On Sunday, my mom gently reminded me that my blogging so far seems to be about problems I’ve solved – things that used to be painful, and aren't anymore. She “wondered” (in a way that was more than a wonder) whether I’d ever be willing to write about the things I’m struggling with now. That would seem to require more vulnerability, she mused. I had a couple of reactions, all of which could reasonably qualify as “defensive.” My first: This is already vulnerable. Many of these problems are in the past, but it’s not a so distant past. Second: these aren’t “solved” problems. I’m still mulling over what it means to date sober, befriend sober, and respond to the pull of an eating disorder. And last but not least: sure, you say people can relate more to vulnerability, but they have to know you first. A stranger who leads with vulnerability makes people uncomfortable, right? And I’m still kind of a stranger to these people.
Usually, when I have to give three reasons, I’m wrong.
It got me thinking: what's bothering me now? The same thought came up at a recovery meeting on Saturday, when the question was asked, “What are you struggling to accept?” I ran down the list: Job? Fine. Friendships? Good. Relationship? Great. Blog? Gettin’ there. Body? Eh. Existential anxiety? Womp womp. Probably that. A friend recently sent me an article on burnout among millennials. If for no other reason, it was interesting to see the staggering word count achieved by other writers. Meanwhile, after about 500 words, I put myself to sleep. (Trigger warning: this post surpasses 800). The author explained that millennials are the “burnout generation,” feeling pressured to work round-the-clock. She said we struggle with the tasks of daily living – aka, “adulting” – because we are so preoccupied with optimizing, perfecting, and narrativizing our lives. Personally, I haven’t struggled with “adulting” since the advent of TurboTax. Well, no, there was a brief period this summer where I set out to discover what a 401k is, but I promptly gave up and deferred to the combined powers of my dad and my boyfriend. Problem solved. Sorry, feminism. Although I didn't relate directly to the article, it did cue me to think about a struggle that is very real for me. In my head, it’s called “existential floating.” I don’t think that’s what Viktor Frankl called it, but I also don’t know that he ever felt it. He was a little preoccupied, and a lot oppressed But, luckily for the non-oppressed, existential floating is a state of turmoil you can achieve when nothing is actually wrong. I arrive there nearly every day, and sometimes even multiple times per day, depending on the time of the month. (Really, feminism: I said I'm sorry.) Existential floating can be made with Irvin Yalom's four simple ingredients -- they might even be in your cupboard already! 1. Isolation: I’m surrounded by people, some of whom I love, and yet part of me always feels alone. Does anyone actually understand my experience? Does anyone care?
2. Death: I want to "live on" in people’s memories when I die. And yet, everyone wants that, right? I don’t have a reason to think I’ll “live on” at an above-average magnitude. Will I disappear like everyone else?
3. Freedom: I can choose to pursue a “purpose” or a “calling” – or not. What if I never find mine? Or what if – and this is infinitely worse – my own calling has already been revealed to me, and I’m just ignoring it out of laziness or fear?
4. Meaninglessness: This is what happens when I “zoom out.” When I shift my focus from myself as an individual to the untold masses. At that level, everyone looks the same: professional success is unremarkable, appearance is irrelevant, and everyone’s family, startup, and passion project look the same. (It’s thoughts like that which kill a blog, by the way.)
About two weeks ago, we discussed one explanation for the co-occurrence of disordered eating and alcoholism in the same person. Another is this: they are linked by the same underlying issue. Both alcoholism and eating disorders offer temporary solutions to what I've called existential floating.
Here are a few examples:
To counter my sense of isolation, alcohol offered an easy (and false) sense of connectedness to other people.
Disordered eating told me a beautiful body could safeguard me against being alone.
Alcohol addressed my fear of sameness; when I drank, I felt special.
Disordered eating promised that willpower, discipline, and the resultant “perfect body” would set me apart from others and put me a step ahead.
Disordered eating prevented me from zooming out. Neither MyFitnessPal nor the FitBit have a "gain perspective" function.
Both disordered eating and alcoholism hasten literal death, and offer a sort of temporary, metaphorical version, too. All we want is to feel nothing. To feel numb.
From this perspective, disordered eating and alcoholism are but symptoms of a deeper problem. The problem does not go away simply because the symptoms are removed.
So, that's what's been bothering me. Existential floating. What’s the solution? How do we counter it? Hey, back off: I don’t have a solution. I promised my mom I wouldn’t.