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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 2018. 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 care of self. 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.