alcoholism

Turning 30

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When I first began studying acting at The Imagined Life studio three years ago, I regretted that I hadn’t found Diana Castle earlier. With her vast wealth of wisdom and uncanny intuition, I could tell she held the keys to the Creative Kingdom I’d been trying to break into for over a decade. Listening to her lectures, I couldn’t help but think of all the time I’d wasted in my early 20s. If only I’d known about her when I moved to LA, if only I’d had that sort of guidance, if only…

The irony is, of course, that I left the studio after two years. Though I never stopped believing in what Diana was teaching, I couldn’t seem to apply it to my own work. Frustrated, lost, angry, I bowed out, deciding I wasn’t really an actor. That I’d been a fraud, that I didn’t have what it takes, that it was too late. Anyway, I was starting to gain some traction with my writing. Maybe that had been the whole raison d’etre I’d been drawn to The Imagined Life, so it could point me True North towards my real calling as a writer.

It made sense to me at the time.

* * * * *

This Sunday I’m turning 30. I’ve been telling myself for months now that I’m not going to make a big deal of it, that it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a number – who cares? But over the past week or so I’ve realized that that attitude was cheating me of doing some honest self-reflection. Of taking stock of my life thus far, the ups, the downs, the beautiful, the ugly, the choices I’ve made for better or worse. These things do mean something. These things do matter.

As I began to reflect in my morning pages on how I’d spent my 30 years on this planet, two emotions jumped out at me: shame and fear. Sure, there are things that I am proud of – graduating from UCLA, writing a book, surviving on my own – but a huge part of me felt like I’d wasted more than a decade living mindlessly. I’d been given these incredible gifts, this blessed life, and what had I done? Spent absurd amounts of time obsessing about my appearance, chasing after boys blatantly and foolishly, drinking myself to oblivion on way too many occasions, drifting through my days, never truly smelling any flowers. How had I let this happen?

In August on my flight home from Hungary I sat next to a boy named Anthony. At 12 years old, he spoke more eloquently than most of my peers in their 20s and 30s, and possessed an authenticity and clarity I’d only recently discovered in my own life. My cheeks hurt after two hours of nonstop grinning while conversing with him. But when we parted ways, I felt gripped by an intense desire to protect him. Fear washed over me as I imagined him entering high school and losing all of his vitality and presence and eagerness for learning in the face of popularity and sex and parties. After all, he did resemble Justin Bieber, his looks alone could lead him down that path.

Back in Brooklyn, I realized that fear was a response based entirely on my own experience. Young Amy had been very similar to Young Anthony – reading everything in sight, creating ideas and art projects left and right, absorbing the world like a sponge. I’d tested in the 99th percentile, I’d memorized chapters of books just because I could, I’d instilled excitement in the hearts of teachers and adults. But then the tornado of puberty hit, and my teenage years sucked me into a storm of insecurity, attention-seeking, and desperate need for validation. I’ve been battling to get back to the ground ever since.

At certain times, I’ve succeeded. I’ve found myself in the eye, calm, lucid, able to see my own truth. Like junior year of high school, when I recognized how much my life mirrored Ivan Ilych’s. Or during my many opportunities to travel abroad, when the world expanded so far beyond my own self-absorbed universe I couldn’t not pay attention. Or moments in great films, or great books, or great classes like Diana’s or Teshome Gabriel’s or Paul Von Blum’s, which momentarily quelled the tempest.

But inevitably I’d get sucked back in. I’d glimpse the truth, but it was too much to handle, so I’d run right back to where I felt comfortable. Measuring success by dollar signs, Instagram likes, the power of my lovers, the brand of the champagne. A boozy, self-serving haze, interrupted by a creative manic streak from time to time.

In August, though, things began to shift. Dramatically. After meeting Anthony, I could no longer hide the regrets I held over the choices I’d made in my life. I couldn’t keep running from the truth, ignoring my shame and fear. I had to start caring for myself the way I longed to care for this boy. For months, years even, I’d been desperately wanting to change my life, but it was Anthony who gave me that boost I needed to finally do it.

It started with quitting alcohol and sugar. Since the age of 18, these two substances have ruled so much of my life. Way more than I’ve ever been willing to admit. From counting calories to staring at my stomach in the mirror for hours to sticking fingers down my throat. From throwing back shots of tequila to numb the pain, or make the guy I was with tolerable, or to try and forget the bag of M&Ms I’d eaten. From intense blood sugar spikes and crashes to intolerable hangovers and memory lapses to depression and self-hatred. To outsiders, even my family and closest friends, I’ve always looked functioning, but my interior world tells a different story.

