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Is this something I can write about?
Testing the boundaries of personal writing.
When I began this newsletter back in 2018, less than two years after my husband’s death, I had a trove of things to write about — like the pain of not making it to a milestone wedding anniversary, the loss of identity I had to reckon with, and the resentment of having to start all over again. Every time I sat down to write, a new topic awaited me. It felt like I was constantly discovering insights, making connections, and sharing wisdoms.
Writing quickly became a tried-and-true method for me to work through my grief. It was a chance to transform the immense pain I was feeling into something tangible. It was a practice that helped me and, thanks to the magic of newsletters, had the potential to help others too.
So, I wrote enthusiastically and often. I turned it into a ritual: I’d prepare myself a nice breakfast and French press coffee. I’d sit at my beautiful dining room table, bright Florida sunlight streaming in from the windows, and take a moment to appreciate the little kindnesses I’d shown myself — often a vaseful of fresh flowers I bought earlier in the week. I’d pause and take a photo that I’d later post to Instagram Stories. Sure, my life has fallen apart, but doesn’t it look well put together?
And then I’d write. I’d spend a few days contemplating each week’s newsletter topic, giving myself another day or two to write it. I’d hand my draft off to Becca, my dear friend and editor of this newsletter from the start, with plenty of time to get feedback. Finally, I’d publish my thoughts, ready to do it all again the following week.
For the first time in my life, I lived alone — well, alone, with a wonderful dog. My sweet pup Henry was often glued to my side. My laptop or a notebook was usually close by too.
I wrote about my grief. I wrote about my marriage. I wrote about my insecurities. I wrote about the adoption that never happened. Because Jamie was gone, these stories were now mine to tell, and this newsletter, which went out to a couple hundred folks, felt like a safe space to share those stories. I was learning what it meant to be alone. I could write about what I wanted, when I wanted. I had plenty of time and space and plenty to explore.
These days, my life looks a lot different. (I have written some version of that sentence in this newsletter more times than I can count.) I no longer live alone; I’m in a wonderful long-term relationship and have a daughter who lights up my life with immeasurable joy and who leaves me exhausted at the end of each day. I’m no longer in the same house; Billy and I moved to Georgia in 2021, to a home that didn’t have space for that big, beautiful dining room table. I no longer have a dog; sweet Henry died the same year my daughter was born. I no longer buy myself weekly flowers or post regularly on social media. And I no longer write as often as I used to.
Now, I write in whatever stolen pockets of time I can find, usually on Monday mornings, after dropping off my daughter at preschool and before the day’s barrage of meetings begins. I write in my pajamas, hair a mess, glasses still on. I write in a house that doesn’t get nearly enough natural light.
Many of the changes in my life are good. Some are bittersweet. And some are just plain sad. It makes sense that finding time to write is a lot harder these days. But is that what’s really preventing me from opening up like I used to?
When I sat down to work on today’s newsletter, I felt pretty terrible. If this was 2017 or thereabouts, I would write about that! I feel terrible— I’d begin. I’d share the raw truth of young widowhood and how lonely it felt. I might have found some comfort in the fact that, through the act of writing, I became less alone. I may have written about that too.
But today, I feel terrible because I’m on my period. I’m bloated and have cramps. The drop in serotonin has left me been feeling depressed and not sleeping well. I’ve been solo-parenting while Billy performs at a music festival, which has only heightened my exhaustion and bad mood. But that’s not a topic to write about, is it? No one subscribes to a newsletter to read about a stranger’s menstruation woes!
Then I think through the other topics I might explore and stop short at each one. None of them feel significant enough.
In Haley Nahman’s latest newsletter, she wrote about the region-beta paradox, the phenomenon that, sometimes, people benefit and recover more quickly from worse experiences than mildly bad ones. “Strangely, people may heal, recover, or move on more quickly from experiences that are more intensely negative than experiences that are just unpleasant,” she explained.
This caught my attention. Lately — and by lately, I mean over the past three hazy post-pandemic years — I’ve felt a bit stagnant. Parts of my life have felt low-key bad, but I haven’t done much to improve the situation. I haven’t found a new therapist, joined a gym, or carved out ways to write more often. I haven’t challenged myself to address some thorny issues, like why the idea of getting married again is so difficult for me. I haven’t shared openly about these things, whether through writing or talking about them with friends, like I used to.
After Jamie died, I threw everything I had into my recovery. I was terrified that such an immense loss would devastate me beyond repair. So I launched myself headfirst into all sorts of attempts to heal, some more virtuous than others. I wrote a lot, walked a lot, dated a lot, drank a lot, traveled a lot, cried a lot, thought a lot, posted to social media a lot, went to therapy a lot. I did all of these things because the alternative of slowing down and letting myself experience the void was too scary, but also because I owed it to Jamie to claw my way back to life. And I did all these things alone, which meant I had the space and permission to explore who I was and what I wanted in life, in whatever way I decided to.
It all made for great fodder to write about. And it all helped. I think I grew more as a person in 2017 and 2018 than I have in most of my adult life.
Now, I’m getting through each day. I am parenting and learning what it means to open up my heart again. I am trying to contend with my own fears about climate change and mass shootings while also attempting to raise a child who feels safe in the world. I’m making friends and new memories and trying to be less shy. I’m traveling a little and working a lot. My lows are, thankfully, much less low; my highs, unfortunately, less high. Although I’m certain I’ll look back at this period of my life and see growth, I also worry that I will see lots of missed opportunities to expand.
There is so much I have to appreciate and be grateful for. But there’s also that irritating feeling of stagnancy. The worry that life is only getting shorter and I don’t have time to become all the things I want to be. And I don’t know exactly how to write about all of that: this slightly unhappy medium. I’m not in the midst of a life-changing event, full of epiphanies and growth. I’m just kind of static. And because I am experiencing this stage of life alongside my family, it’s also somewhat private. I no longer make decisions focused solely on myself; and my decisions — including what to write — no longer affect just me.
It seems like the region-beta paradox applies to personal writing, too.
It was, in some ways, easier to write about my experience with postpartum psychosis than it is to open up about the PMS I suffer each month.
And while these days, I have clarity about what I want to write about my daughter, who’s just a toddler, I’ll eventually have a harder time untangling what’s mine to share and hers to keep.
This year, my goal was to feel more alive. Between traveling, seeing friends, and, yes, even working more often, I feel like I’ve made solid progress in returning to the land of the living. But I don’t often feel that electric-kind of alive. That kind of feeling that makes you stop in your tracks and think, damn, I am so lucky to be here.
I know that it's unrealistic to expect that I’ll do the same level of healing and self-exploration that I did as a newly minted widow. But I’d still like to create space for meaningful inner work. I want to remind myself what it feels like to be in love with the world.
The region-beta paradox tells me that doing this will be tougher than I expect. But that’s not a reason to avoid it. I want to push myself out of this unhappy-medium comfort zone and into the joys, trials, and growth that come with being uncomfortable. And, hopefully, to find ways to write about it all.