I come from a long line of having your shit together. A couple decades ago, my young parents pooled their money and courage, packed their books and infant daughter, and moved to America, where my father completed his PhD in physics while my mother did virtually everything else. They had budgets, deadlines, and language-learning software; chore wheels, filing cabinets, and neat stacks of bills. Their discipline was a living, breathing thing that moved in figure eights between my legs, rubbing territorially against my shins and climbing onto my bed to knead my flesh with its claws while I slept until I knew, without a doubt, that it belonged to me. It was mine every day, to bemoan and take care of.
And if, while growing into a boundary-testing, second-generation teenager, I ever forgot, my parents were quick to remind me: They hadn’t done all they’d done, filing cabinet-wise, for their only child not to have her shit together; having your shit together ought to be hereditary. On my sixth birthday, I was given a handheld vacuum cleaner and I used it dutifully until the batteries died. I got good grades and planned themed sleepovers and made healthy afterschool snacks that looked like scenes from my biology textbooks: celery, peanut butter, and raisins for ants on a log; carved apples and sliced almonds for a canine mouth baring its teeth. I made curfew, wrote college admission essays, drank what seemed the socially appropriate amount and not much more, graduated magna cum laude, got a job, got an apartment, built my own Ikea furniture without having a complete mental breakdown… You get the picture. I knew I was the product of both hard work and privilege. I could see how high the bar had been set. All my shit was on that bar and, man, was it together.
For a while, anyway. And then some stuff happened in quick, relentless succession. I turned an age that felt significant to me somehow; maybe the little girl with the handheld vacuum had imagined someone with a husband, a published novel, and half a dozen horses by now. I lost my job, one I had found both challenging and exciting, in a series of layoffs that affected a large portion of my company. Though I was lucky enough to find work soon after, my finances and ego took a hit.
But mostly I lost two boys I loved, one right after the other. I know that, on principle, I shouldn’t compare them, and that doing so oversimplifies the situation by turning two real, whole, complex human beings into a plot device for the story of my life. But, at the time, they seemed so much like polar opposites that I joked with girlfriends that I was “tasting the porridge.” One was too hot: a suit who took me to raw bars and classic rock concerts, introduced me to his parents by my full, three-syllable name instead of the first-syllable-only nickname I prefer. He was sweet and serious, whip-smart and ambitious, more or less straightedge, and I kept a toothbrush at his place for almost two years. When we held hands, our hands were cupped. With him, I felt 32.
The other was too cold: a perpetually broke creative type who lived in another city, far away but not so far that every-other-weekend visits were out of the question, and though they didn’t always happen, I fantasized about them often. He took me to Chipotle and Mexican food trucks that I thought tasted pretty much like Chipotle, though he vehemently disagreed. We had dated in college and, years later, I still recognized his entire wardrobe: three or four black T-shirts from his bartending days with milky stains, a few two-big jeans, and a Batman belt buckle. He was carefree, clueless, and funny; smoked a blunt with his eggs in the morning. He introduced me to almost no one, and insisted I use his toothbrush whenever I wanted. When we held hands, our fingers were interlaced. With him, I felt 18.
One was short with thick, combed brown hair; the other was a tall, bedheaded blonde. But that’s not important. What’s important is that one loved me—fervently, earnestly, transparently—and the other didn’t. At all. I left the former for the latter, and the latter left me because… Well, probably because he never knew he had actually arrived, and also because he had his own “former” to worry about.
As for my former, we always went out for sushi and now I haven’t had a California roll in months. Because it was our “thing,” I can’t watch movies about government conspiracies or sleep with a plush bear I had long before the two of us even met. Because of the other guy, I can’t watch standup comedy or think about Hedberg’s escalator punch line without wanting to throw up. I lost some friends because of the former; a good amount of money thanks to the latter. Entire genres of music have become off limits; entire neighborhoods and freeways wiped off the map. With my boyfriend, I lived in a valley of contentment; the same lush, green, manicured plateau one day after another. The boy who wasn’t my boyfriend brought me to a land punctuated by mountains of reckless nostalgia and a thrilling something that felt like happiness—and then canyons of doubt, confusion, and despair. Today, I am on an island, lonely but safe.
What I’m saying is this: I officially don’t have my shit together. It’s all I can do to get through the day without crying in my office’s supply closet, so that’s all I do do. I wake up, spill some coffee into my mouth, get to work, don’t cry in the supply closet, go home, and proceed to drive everyone I know further insane. Some dear friends have been troopers, but I’m sure most are banding together to barrel down my heart’s door—picked locks, roundhouse kicks, tree trunks, whatever it takes—and burn the whole thing to the ground. And who could blame them? At one point, my little romantic sitcom of a life interested them, but we are well past that now: The finale aired and the protagonists didn’t kiss for yet another season, and how long do they expect viewers to put up with this shit?
