are eating through my already-meager savings at an alarming rate and the life-saving medication I must take to stop myself from self-harm takes more every month, too.

Then the shame spiral starts, for not having money, for not being better at making it or saving it, for not yet figuring out this crucial element of adulthood. I will berate myself for the missed opportunities and lost jobs when I could not get out of bed for fear of hurting myself. I will think that I certainly do not deserve a friend like you who wants to spend time with me and, more importantly, you deserve better than a friend like me who can’t even go out to lunch.

No, I’m sorry, I really can’t. Thanks so much for asking though.

There are days when no one or nothing could get me to go out. There are other times when, if the invitation had been for a walk in the park, I could have said yes.

(Again, this isn’t a plea for you to give money or pay for things or anything like that. I don’t want to feel like a burden or a freeloader or a charity case, either!)

((I can’t find a graceful ending. This whole post is so awkward; I feel like I sound ungrateful or selfish or both. Ughhhhhh.))

(((“Be a writer,” they said. “It will be easy; you’re so talented.” Bollocks.)))

All The Usual Caveats Apply

I’m not a doctor, therapist, counselor, or other trained professional.

I might offer advice or share things that have and have not helped me, but your experience or that of others you know cannot be exactly the same, and I cannot predict what may or may not work for someone else. Sometimes it can help to have a starting point for the conversation, though, and that is the important part.

I make choices about what to write about. Some things feel “safe” for me to share. Others do not. Sometimes there are stories that involve others and they are not mine to tell. Sometimes I am just not brave enough to pour out the feelings that make the words. Please remember that there is always more to a person than what they choose to present to you.

Most of all, I ask that you read my words in the spirit they are intended: to share, to open, to help, to explain, to love. I can be a bit snarky and sarcastic, although I’m working on controlling that, but I never intend to be demeaning or cruel.

(I’ve found myself backtracking and apologizing and jumping through hoops while trying to write lately. I thought it might help to put these thoughts all in one place so I don’t have to circle back through them for every other post and we can just start with some accepted truths.)

The Memory Keeper

Little girls stand in the corner, eager in our impossibly tiny ballet slippers, waiting our turn to scamper-skip-leap! over the cheap paper pumpkin sitting in the middle of the smooth brown floor. I do not yet have my black leotard and pink tights. This is a trial to see if I like it, and I am jealous of the girls who already have a leotard and tights and already know first and second and third position. It is my first ballet class and my earliest memory.

I didn’t know, then, how many hours I would come to spend in that studio, how I would always remember the cold metal bar beneath my hand or the very taste of the water. I still unconsciously tap out pickups in line at the grocery store, brush-heel-shuffle-heel-stepping my way toward the cash register, and I’ve caught myself with rounded fingers, middle one slightly dropped, in so many photos that I have to tell myself to stop. I could, even now, show you a time step or an arabesque or a slightly wobbly pirouette.

I am in first grade, but I go to a second grade classroom for reading each day. I don’t know what the second graders think of me, but I find them loud and big and a bit scary. I do well reading aloud, though, and hate when it’s not my turn and I have to train myself not to turn the pages of my textbook when I have read the page to myself before they have finished. I love reading; it is my favorite subject. (Years later I am rather chagrined when I get to high school and it is no longer a class of its own.)

In fourth grade I accidentally stabbed myself with a pencil, reaching into my desk without looking. I still carry the grey-blue mark in my skin, a small tattoo at the base of my left pointer finger. It has a twin on my right hand, between the knuckles of my second and third fingers, received from another Number 2 while digging through my locker in seventh grade. These marks are visual reminders of the past, but they’re scarcely needed. I remember too much already.

Sometimes I wish I could scour away the hard memories or at least sand them down a bit, take off the edges, blunt the sharpness of the pain and the salt taste of tears. I can’t write about some of those memories, can’t even speak them aloud, but I also cannot forget. I find it unfair that I continue to remember against my will.

It’s not always the important, traumatic, or scary, though, so when other memories come, I let them. Sometimes it’s just small details, and sometimes from only one sense at a time: a taste, a smell, a sound. My mother singing “You Are My Sunshine.” The way my friend’s mother had a bit of a Southern accent and pronounced “crayon” like “crown.” The scent of air-popped popcorn, a special treat before we had a microwave.

My friends have commented that I am the one who remembers, the one who can tell them the color of their dress from sophomore year Homecoming (So much crushed velvet; what were we thinking?!) or can still sing a bit from choir songs long past. I am a bit embarrassed by it sometimes, and even downplay the specificity with which I can recall insignificant details because I somehow feel like I should have retained more important data.

I realize now, though, that while I wish I could forget painful things, the vibrancy of my happiest memories has gotten me through some really hard times. I’ve said it’s like conjuring a Patronus. You need to really concentrate on your happiest memories in order for the spell to work. For me, my “Expecto Patronum” is my friends’ laughter and strength, my mother’s voice, my father’s embrace, and that is worth the pain.

Anxiety and Depression in Times Like These

I feel socially irresponsible for not marching, protesting, using my voice and presence for those who need it. I feel ignorant and uninformed at times because the constant (mostly negative) news cycle becomes too much and I must retreat to safer things. I feel guilty because I have the luxury and privilege to do so. 

