I Thought I Had It All & Then It Fell Apart

Illustrated by Tania Li.
When I started writing back in 2009, I adhered to a relatively basic motto: Work hard, be better, and don’t be a dick. It was basically my life’s credo. And, by 30, I thought my life was on track. I had a great career and an amazing group of friends. I had it all. Until all that working hard and being better landed me at home, in bed, with the worst case of anxiety-inspired stomach flu, seriously reconsidering my priorities.

In elementary and middle school, I was Elle Woods crossed with Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy Santiago — a perfectionist who spent my evenings rewriting my school notes and then typing them out because they weren’t perfect yet. I was the eighth grade valedictorian, and my grandpa would greet my A's with a jokey, “But where’s the plus?” So, when my marks started slipping in high school — my new, hellish era of mediocrity — I was constantly barraged by a chorus of, “But you can do better.” I knew I could, but too bad: I was 17 with a social life, and if I slept through exams, who cares?

Not me. (Or so I told myself.) Which is why, like everything I do, I committed to slacking off with the enthusiasm previously reserved for getting good grades. But I didn’t like slacker Anne (she felt too much like a wannabe rebel from a bad sitcom), and I eventually got my act together, went to college, made the dean’s list, and dropped out at 24 to write full-time.

Despite quitting college, I had a clear picture for what I wanted in the future, and I vowed never to slack off again. Convinced I was already late to the game, I was determined to prove to anybody who had ever written me off that I was finally someone who could “have it all.” All I needed to do was work hard. And be better than everyone. And then be better than that. Because I had to be the best.

So, for the last six years, I said yes to everything. I said yes to free assignments, to underpaid assignments, to assignments with insane deadlines, and assignments due on major holidays. I worked pretty much every weekend, made edits on Christmas, would duck out of a birthday party to answer emails. I worked late at night, early in the morning, and when I had the flu. And then, if I was so ill I couldn’t possibly type words on a keyboard, I would spend my entire sick day wracked with guilt, clutching my phone, and assuming I’d be fired. I lived in a perma-anxious state, assuming my editors would eventually clue into the fact that I didn’t deserve the assignments I’d been getting. Because, hello: If my stuff wasn’t perfect, it was garbage — just like my old school notes.

For the last six years, I said yes to everything.

The same rules applied to my social life. I had to be everywhere, with everyone, all the time. I made dinner date after dinner date, and scheduled my weeks so there was no room for error, traffic, or illness. I needed to prove that I was just as good a friend as I was a worker, or else I’d be exposed as a human, and humanness is unacceptable. I had to be better than that. I had to be the best.

I pretty much lived off of Clif Bars and Smart Water. Sleep was forfeited because it was for the weak. I related to Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash, and I considered the physical manifestations of stress (see: my perpetually clenched jaw or my high blood pressure) as proof that I was doing my job and living my best life. If I wanted to have it all, I couldn’t hold myself to average standards. I could handle it. I had to handle it. I didn’t think twice about bringing a laptop to the doctor’s office so I could work while I waited. And who doesn’t have an occasional panic attack in a movie theater bathroom? Sure, I could take a night off, but didn’t want to miss out on anything.

I should’ve known better, as I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past. I felt the same way when I was on the brink of bankruptcy at 26, and when I realized I needed to quit drinking at 27. Each time I had a horrible physical reaction as a result of the bad choices I was making. But this time, I ignored the signs because I didn’t think I was being destructive. Isn’t this what’s required to be a successful person?

That’s not exactly how it works.

I ignored the signs because I didn’t think I was being destructive.

At the end of July, my body staged a coup, and I was stuck in bed with a stomach flu for three days. I was too sick to work. I tried to conduct an interview in the middle of it and had to hang up, so I could run to the bathroom. The downtime forced me to think. In bed, crying during my fourth consecutive viewing of The King’s Speech, I realized I wasn’t in a terrific place. And it was all my fault that I landed in this shitty situation because I’d never set boundaries for myself. I never let my friends be, well, friends. People couldn’t read my mind. It was up to me to ask for help, or tell them when I needed downtime.

So I started to tell them. I finally opened up about how hard the summer had been — hitting a wall so hard and feeling sick all the time. I fessed up: I took on too much because I was afraid if I didn’t, I wouldn’t work again. And, because they’re real friends, they listened and understood, and made me feel better.

In September, I started keeping a night or two a week open so I could stay in and read or see a movie. That made the rest of the week packed with work and events feel less daunting. If I needed an extra day to complete an assignment, I did what was previously unthinkable: I asked for more time. (It turns out most editors are flexible.) I’d be honest about telling pals I was tired, and if I didn’t want to go to an event I was dreading, I didn’t go. (Gasp.) I took time to eat breakfast, lunch, and grab a coffee if I needed one. I stopped relying solely on power bars and energy drinks. I began to think I was better. Talking about having anxiety was obviously the cure to my anxiety. (Clearly, I was in denial.)

But by October, the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. I stopped looking ahead in my calendar (vowing to “live in the moment”) — and I tried to convince myself that this was helping me feel less anxious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way, and once again I was taking on too many assignments and making multiple dinner plans per night, telling myself that pausing every so often to take deep breaths or eat a proper lunch would keep me sane. But soon I was back to the old Tetris game, and there I was, having an anxiety attack at a restaurant, trying to discreetly pop a few Pepto-Bismol tablets, while my friend told me about her day. I wasn’t listening to her, I was just running through an endless list of “What Ifs.” What if I don’t get another writing assignment? What if my friend hates me because she knows I’m not listening? What if I have to take Pepto-Bismol daily, forever?

Somehow, among all those panicked thoughts, I actually had a good one: What if I admit to my friend that I’m having a hard time?

What if I have to take Pepto-Bismol daily, forever?

So I did the unthinkable. I broke down and admitted my weaknesses. But this time, to an actual person, and while I was flailing. Yes, I’d had similar conversations before, but they were always in past tense, after I had handled the problem on my own.

“I think I took on too much recently,” I said to her, asking for help for the first time in the actual moment; admitting that I was overtired and stressed. “It’s been really busy, and I’m burning out again. And it’s freaking me out”

Then a surprising thing happened: She understood. And I felt better. Which has actually been the pattern with every friend I spoke to about burnout and anxiety. I am not alone, even though it can feel really lonely at times. That conversation made me realize that I needed to be more honest with myself and with others, in order to really overcome this problem. And I do want to make the change — if there’s one thing I fear more than failure, it's a lifetime of anxiety attacks stemming from my fear of failure.

Treating yourself as a person doesn’t mean you’re not doing your best, and hitting your breaking point shouldn’t be a monthly ordeal. Saying no doesn’t imply weakness or even defeat — and neither does talking to somebody about it when you need help. Instead, it probably means you, in the words of Drake, know yourself.

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