Taking Care Of Others As Self-Care

Two dogs, one fiancé, and how more responsibility has helped me be less sad.

I don’t have a copy editor for this personal blog. Please send all typos and corrections to r.lawler@samsungnext.com. Thanks! - A

I’m an anxious person.

It’s not a new thing, I’ve been this way since I can remember. There’s a pseudo-cute story in my family about a picnic we had when I was small. The wind rose, scattering napkins across the ground. I cried. It was too chaotic, too stressful, too much.

I’ve gotten taller since then.

And stronger, but my core self is much the same. Anxiety and emotional intensity (up and down) are my normal. Despite the obvious costs, I wouldn’t change myself too much. The way my mind works (or doesn’t, if you will) is more blessing than burden.

But what I have found over the past few years is a workable way to bring out the best from my disquieted brain.

Oddly enough, it’s about other people. By not focusing on myself, I’ve found more stability and peace. I still need work too, and I’m working on that as well, but focusing on others has been critical to improving my average contentedness.

Let me explain.

Silicon Valley, You, And Yourself

I grew up in small-town Oregon, went to school in big-city Illinois, and moved to San Francisco right after.

All that matters because I wanted to tell you that I arrived in the Silicon Valley bubble as a young person. I was 22 or 23, in a new city with a job that I liked, a tiny apartment that was all my own, and a lot to do.

I wish I could bottle how I felt back then. Alcoholism hadn’t kicked my ass yet, and I was working hard to make new friends. I hosted small dinner parties, spent a lot of time at my local dive bar, and worked from home for a Dutch publication.

Things got worse after I joined TechCrunch the next year. I picked up a much bigger audience and more money, but little more oversight.

My ego expanded roughly as quickly as my boozing did. The TechCrunch years were some of the best I’ve had, and some of the worst. Over time it tilted more towards the latter, especially at the end. (I wound up quitting the job about six months before I got to hang out with doctors to talk about medical detox and anti-withdrawal meds and taking some time off work to sit in a circle.)

Thematically constant through that turbulent time was chronic self-focus.

In the tech world, and especially Silicon Valley in my experience, youth and progress are bound together, and expected to fuel one another. You want to get big now, to get rich now, to get famous now. After all, did you hear about the latest 19-year old who just raised a cruise-ship full of cash at a valuation similar to that of a Giza pyramid?

So while I drank myself into pieces, I was also maniacally focused on doing what would make my work better-known. Not that I was good at it; my show on TechCrunch was a success of sorts, but I was too shattered by the end of my tenure to be of much use. I’m still working through how I feel about the period.

The worse things got the more I self-focused, withdrawing into myself. The pattern continued until my final Drinking Era relationship collapsed as she gently broke up with me and sent me home. I was about a month away from my mid-20s reset, though I didn’t know it then.

Here’s A Story

The night before I quit drinking I was housesitting. A friend came over to drink gin and we drank all of it. I was in pretty bad shape. We tried to make a run down the street to get some food. I could barely manage to get there. I can’t recall if we succeeded in buying anything.

Later on, sitting on the back porch chain smoking while utterly wrecked I told my friend that “someday we’re going to stand up.” I meant it. Life wasn’t working. I needed a change.

Burning through a pack of Camels that Sunday evening I thought I was about to start a work week with a galloping hangover and a lot of self-pity. And some alcohol sweat. Instead, I woke up Monday morning and within a few hours was sitting in a Kaiser emergency room, steered by my oldest sister into the arms of the medical world.

It was good for her to take me. She’s a doctor.

But that was the breaking point in my period of embarrassing self-focus. Losing my battle with alcohol was too humbling, too fracturing, to think of myself in the same way again.

Upwards And Out

After two ER trips in a single day (beat that!) a day or two in the hospital, and a dozen very dull days of outpatient rehab, I got on Caltrain a newly alcohol-free Alex and went back to San Francisco.

I had spent those weeks at the same sister’s house in Sunnyvale. (I’m not religious, but she is and her faith believes in angels. She is a good argument for their existence.)