I couldn’t go to the Women’s March because the crowds would have been too overwhelming. My anxiety definitely has a component of agoraphobia and that many people in an unfamiliar environment would have caused a major attack. If I had managed to convince myself to go, I would have been paralyzed by fear as soon as I felt that press of bodies, the mass of people pushing forward, yet those in front holding me back. My hands are shaking even thinking and writing about it. Then, when I think of confrontation or counterprotestors it becomes even worse. A friendly mob crushing me underfoot is bad enough, but the idea of being attacked is beyond comprehension. 

I have days, weeks, even, when I can’t bring myself to read about the other side from their point of view. I need to stay in my social media bubble of like-minded people whose outrage matches my own. I see the news through a liberal, Democratic lens. Once a week (or more, if I can stand it) I go read conservative news outlets or watch clips on Fox News. I feel like I would ask the same, that regular consumers of that sort of journalism at least open their minds enough to let in other voices. Often I become so upset that I close the window in frustration and sadness. (And I never read the comments.) I know this is not enough, but some days it’s all I can do. 

Worst is the guilt I feel for not doing enough and then the guilt I feel for even writing about this. No one can assuage my guilt and I am not placing a burden on anyone else. How can I be the change when I need to retreat to puppy videos and K-dramas on a regular basis? What of all my sisters and brothers who do not have the luxury to stop, to rest, to tune out? How can I profess to be an ally when all I can do is sit in my safe home and make calls from my expensive phone, and even that is with trembling fingers and a wavering voice? There is no time to “get better” and then help. Help is needed now, and I feel terribly unequipped to provide it. 

I invite comments with suggestions for ways to get involved without leaving the house. Of course donations to worthwhile organizations are always useful, but, assuming that my giving budget is already maxed out, how else can I help?

That Moment When You* Realize

…that one girl** in high school maybe wasn’t snotty and condescending, you were just jealous and insecure. (Just the one, though. Most of the others really were that bad.)

…you’re not actually as nice as you think you are. You’re very polite, to be sure, but not always actually nice. Your very politeness is a defense mechanism against conflict, yes, but also against genuine emotions and connections. 

…twenty years past high school and the years when you were supposed to figure this stuff out, you are still struggling between wanting to fit in and wanting to be yourself, still looking for the place where those things can happen at the same time. (Also, you’re still writing incredibly run-on sentences with a shaky grasp of grammar and punctuation.)

*And by “you”, I mean me. Obviously. I really don’t understand how writers can maintain second-person voice for hundreds and thousands of words. It’s exhausting.

**This whole post was inspired by an incredibly unexpected, incredibly kind gesture from said girl, now woman. Thank you. 

John Green

“It’s not a mountain that you climb or a hurdle that you jump, it’s something that you live with in an ongoing way,” he said. “People want that narrative of illness being in the past tense. But a lot of the time, it isn’t.”

Re-learning Everything All Over Again

I wrote in my last post that I feel a sort of dreary repetition as I recover from this last depressive crisis. Just to really lean into that, I’m going back to a job I left a year ago. At that time I had an offer for better pay and more responsibility and I thought I was moving on to bigger and better things. Now, of course, it feels ridiculous to be going back, tail between my legs, humbled by my own body. It is the right choice, though. I never disliked the job itself, so it will not be unpleasant and I know what to expect. I had performed well there, so was happily welcomed back. I didn’t even have to interview, but instead received an immediate offer from the recruiter. So if I can get over my own embarassment, it will be a welcome change. 

Right now I am in training (since the gap in employment was so long), re-learning, remembering, and catching up. Tonight I realized that I’m basically doing that in a lot of other ways too:

  1. Re-learning how to trust my thoughts and instincts: Increasingly frequent, eventually almost constant, self-punishing thoughts is one of the first signs I am relapsing. After, when I am through the worst and trying to put myself back together, I can look back and recognize the lies, but it causes me to doubt myself for many months, even over silly things. 
  2. Remembering that caffeine triggers anxiety and migraines: I quit the daily caffeine habit, but still have “treats” of sugary coffee drinks or the occasional Pepsi, probably about one every 10-14 days. I had a coffee today and felt fine while I was at work and concentrating, but felt anxious and restless and strange as soon as I was home and sitting still. I just need to let this go, no excuses.
  3. Catching up with the details of life I couldn’t handle: I can track the path of destruction through my life by how messy it ends up. For a minor setback, I might get behind on dusting and miss a few social events, but, you know, it’s mostly okay. Things get a little worse, the house gets a little messier and I might put off things like haircuts and oil changes. It descends from there until I eventually find myself at home in the same pajamas for four days, eating possibly expired ramen noodles, ruining friendships and relationships even when I know better. (I’ve picked fights or made excuses to break up or ignored well-intentioned gestures, and probably worse. Most of my exes are wonderful men who deserved to be treated better. (Except for the abusive ex-husband who cheated on me. Even my particularly rich guilt complex knows that asshole caused his own problems.)) Coming back is just the same process in reverse. Right now I’m taking care of personal hygiene, shopping for and eating relatively healthy meals, and even cleaning up after cooking those meals. The bathroom is clean, the sheets are fresh, and I can get myself to work on time. I know most people can manage all of that stuff every day, all the time, but clearly it’s an accomplishment for me. 

So, basically, I’m still a mess, just in less obvious ways. I’m trying hard to be kind to myself and not feel too much pressure to be “better” all at once or in any particular way other than “not wanting to die today.” Sometimes I can do that and feel proud of the small victories. Other times it is hard not to feel the weight of expectations (from myself and others and also the perceived expectations of others) and notice how short I am of meeting those expectations. 

Right now, though, I don’t want to die today and that has to be enough.