:: My therapist insisted that I make some serious changes to my life. Everything that wasn’t essential to my life had to go. I had to quit hard things, and some seemed impossible. But sometimes we have to scale back to survive, to thrive. Here’s how I did it and how you can, too.
Back in the early 2000s, when I was in my creative writing program at Johns Hopkins, I temporarily took an antipsychotic drug called Zyprexa (olanzepine). For the few months I was on it, I felt the most blissfully sane I’d ever felt in my life. Why did I need this new drug?
While writing my book for my thesis, I went so deep into an anxious-hypomanic state that I couldn’t do anything: focus, sleep. Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I would fall asleep, then jerk awake at 2 a.m., thoughts racing. Then I would doze off as the sun rose, jerking awake two hours later in a panic, always panicking, always trying to work, never sitting, always standing, anxiety driving my heart to race. And then later, crashing on the futon, staring at the ceiling, the spinning ceiling, exhaustion taking hold, but unable to sleep. Hands shaking. Am I dying.
My really great psychiatrist recommended this new drug that could work miracles, maybe. I’ll never forget the first morning I woke after taking it. I slept through the night for the first time in a month. I woke slowly, without jerking, no longer feeling like the world was on fire and I was the only one with a hose.
What I didn’t know was that Zyprexa has horrible side effects, which my doctor at the time didn’t know either because it was so new. It is awful how it sabotages some of your body’s systems. I recovered, but it took a year.
Back then, I told myself that, despite how well the drug worked, I would never take Zyprexa again.
So when I tell you that, last November, for the first time in over 20 years, I agreed to take Zyprexa, I want you to understand that things were as bad as they could possibly be. I broke that promise to myself because I was on the very edge of a very dire cliff.
I was as hypomanic as I can get, and my regular medication just couldn’t cut through it. I couldn’t think, work, sleep, parent. I couldn’t do any of the things that mattered most. I couldn’t be there for the people who matter most to me.
I was losing myself.
My choices were simple. Take the drug. Or check myself in.
I took the drug, and I got better, psychiatrically. But in the meantime, my psychiatrist and therapist insisted that I make some serious changes to my life. I had too much on my plate. Everything, everything, that wasn’t essential to my life had to go.
My therapist had me make a list of all the things in my life that were not essential. All of them. And then she told me to start quitting.
So I made my list, and I knocked a few things off. I quit the easy things. But when I say easy, what I mean is this: “I don’t feel like I’m going to die if I don’t do this thing. I’ll only spin into an anxiety spiral for six months.”
Here’s what I quit:
(1) I quit the law firm where I had been Of Counsel for some years. “Of Counsel” is not full time, only part time. I worked a few cases a year. But I’d built good relationships, and I liked being a part of a team, if only peripherally. I also liked having the relationship with the firm and having law firm experience. The anxious part of me really, really liked the back-up plan of working as a lawyer if my main career (as a writer and speaker) failed for some reason. But maintaining the professional relationship was labor, even though my boss was the best.
(In a later essay, I will write about why we hold onto things out of anxiety and fear of failure.)
(2) I handed off the co-authorship of a law textbook to my co-author for her to write alone. I had no idea how she would take this news, and it really mattered to me because she’s one of my very best friends. She took it well! She’s never written a book alone, and now she’s going to have a solo title of her own. But, I was terrified when I broached the conversation.
(3) I quit adjunct teaching. I actually haven’t told my university this news, so I hope they don’t cut off my library privileges. I held onto the teaching job for the same reasons I held onto the law firm job. The relationships. The small pleasures. And mostly, the anxiety that pushed me into needing a back-up plan.
But despite all of this quitting, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t getting better. I knew what was coming next, and I was afraid.
I had to quit the hard things. The impossible things.
I balked. How? How could I? I ran through the list: No, I loved that thing. and that other thing. That thing there—it had been a part of my life for a decade. And that thing? It was crucial for my career. I can’t quit that!
Despite my terror (not an understatement), I started quitting the impossible things, one by one. Each one caused so much turmoil it felt like my life flipped upside down.
Here are the impossible things that I quit:
(1) I quit Twitter. This might seem small to you, but for me, Twitter has been a lifeline for years. It launched my freelance career. I have so many friends with whom my entire relationship relies on Twitter. Quitting Twitter felt like cutting off my social and professional lifeline. I still don’t know how I’m going to maintain those relationships. To be clear: I didn’t quit entirely. I log on about once a week to post a few things and check in with friends. But never for more than an hour, and sometimes I go two to three weeks. I used to be on every day for 2-3 hours. My dear friend (who is also a writing coach), Lisa Cooper Ellison, helped me take this brave step.