I understand. My sadness is small. I am still the product of privilege. There hasn’t been a death or a natural disaster. There hasn’t been a divorce or a cancer diagnosis or a home-turf war. I know that, in the grand scheme of the world and its many hardships and cruelties, my sadness is small. But it is also three-dimensional. It has depth and width and length; it has angles that expand to fill every room I drag it into. It feels like my hope went cliff jumping, miscalculated the distance, and broke every bone. It feels like the bottom of the paper bag of my self as I knew it has ripped open and the fruit that has fallen to the sidewalk is too bruised to salvage. And then I am made more miserable by the indisputable fact that this happens to everyone, and it’s not a big deal, and why can’t I be more resilient, have some perspective, quit sulking, and just join OkCupid already? There ain’t no party like a pity party, ‘cause a pity party don’t stop. No, really. It won’t stop. How do I make it stop?
So, for now, I don’t have my shit together. I mean, I’m not, like, welding Barbie doll heads to milk jugs or stealing designer shoes from the mall. I’ve managed to stay employed and keep paying rent. But I can’t concentrate on anything, and sometimes I forget to eat for a full day or more because all my energy is being put toward the simple act of not crying in the supply closet. When I do eat, I eat like a frat brother—which is really something coming from someone who has obsessively used a nutrition-monitoring website since she was 12. I haven’t had fruit in about two weeks, but I have had a lot of pizza that’s been sitting on the counter for days, cheap beers in the shower… which is sputtering, but which I’m not going to call my landlord about because the “frat” mentality has infiltrated more than just my grocery list and table manners. I’ve stopped raising my eyebrows at people who use the term “Yolo.” Sometimes I’ll shave one leg and not the other and wear too-short shorts to work anyway, because I haven’t done laundry in a month and also: “Yolo!” I’m not quite a hot mess yet, but I’m getting warmer.
Though I clean the kitchen every now and then to stay on good terms with the girls I live with, I don’t cook for myself and get an increasingly higher percentage of my daily caloric intake from vodka-sodas and the stale crusts of Little John’s leftovers. I still haven’t unpacked my bags from the last time I visited the boy who was not my boyfriend in the city that is not my own. I let my dirty underwear from that weekend peek out of the bags and think about the girl I know he’s thinking about now. I want to be thinner than her, a faster runner than her, a better writer than her. I think about the shapes they must make under the covers; I wonder what her underwear looks like.
I recognize these thoughts as harmful and unhealthy, and then go jogging until my heels bleed. Every Google Chrome commercial makes me cry. I lose things—car keys, corkscrews, a pair of sunglasses that I later found inside a mug in the back of the pantry, of all places—all the time. One night, I slept outside because I couldn’t shake the feeling that my four walls were suffocating me. I’m confident my roommates think I will die if they leave me alone, like a hamster. I’m not confident that I won’t.
Sometimes, not having my shit together feels like a cop-out. It feels like a defense mechanism that isn’t working. And, on at least a handful of occasions, it has made me a worse employee, a worse friend, a worse daughter, and a generally more frustrating person to be around. But. But! In other ways, I have to believe it has changed me for the better. It has made me more compassionate and forgiving; more forthcoming and relatable; more flexible and outgoing; more open-minded and laidback. Because I’ve stopped setting so many rules for myself, I’m able to cut others some slack when they break the ones I had previously set for them. I realize a lot of things fall under the “shit happens” umbrella, and any person on any given day could be weathering a serious storm. I’m quick to smile at strangers, to laugh at myself, and to sidestep those loose stones in difficult conversations that might otherwise roll together and form a grudge.
Want to go to a movie that everyone else is refusing to see with you because it got critically panned and the midnight showing is on a weeknight? I have to be in the office at the crack of dawn but, you know what, I’m your girl. I don’t run to catch the bus anymore; there will soon be another. I’ve become a better dancer, because I’m less conscious of how ridiculous I may or may not look. My body is the shell keeping my hurt, burnt insides from tumbling out in front of all these nice, well-dressed clubgoers, and that’s all I can really ask of my body. It would be too much to also expect it to know how to twerk.
I’ll say it again: I super don’t have my shit together. And the thing is, you don’t have to, either. I mean, don’t organize dog-fighting rings or be thoughtless with other people’s hearts. Don’t take advantage, don’t take for granted, and don’t forget to call your parents on their birthdays. Sure, try not to actively do things that you think might twist the knife in your gut. Know that pillow talk that sounds like, “I never said I didn’t care about you” is not the same as actually caring about you. Know it deep down, and then push it up. Live on your island, or on a mountain of your own making. It’s okay if you forget to use a lint roller before your big interview. Fifty years from now, when you’re old and gray and possibly more put-together than you are at this very moment, if you look back on your life and remember the lint, then you did it wrong.
So in case you’re one for taking advice from someone who has no business giving advice: I’m advocating letting go a little. Maybe a lot. If nothing else, I finally feel my age. I feel the lightness of it and the weight. And I finally feel myself. Because when you peel back the boys who loved you and the ones who didn’t, paint on a thin primer the exact color of all the things your parents did in hopes of eventually seeing you happy, and strip down to nothing, your self is all that’s left. My mother said a funny thing to me once, something that smacked of the Russian proverbs she knows so well. She said: “Terrible things are going to happen. Wolves and bears—and anything with teeth for that matter—will bite. But it’s your responsibility to make it to the truest end of your life. And only you get to choose where you lose blood.”