When I got home that day my life was instantly different. I wasn’t drunk any more, but deeper than that rebuilding my life from zero, needing to find utterly new patterns, was a system-shock.

Back in SF with two weeks of fragile sobriety under my belt I had to do things I hadn’t done in memory. I needed to call people, to take long walks, to get out of my solitary house and into the world.

And while I was figuring out what was going on at work, trying to clean my house and go through more mail than I want to admit had piled up, Liza came back into my life.

We’re getting married in about two months, so this story has a good ending.

Here’s what happened. We got back together (we had dated for three years in college) in December of 2016. We got engaged in January of 2017. In between those dates, Liza graduated medical school, went through match day, traveled to Europe and moved from the South back to the North East. I got to be her partner in all of that. I’m still annoyed that I missed being with her during her medical school years, but we were both growing up and learning, and that’s just how life goes.

Now let me take all of the above and get back to the point.

Taking Care Of Others As Self-Care

Liza and I haven’t yet lived full-time in the same time zone since we got back together, so we have spent a lot of time on planes. Managing our relationship is a lot of active work. That work has been incredibly good for me.

Because I live in two places and she lives in one with the dogs and medical residency we’re forced to constantly communicate, compromise, agree, and find ways to disagree with love. It’s hard, but we’re getting pretty good at it. What’s good about the labor required is that it forces me to spend a lot of my time thinking and caring about someone other than myself.

That’s something I have never been very good at, and it was impossible to even attempt while drinking. And it was doubly not-going-to-happen when I was drinking in San Francisco and focusing only on myself.

But with Liza needing me to be a good partner, and the dogs needing me to care for them with a lot of patience, I spend more of my time than ever outside my own head. That means less time stewing in my own thoughts and anxieties.

The more I invest in our relationship, the better I feel. The more I focus on caring for our smol dogs, the better I am. This is what my long run in Boy Scouts and my short stint in AA tried to teach me; that service is the way to self-care.

Taking care of others is good self-care. Maybe the best. Aside from bourbon, of course, but that kills you in the end.

A big thanks to everyone who has been so lovely over the last few years. I’m three years off of drinking in May. And that’s so soon I could hug it.

How To Not Order Espresso

Or: How I make my days harder than they need to be.

Here’s a coffee order: A double espresso, please.

It’s pretty simple. Just a size, and a variety.

Oddly that particular order will generate any number of different drinks. I know that because I’ve ordered it dozens and dozens of times and gotten about as many different results. Even from the same place, on successive days, which you wouldn’t think possible.

Let me explain my pain through analogy.

Martini Roulette

Back when I drank I travelled a bit for work, winding up in different states and new hotels on a pretty regular basis. And as any budding alky does, after checking in and dropping my baggage onto the floor in a pile, I’d find the bar.

If you drink lots, bars are like home no matter where where they are. You sit down, you feel good, the bartender realizes you’re going nowhere, and you start into it with vim.

What I quickly learned is that most bars are uniformly homey, what they serve is pretty inconsistent. So I started to order a set drink in every new bar that I went to, just to see what I’d get served.

(Ah yes, the energy of one’s early twenties.)

It’s been years, but I think my order was something close to “an extra dry martini, vodka, Kettle One or Titos, with a lemon peel.” Most bars shake martinis, so there isn’t a real point in asking for it stirred. You’re not James Bond.

But the rest of the drink is designed to be simple. Effectively what I was trying to order was a large glass of slightly chilled and diluted vodka, with a lemon riff floating on top; hold the vermouth.

But what I wound up getting served was a never-ending parade of different drinks. Some would come with floating ice (?), some would come with fruit and an olive (alas), and so on. I called the exercise “martini roulette.”

Back to espresso.

Making My Own Life Harder Than It Needs To Be

A double espresso is a simpler order than what I was trying with vodka, but it still doesn’t work.

Here’s a sample of how the order often goes, no matter which coast I’m on:

Alex: A double espresso, please.

