When I was sixteen, I was not the shit. I mean, I was locked up in the office in the drama room, writing my play, and literally spending my math period sketching out a six-part graphic novel series that I knew would get me a deal with Dark Horse if I could just get my art teacher to submit it. My parents were impressing the importance of picking a college major that would get me a good job in politics—or anything—as long as it paid well. I was invisible as far as looks went, though I viewed myself as unattractive, which is the unfortunate default for most American teenage girls. It didn’t matter though, because when I was writing my stories, it didn’t matter what I looked like. I could illustrate my main heroine however I wanted.
When I was 22, I was the shit. I mean, I distinctly remember a moment as I was driving into Portland, crossing the 405 Bridge and overlooking that cityscape in late summer, with the sun setting off in the West and tossing honey all over the buildings and golden glass, going to meet up with a guy I can’t even remember the name of now, in a dress that was far too tight and heels that were far too high, in a new car for which I paid far too much. My face was made up like an oil painting with about four hundred dollars worth of MAC products. My hair was professionally coifed. My nails were long, red, and impractical. It took me most of the afternoon to primp. In that moment, I could hardly breathe because I was just so. damn. full of myself.
My breasts still defied gravity, my ankles could still handle the stupid stilettos, and I had yet to experience true, unadulterated, heartburn that came straight from the Anus of Hell. I was fresh back from Rome, all cultured and accented, dripping in designer scents and using the correct pronunciation when I ordered at Italian restaurants, and recommending wine pairings to complete strangers, like an absolute tool.
It got worse. I was on student government, I had been accepted to Harvard for graduate school, I worked in broadcast, and I had twenty grand in my bank account from a car accident settlement. I was unstoppable.
It’s a long, avoidable story fit for the WB as to how I got to that point. Spending all my money drunkenly traveling the world, making all the easiest decisions and running away from any pain. But the bottom line is, I never made it to Harvard. I no longer own that stupid expensive car. Designer perfume makes my throat close up, one of those high heels was lost in the park at 2AM a year or two later, I dropped out of school for a while, and I ended up back at home with my parents after an unsuccessful suicide attempt landed me in the hospital a few years after the plot peak of my short lifeline. What goes up must come down.
Down there in the gravelly underbelly of rock bottom, it was pretty dark, but I managed to find a few things. Once I got a nightlight down there (which looked like therapy and perspective) I was able to feel around a bit and find all the other loose odds n’ ends I’d tossed into the Time-out Corner of Denial during my self-congratulatory high. I’d been living my life like the bright, Technicolor glow of a dual HD Monitor set up, and I was hiding all my dust bunnies, candy wrappers, and rejection letters in that forgettable crevice behind the displays, with the power cords and lip balm that went missing last year.
When I came out of my haze and began speaking to people again, I took baby steps back into society by occupationally slumming. The year before I was determined to work in the White House. Right then, however, I was working a couple nights a week as a bartender at the Olive Garden. Which leads me to another thing I found behind those kaleidoscopic pixel-projectors; Humility.
It was a joke with the other servers and bartenders that I had gotten accepted to Harvard and yet here I was, with the rest of the twenty somethings, and thirty somethings, and forty somethings, and fifty somethings, and even sixty somethings, wearing that tie and apron, ironically using the correct pronunciations, all accented, and suggesting wine pairings to complete strangers. [Insert sigh here]
As shitty as it seemed at the time, these crappy shifts in a strip mall still provided a little more illumination. My shame corner was slowly being lit up, my flaws and mistakes and consequences all being exposed, whether I liked it or not. While I was down there I found my fears of failure, my guilt for feeling as though I let my parents down for hating where I was headed and failing to attain The American Dream of a big house and a new car in the driveway. I found my attraction to inadequate and extremely narcissistic men, friends who were no longer friends because I was broke and broken, physical illness, depression of epic magnitudes, and least likely of all, some new friends who helped me remember who I was fundamentally.