That first week was hell. I could barely get out of bed. My body felt like I was moving through quicksand. You know those dreams where you’re trying to run from a bad guy but the sandman has poured glue between your legs and you can’t even walk? That’s how dependent my body was on sugar. I suffered daily migraines, made all the worse knowing I could cure it with just a bar of chocolate or bowl of pasta.

After the physical struggle subsided, the real challenges set in. I had to learn how to deal with my insecurities and anxieties without reaching towards the cupboard or ordering a glass of wine or four. In confronting these feelings, I was forced to look at other tendencies that had kept me in the storm, especially my dependency on my emotions. One night in particular stands out: I was having a panic attack over an argument I was having with my boyfriend, and I couldn’t get a hold of any of my friends. I called one of them three times and texted her to call me immediately. She responded that her sister was in intensive care. My panic attack instantly stopped. There were more important things in the world than this moment in my relationship.

As I began to equalize after subtracting these toxins from my life, I added in some new habits: meditation, daily affirmations, structure, regular sleep cycles (work permitting). Through the help of the Artist’s Way, I set goals for myself, some large, some small, but all achieved through the same process: one step at a time. For example, French. After years of studying the language of love, I’m still not fluent, but reading Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers half an hour a day has shown me that it’s not impossible. I understand a little more each week. It’s still very much a work in progress, but so am I.

Which leads me back to turning 30. In the same way I wished I’d found Diana when I first moved to LA, I wish I’d found this new, sober, more focused and contemplative lifestyle in my early 20s. Why did it take so long for me to find authenticity and presence and mission? Why did I waste all of that precious time not living every day fully and creatively? For the same reason I dropped out of studio a year ago: I wasn’t ready.

And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Because even though I can sit and lament and feel shame over all of those hours I spent stumbling through nightclubs and sleeping with the wrong guys and shoving brownies guiltily into my mouth, I can also learn from them. I can use those experiences to tell stories and to maybe help a Young Anthony make different choices than mine. And even if Young Anthony does make some unskillful decisions (to borrow the Buddhist choice of words over “bad”), that’s still okay, because it’s his journey, and he’ll learn it at his own pace.

The point is, I’m here now, about to turn 30, and happier and more attentive and more open to the world than I’ve ever been. I’m not perfect, I never will be, I’ll continue to stumble and fall, but I know I’m headed in the right direction, following my True North.

I start class again on November 30th.

(BTW, if you were hoping to buy me a drink for my 30th, here’s an even better option — for the same price as a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, you can pre-order my book on Amazon!  Win win!! ❤ DO IT HERE!!!)

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My Big Fat Greek Gods

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Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of wildly different dudes from Mt. Olympus: Apollo and Dionysus. No, I haven’t started an online course in Greek mythology, nor am I planning a trip to Athens or Mykonos (although I do foresee a romp through the Greek Isles in the relatively near future #thesecret). No, I’ve been thinking about these two half-brothers and sons of Zeus and how they apply to my own life. Philosophically speaking, of course.

For those of you who missed Clash of the Titans or slept through Freshman year literature, Apollo and Dionysus are Greek gods (or half gods in Dionysus’ case.) According to the school of life (Wikipedia), “Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities…variously recognized as a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry and more,” while Dionysus is “the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and religious ecstasy.” (It’s not hard to decide who is getting the plus one for all of those snazzy toga parties.) In looking at the resumes of these two Olympic heavyweights, it’s pretty apparent that they don’t have a lot in common (except maybe music, which I’m sure they both listen to, but if I had to bet, I’d say Apollo’s tuned into Symphony Hall while Dionysus is bumping BPM, Electric Area, or maybe even Hip-Hop Nation. Anyways, I digress.) In fact, these two are playing on such opposite sides of the field that they’ve even acquired their very own philosophical and literary concept: Apollonian and Dionysian.*

Although Nietzche is most often credited with the coining of the concept, the idea behind the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy had been well under way in the conscious of man long before the 19th century. If you don’t think Aristotle and Plato and all those other crazy awesome juggernauts trodding the earth before Jesus weren’t aware of the brothers’ striking duality, you need to go reread Prior Analytics or spend some time in the infamous Cave. That being said, Nietszche seems to have a firmer grasp on the need for balance between the two ways of life represented by A & D then say, Socrates, who in his full embrace of Apollonian ideals ended up reaching for the Hemlock rather than the reserva. So let’s just give credit where credit is due and thank the godfather of Nihilism for really highlighting this P&L concept in modern Western schools of thought.

