I (very deliberately) don’t remember a ton about my childhood, but one thing I do remember with painful and decade-eliminating clarity is that when I was little I wrote stories and people praised me for it. I doubt the praise was the result of a preternatural and precocious talent for writing; rather, I’m sure that, on the eve of the digital age, adults were just astonished that I actively sought to read books and use my imagination in my spare time. This sounds like a brag. It’s not. I’m grateful for my youthful yen for the literary, but there’s nothing magical about it. It didn’t serve me. If anything, it amplified l’appel du vide to a deafening decibel level. In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow notoriously called her separation with Chris Martin a “conscious uncoupling;” perhaps this turn of phrase deserved the scorn it received, but I find it enormously apt to describe my own relationship with reality. I spent so much of my youth interacting with stories, in books, on screen, in my mind, that I, at some point, just decided to stop interacting with my own life. To this day, I have trouble making friends and being social—not because I’m shy or nerdy*, but because life, real life, is disappointing. No conversation with an acquaintance could ever match the witty banter of Stars Hollow, no speech the gravitas of Westeros. Reality is…boring. Why not opt out?
This “opt out” mentality is, in my opinion, why many people with pOTenTiAL [see Spongebob meme] underperform. When school is boring, when friends are boring, when family is excruciatingly boring, what incentive does a child have to engage? It’s very nice of you, seventh grade teacher, to tell me that I’m smart and talented, but I’m a kid! I don’t know how to parlay that into something meaningful! When you’re Gifted and Talented™, you kind of just expect things to happen. No one would watch a movie about someone working really diligently for ten years before they found success. Entertainment is all about chance encounters, lucky breaks, high drama! There’s no blueprint for achieving success in a reasonable way. It is an immense privilege to have the resources to do so. A loving, supportive family, therapy, SAT tutors, money—these are the trappings of privilege. It never occurred to me that, of my own accord, I could go to a college I actually wanted to go to, that I could audition for the plays I so desperately wanted to be in, that I could get the fuck out of the Boston suburbs and make something of my wretched life. Instead, I just waited for something to happen, ignoring the parts of my brain that were sick, sabotaging me at every turn. I’m, honestly, still waiting.
Eventually, despite the praise of teachers re: my writing, I just stopped altogether. The act of writing, the act of creation, was an acknowledgment that I had to create at all. That the dismal conditions of life necessitated invention and amendment. It made me sad. It makes me sad. What are you supposed to do with your life when the thing you’re good at doing upsets you? Here’s what I did:
Halt all creative effort and stagnate for over a decade as you become increasingly bitter and resentful of those around you building lives for themselves. You take demeaning service jobs that drain you physically and emotionally because you don’t think you deserve better. After all, it never happened for you. It’s not going to happen for you. You go back to college, and then on to grad school (even though you can’t afford either), because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? And anyway, try as you might to deny this particular allure, it keeps you reading and writing. And thinking. School forces you to be in that sad space constantly. And to fight it you drink, you act out. You endanger friendships, your relationship, yourself, because you never learned how to exist in the sad space. When you leave, you ache with longing for it because even if it tortured you, it made you feel alive. You disgust yourself, a straight-sized, able-bodied, white cis-woman complaining into the void that is the internet.
It would be pretty easy to die on the hill that, because you didn’t grow up with a lot of money and your family life was garbage, you never made anything of your life. It would be even easier to blame your mental illness (spoiler alert: it’s severe!) for your underperformance. But both of those hollow justifications for the fact that you’re in your late 20s and deeply unfulfilled miss the sickest part of all of it: you love it! You love feeling like you’re in on the joke, that you’re somehow hovering above everyone else scurrying through their lives like lab mice, unaware of anything greater. Being sarcastic is easier than being vulnerable, certainly—tuning out is so much easier than trying and failing.
So now, here you are, nearly 28 years old, with absolutely nothing to show for your life except a barely-deserved Master’s degree in English. In a suburb a stone’s throw from the shitty one where you grew up, where you opted out of participating in your own life. While your friends are getting promoted, having babies, attending conferences—you have to try to find your way back to writing stories. You have to convince your sick brain that the words that come out of it aren’t despicable wretches of things, too weird to live. And hardest of all, you have to face the fact that you…kind of** suck. You’re not ugly, unlovable, unintelligent, untalented. You’re just lazy and afraid. At every turn, you could have asked the questions, made the efforts, shot the shots, but you didn’t, because simmering in a stew of diseased, misplaced resentment was easy. Dismissing the successes of others by jealously sneering at them is easy. You have to start all over again, because you were too busy being an imperious cunt when starting was more appropriate, when you could do it without back pain and with a functioning metabolism. Welcome to your life, all 28 years of it: it’s about fucking time you made its acquaintance.
It’s amazing, the impulse to seek attention and praise. We will, time and time again, peel back layers of our own skin, expose our darkest parts, all in the hopes that someone will tell us we matter. That we not only write stories, but that we’re good at it. All I’ve ever wanted is attention (the good kind), but I’ve settled for conflict (the bad kind), internally, externally. All press is good press—any attention is better than none at all.
There’s a solid chance that, even though I undressed myself here and laid bare my dysfunction, that I may never write a good story. There is an oppressive, overwhelming likelihood that no one of sound mind will ever pay me to write a story, that I’ll never get up on a stage and tell a story, that I’ll remain in this bizarre, tortured stasis for the rest of my life. But, I fucking hope not. You, dear reader, you who know so well the nature of my soul, have had the displeasure of reading this—imagine living inside this mind. It’s no way to live at all. We all know the idiom, “Familiarity breeds contempt:” Reader, I am intimately familiar with myself, and the climate is contemptuous at best. It’s clear by now that my lazy attempts at avoiding failure by avoiding living haven’t panned out.
I guess today marks day one of a kind of sobriety—I’m trying to kick the habit of, well, disassociating from reality. Of not living. I’ve been high as a kite for twenty years. I’m sure the comedown will be a bitch, but if twenty years of rolling around in my own mental and emotional filth has taught me anything, it’s that I have the ability to tolerate a world of pain. If I really am as smart as I’d love to give myself credit for being, the actual world has nothing on the pain I can inflict upon myself. I’m going to finally try, and if I do indeed die trying, please make sure my tombstone reads: Here lies Chelsea. She died as she lived, straining to be pithy and adorable for the pleasure of exactly no one but herself. And play Beyoncé at my funeral.
*I do cop to be insufferable—exhibit A: this piece.