We bonded and helped each other along in a sort of low point of transition. We knew this was temporary, we knew we were capable of more than this, but we knew that there were certain things out of our control and that for now, we were here and we needed to make the best of it. Late nights at the pub down the street spending our measly tips on Jameson shots and hummus plates, we plotted our escape. We told stories of better times in our lives, of falling in love and out of love, of foreign flings and adventures, or wishes and dreams and as we became closer, of the agony of loss and feeling utterly powerless. We loved each other at our worst, and helped each other pursue the best.
The winter passed, the holidays happened, Spring approached. After not too long, we began moving forward again. We left the chlorinated carpets of the Olive Garden. One of us went on to Ohio State. One of us went to grad school in New York. I found myself following the last escapee to the isolated mountains in Idaho to a secret town with lakes that glowed like sapphires and hot springs that forged friendships and healed spirits. We worked there seasonally, guiding people through the wilderness they sought out as a haven from their own grownup lives and problems. It was the perfect form of Rehab. I left the mountains nine months later, unafraid with no darkness to hide in anymore.
The thing about Depression and hitting rock bottom is that when you emerge from it, you have a magical power of being able to see right through people. It’s like you’re armed with this super power of being able to look at the big picture, all the time. My bullshit filter is impeccable, and it’s easy to explain things simply. The gray area is greatly reduced in life, and rationalizing things has become a million times easier. Because I’ve already lived in enough denial to understand every excuse in the world. My time in the mountains, living with minimal necessities and with people who valued each other instead of possessions only served to solidify a lesson for me that was twenty something years in the making. And it was the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned.
Looking back, it’s taken me nearly six years to pull myself out of the hole I dug with my pompous naiveté. My credit is just now recovering. I finally got my degree, which didn’t seem to matter anyway. There was no graduation ceremony, there were no robes or hat tosses. There was a transcript in the mail and a student loan end-of-deferment notice.
In the economy that still gave college graduates the sparkling opportunity to work at the Olive Garden instead of positions we were all informed we could get by spending all of our time and money in college, I chose to work several random jobs in smaller businesses in my town instead of giving my time and energy to a corporate conglomerate who was partially responsible for our economic shit storm. By doing that, I made a place for myself in a good community, and focused on what I could do to help others instead of worry about myself, what I looked like, and how I could impress everyone with my pedigree and pedicure. I had been able to relax back to myself, the one I knew before I worked so hard to turn into something I had mistaken for mature and desirable and for what was ‘Grownup.’ IE: Grownups dress nice, have nice things, and go to absurd lengths to hide any sort of struggle, and spend more than they have trying to impress people they don’t like, by acquiring things they don’t need—whether they actually like them or not. Grownups do not like what I liked as a younger person or a teenager. Come 20, it was time to ditch the dreams of being a graphic novelist, and hide away the art, the silly heroic plot-lines, and to transfer my comic book budget to clothing. It was a mistake and I am so glad I never succeeded in that state.
So here I am, in a fairly decent position for a tech firm that accommodates my desire to do as little as possible, room to move up, with a boss that works remotely from across the country. 99% of my interactions happen via email or phone, and I click away safely from a corner desk, in indistinguishable cubicle land, in an indistinguishable office tucked somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, my home. My life is notably different now, and remarkably simple. I have a small, quality group of friends, a comfortable routine that hardly demands I worry about the Nordstrom Sale, or the (non-existent) date I had last night, which—in a previous life—would have dictated that I fill this post with cliché ramblings about how I nervously fiddled with my martini glass, and detailed how the particular shade of MAC Plum lip gloss matched my drink du noir (which would most likely cause that Hell-anus heartburn I was talking about earlier.)