Whew. Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, are you still with me? Good, because I’m about to come around to the point of all this academic blah blah blah, and answer the question I posed in the introduction: how does any of this relate to me? Well, I’m sure for all of you faithful followers of my blog it’s quite obvious, but the long and short of it is I’ve been having shameless affairs with both A & D for about, oh, 21 years. (I’m marking the beginning with my first sordid kiss at 7 years old under the table of a Vietnamese restaurant in North Portland. Up until then I was pretty much strictly committed to A.) While I’ve tried my best over the years to balance my two lovers, I inevitably go through periods where I spend far too much time with one, neglecting the other, and this invariably leads to jealousy, confusion, and chaotic throw downs. (Just come with me to Vegas after a grueling quarter featuring 8 million memorized art history note cards and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It ain’t pretty.)

As of late, I’ve noticed that I’ve been hanging out just a little too much with D. He’s easy to fall for, with vines in his hair and King Arthur sized chalices and his parade of nymphs and satyrs. I mean, who doesn’t love wild woodland parties with half-men half-stallions (goats if your Roman) and free-flowing vino?** Nights with D are filled with dancing and ecstasy, perfectly chiseled Henry Cavill look-alikes and top-notch DJs, and of course, rosé. It’s a celebration of sensation and being alive and our rapturous bodies and in the moment it’s the Best Thing Ever and everything is swirling with f-ing amazingness…

But then comes the morning, and the wrath of A. The sun is blinding and your head is throbbing and your stomach is simultaneously empty and bloated. You roll over to finally face the light and your dread-locked hair and you see Henry staring back at you, but now he looks less like a super hero, and more like Michael Caine. He’s morphed into your conscious and he’s reminding you that there’s a whole world of reality out there waiting for you, a world full of poetry and pain and philosophy and prophesy and straight up Truth. But you can’t handle the truth because right now you’re too damn hung over to even construct a sentence let alone a sonnet, so you throw on your Ray-Bans and a slouchy shirt and head for the only thing that could possibly make you feel better right now: a bottomless mimosa brunch date with D. The cycle begins.

I’m exaggerating for effect and I’ve joked steadily on the topic for ages, but if I’m being honest with myself I’ve been an alcoholic for the last several years. I hesitate to use the term, because my drinking problem is not on par with say, Denzel Washington in Flight or Lindsay Lohan in real life. But when I look at my weekly alcohol intake and compare it to the numbers suggested by experts for women my size and age, it is way over the healthy levels of consumption. Since graduating UCLA in 2010, I’ve put back on average anywhere from 2-6 drinks usually 5 days a week, 7 when I’m traveling. It sounds like a lot when I type it here, and it is a lot, but in the midst of a night out it doesn’t feel like it, especially when I’m still functioning the next day. A couple of times I’ve gone a week or two without drinking, but only because I was on a strict diet in order to lose weight. Otherwise, alcohol has been ingrained in my social and networking activities and absolutely essential in my dating life.

While I’ve been aware for quite awhile that my drinking has been affecting my physical and mental capacity, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I met a guy I instantly fell for that I realized just how far I’d been drifting away from my Apollonian self. His fierce intelligence excited me tremendously and ignited my curiosity, but it also left me feeling challenged and insecure. As I cracked open new books and poured through JSTOR articles, I could sense the level of dust that had accumulated in certain areas upstairs. I panicked at how much I’d forgotten and needed to relearn, and the slow speed at which my synapses seemed to be firing. It was like being bedridden for months and then trying to run a marathon. My mental legs just didn’t have the strength and the stamina they used to. I came out of the blocks sprinting and collapsed around mile 3, out of breath and eyes brimming with tears.

The good news is, like any muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it grows. A little physical therapy, some rigorous conditioning, and a much needed break from booze and you’re back solving derivatives and analyzing causes of the French Revolution. (Or maybe just capable of holding a conversation about something other than DWTS or the oatmeal you had for breakfast, but still, in the Facebook age, that’s something.) After only a couple of weeks of abstinence, a few Great Novels, dozens of New Yorker articles, lisant Le Monde, and some Yeats poetry, I feel pretty confident I can now make it to mile 6, maybe even mile 7. I may not be cruising through the finish line like I did during college, but at least I’m back in the game with dear honest A.

I’m not saying I’m denouncing my all of my Dyonesian activities to become an ascetic, or that I’m ready to quit LA to get my PhD in Ancient Egyptian History and specialize in 21st Dynasty Coffins (Kara Cooney you are still my favorite professor!) But what I am trying to do is tip the scales back, find a little more balance, maybe even move in with A and just take the occasional weekend trips and summer getaways with D. Because as much fun as ritual madness can be, there’s a lot to be said for everyday saneness and being in shape. Mentally, physically, and philosophically speaking, of course.

*How cool is that?! I mean think about it, imagine people studying your concept…hmmm… Amy Mainian… nice ring to it, no?
** Socrates, for one, and definitely my 8th grade tea her Sister Constance Furseth, and Buddhist monks. Oh, and my Dad.