(2) I quit playing tennis. Friends, I have played tennis my entire adult sports life. I picked up a racket in my late thirties, when I was done spawning small humans and realized hitting the YMCA for a game of pick-up basketball just wasn’t in the cards. That first tennis season, my team made it to the state championships. Only a year and a half later, I got an actual sponsorship by a clothing brand. Our team went to the state championships over and over, and my entire social life revolved around tennis. My tennis pro is my friend. HOW COULD I QUIT TENNIS. HOW. By the time I quit, I had dialed back a bit, only playing 4-5 days a week, 2-3 hours at a time. I took for granted that tennis would always be a part of my life, that it would always take up at least 10-15 hours a week.
And then I got carpal tunnel syndrome. Suddenly, out of the blue, I was hit with intense, fiery pain in my right hand. After a week of suffering, the doctor diagnosed it, and I had to get my wrist injected. Tennis exacerbated things so badly, after playing I’d have to stick my arm in a bucket of ice. It became clear that I would never heal until I took a break. My body made me quit. And once I quit, I realized I should have quit long ago. Maybe I’ll go back, but for now, the space that has opened up has given me much-needed rest. I’m not sure if I would have had the nerve to quit without the injury. Sometimes our bodies make our choices for us. We must listen.
(3) And then, finally, I closed the small press I started with my friend L. in 2016, Blue Crow Books. This was the final impossible choice I had to make. Now, the press never made money. It was purely a labor of love that L. and I undertook to put books into the world that we thought were beautiful and dangerous and brave. But I loved it.
To close the press, we gave our authors as much notice as we could and as much help as possible to make sure they landed on their feet. We did this because of our own bad experience in the past. Back in 2016, L. and I had our first publisher dump us in what felt like an abrupt and hostile way. (They even accidentally replied-all and included us in an email in which they talked poorly about us, really hurting our feelings.)
They certainly did not help us transition to the next phase of our publishing careers—not that they were required to do that, but L. and I wanted our authors to have everything they needed to thrive without Blue Crow.
Secretly, I knew one thing for sure: our authors would not thrive with Blue Crow if the Katie part of Blue Crow was admitted to a psych ward.
Looking back now, I see that all of these impossible choices came down to survival, at first. And now, as I write this, I hope that the choices I made can lead to thriving: for me. For my kids and my husband whom I can be present for. For my friends and colleagues whom I can support more fully in their own endeavors.
When we are strung out, on fire, in a pit, pick your metaphor, we are no good for ourselves or anyone else.
So what’s the point?
I’ve read lots of variations on this adage: You have to leave open space in your life to let ideas grow or thrive. I believe that’s true.
Over the past few years, I’ve thought back with longing to graduate school, when I would go to this specific cafe in Greensboro with two specific friends, J. and L. (different L.) We would bring just our notebooks and pens, and we would talk and write, leaving so much open space open for ideas. And I had so many ideas. I wrote them down, and they turned into stories and essays.
The logjam that my life has (had?) become now—that wasn’t my life then, and I missed it.
But in order to open that space in my life again, in order to write the essay you are reading right now, I needed to let so many things go.
But I believed that letting each thing go would be like losing a part of myself.
But here’s what I learned during the process: letting go, in the end, was actually the opposite of losing myself. With each thing I let go, I found a part of myself. Once I was done, underneath everything I let go, there I was.
There I was, no longer covered up by the too-much I’d let into my life.
Now, I don’t want you to think everything is bliss now. It’s not so simple. In fact, two weeks ago I went to my therapist, ranting—literally ranting—about how, if I’ve cut so much from my life—WHY AM I SURROUNDED BY FIRES RIGHT NOW? And she said some things I didn’t want to hear, and then I ranted some more until our hour was up.
Later, I had time to process what she said, and it came down to this: “Sometimes things just get busy,” and I felt a little silly.
Sometimes things get busy. That’s normal. We have to put out some fires now and then.
But if your life is on fire all the time? That’s not normal. Not okay. Not healthy.
You will burn, and we are not made for that.
Here’s my advice.
If you are the person who wakes up and starts running, you have to take care of yourself, not only for yourself, but for those who depend on you, whoever those people are. You have to scale back.
Start by making the list of all that you do, the list my therapist made me write.
Then, strike the easy things off the list. Just politely decline to participate, even in things you already agreed to. Book clubs. Wine clubs. Clubs, period. (LOL) My friend (and writing coach) Camille Pagán says, “Saying no is hard. Saying no after you’ve already said yes is REALLY hard.” But you have to do it. Back out of things, politely.
Then things get harder. Because you have to quit the impossible things. You will cry. You will grieve. You will do it anyway.
Because the choice is between quitting those impossible things and survival—perhaps not literally, like it was for me. But the stakes are still high: between the the survival of your marriage/partnership, or your relationships with your parents or children, or your relationship with yourself.
When you are done quitting the impossible things, you will find yourself underneath everything you let go. You will be able to breathe again. Thrive again.