In my current position, however, I have to work with sales people who wear those ridiculously high heels, that rich perfume that makes my eyes water, who talk about wine pairings and their vacations to Rome, who use all the accents and correct pronunciations. I am the numbers girl in the corner, surrounded by the mostly divorced corporate gentiles in polo shirts, drenched in after-shave and hair product. Who drive their new cars for which they paid far too much, who wear the designer jeans, and whisper in corners about office affairs and mistresses, about their next rendezvous and their lovers in other countries. Absolutely unaware of my past or accomplishments or failure or journey, these people tease me. I am a project to the women who surround me. “You’d be so pretty if you’d put a little effort in. We’ll go to the MAC counter. It’ll change your life.”
The salesmen hover over desks close to mine. They joke with me, they talk to me in two octaves lower than the other women, because there is no need whatsoever to sugar coat anything to the homely girl. That’s the one you can’t fool, that’s the one who sees through it. She’s like the roommate who puts on noise-cancelling headphones while you doodle her hot rent-share. She’s the one who gave up on all the good things life has to offer; designer denim, Mercedes, Vegas vacations, and a Marriott Cardholder account.
Oh yes, I’m so very aware of it and that to them, this is what it means to be an an adult woman. To dress well, to talk about your stocks and wear a badge that gets you into a building with three layers of security to protect your precious technology developments. It means stabbing co-workers in the back to save your job. It means doing your makeup every morning and contouring your face until you look like Simba, getting your hair done often enough to actually make an appointment for your next visit when you’re there, and killing yourself to climb a ladder up to what? To the next tier of misery as long as your happiness rests on comparison.
I’ll tell you right now, the most grown-up and mature thing I’ve done in years was to go down to the local comic book shop, and open a subscription box. I paid off a loan and turned the amount of that payment into my monthly budget for “Comic Book Stuff.” I followed that move by beginning to write again. And after that, I started a savings account to buy a MacBook so I can begin illustrating again. Being a grownup and working a “grownup job” means different things to me than affairs and nice clothes.
What it means to me is a warm desk in the winter, as opposed to a service job in a freezing food truck. It means not being terrified to go to the doctor because I actually have health insurance, finally. It means not having to look for seasonal work, and finally having weekends and holidays off to spend doing what I love with whom I love. It means a steady work schedule so I can volunteer time helping out other small businesses in the area, helping them by donating my time and passion. It means a consistent paycheck that I don’t need to spend all of because that’s not necessary…and that’s all it means. The moment I leave that building for the day, I do not think about my job at all until I get there the next morning. I have no one in that building I need to or want to impress. I do my job well because when I am at work, I do my job instead of try to impress anyone else with my hair, or my car, or my coat, or my shoes. I’m not sending messages to the man I am having an affair with in a different department. I am not walking to office halls for the sole purpose of showing off my outfit.
This is why I don’t spend an hour or more every morning doing my hair or my makeup. This is why I have action figures on my shelves, why I let my dog sleep quietly under my desk at my feet as I work, and why cardigans and super-hero shirts have become my main wardrobe. I found I needed some moral reminder around me, like a protective aura in the ocean of Mad Men bullshit I find myself in daily for a paycheck. I’m not in the mountains anymore, and I am faced daily with a fight I lost about six years ago. Even for the best of us, it’s both human, and simple to get caught up in wanting to impress and to fit in. It is more heroic to remain true to yourself, not just in the one-off catastrophic situations we read about our heroes facing, but in the mundane day-to-day monotony that could be as simple as an office.
Simply, if being a grown up means acting the same selfish, soulless way I did in my early twenties, I’d much rather not be a grown-up. I’d rather just be a kid with a paycheck and a badass comic collection. I host the largest Doctor Who events in the area, I hang out at my local comic book shop and the historical movie theater downtown with a group of nerds that make my heart sing with joy. I vacation at ComiCon instead of Vegas. I may not smell like money, but I have the BEST D&D dinner parties, and I sleep like a baby. And all the people in this quaint little life of mine? They don’t have what HGTV would deem to be the perfect life, but they are happy, and they happen to think I am the shit.