Coffee Place: We pull doubles, so you’d like one shot yes?

Alex: Two of your doubles, please.

Coffee Place: So you want eight shots?

Alex: I’m not sure.

Why don’t I just oder two double shots if that’s what I want? Because it never works:

Alex: Two double shots of espresso, please.

Coffee Place: We pull doubles, so you want one double?

Alex: Oh, no, two double shots, please.

Coffee Place: A double shot, coming up.

Or: Coffee Place: Alright four doubles, coming up.

I’ve tried every variation of ordering two doubles and it doesn’t work any better than not indicating that I want doubles.

The best method that I’ve found is to order “two shots” of espresso knowing that the Coffee Place pulls doubles, have the Coffee Person clarify that fact, indicate that I would like two double shots, and then pray that it’s understood and translated correctly into whomever winds up pulling the levers.

Mostly it doesn’t work.

And that’s fine. My favorite coffee spots are great places, and I love going there even if my espresso order (it’s my fault for ordering something impossible to correctly explain) is mangled most of the time.

Which brings us to this morning.

The Coffee Exchange

When I’m in Providence (the second half of each month), I go to the Coffee Exchange most days. It’s near where I live, it’s supportive of coffee farmers around the world, and it’s packed with all sorts of people: students, working folks, academics, the lot. It’s a place that I hide in on the weekends, and depend on to wake me up every work day.

Even though I only live on the East Coast half-time, and the Exchange has a pretty large staff, some of them know my name, and, happily, my order.

Here’s what happened today:

Alex: Can I have a double espresso please?

Coffee Person 1: *starts typing order into POS

Coffee Person 2, who knows my name and order: [He wants] A double double espresso.

~ My heart begins to sing at being so seen and understood in the morning when I’d rather be three feet under blankets, back in bed ~

Coffee Person 1: $7.xx please


I don’t think I have ever paid over $7 for just my drink at the Coffee Exchange. I do know that my drink with a donut is over $7, but this dollar figure was perplexing.

So I paid, curious about what would happen next. Time passed.

Coffee Person 3, placing a small coffee cup (?) on the counter: First double espresso on the bar.

Alex: Oh shit did something get lost in translation? Do I take the cup and then wait for the second? Or do I just stand here and hope that something is made clear?

Coffee Person 2: Here’s your drink, Alex.

So I took it and ran, of course. It was espresso in a cup, what else was I going to do?

I don’t know if it was actually two double shots, but I gave the coffee spot Some Money, and it gave me Some Espresso. I think that they made another one after I left, but they had told me This Drink Is Yours, so I put headphones on, and wrote this.

Before I’ve had coffee, that’s about all the fight I have in me.


A New Home On The Internet

You really don't have to get these posts via email.

This little blog (alexwrites.substack.com, or alexwilhelm.com once the domain stuff is worked out) is my new home on the Internet. I’ve needed one for a half decade, but it wasn’t a priority back in the drinking days, and I was too busy after quitting to manage it.

Now is the time, it seems. And this is the best place to host it.

Everyone already has an email newsletter, and as I’m on a podcast I have no right to one — the implied ask for more of your time is too much. But I wanted a blog and it turns out that Substack is both a blog and a newsletter rolled into one. It can manage podcasts to boot (I won’t, I promise).

I wound up here after Holden Page pointed out that I can’t manage a WordPress install worth a damn. And since moving from Squarespace 5 to that company’s new build would require constructive surgery, it was out as well.

Having an easy-to-manage blog that also grants people the ability to receive updates delivered to their inbox is neat. And I think that I set up all the stuff correctly, and on my own, which is fun.

So this is where I’ll post notes for the foreseeable future. Please feel free to not receive them via email. I’ll tweet them out I suppose, so you can see them that way if you’d like.

But if you don’t that’s fine too. I’m here more for myself than for any real hopes of further saturating the Internet with my thoughts. I do that too much already.

All the same I needed a place to write for myself. And so here I am. Without a copy editor. Pray for me.


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