(Instead of the one I was afraid I would become) *
By my late twenties, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I love to read and write, I also loved the whole idea of being a writer. I imagined myself in the future, living a writer’s life – long days of creating fiction interspersed with occasional public readings from my newest book to audiences who hung on my every word.
I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but no matter how long it took, I was determined that I would get there. I would become that woman.
Ten years later, I’d published a novel, some short stories and some essays, even a radio drama. Reviewers for the most part seemed to like my work, and small groups of people came out to hear me read: sometimes they even seemed to hang on my every word. That part of my life was all I had imagined, and I loved it.
But writing is no way to make a living, so when I wasn’t writing, I was stressed. I was stressed about everything – my teenaged kids, my relationships, my work deadlines, my lack of money: you name it. And while I was stressing about everything, a few bad habits were turning into serious addictions. I was smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much… sometimes all at the same time. Which added to my stress: now I also worried that my addictions were going to kill me – later if not sooner. My doctors’ advice just reinforced my fears, and a brush with breast cancer didn’t help.
By now I had a totally different image of my future self than I’d had when I was younger. Now what I saw was an enormous grey-haired woman rolling home from the liquor store, several bottles of fortified something tucked between her immense hips and the seat of the motorized wheelchair she now needed because her arthritic knees could no longer support her weight. An oxygen tank was strapped to the back of her wheelchair; tubes snaked into her nostrils.
In short, my image of the future was now fashioned out of fear, rather than from hope.
Gotta quit. Gotta quit.
For the next ten years, I was always trying to quit smoking. I was always trying to quit drinking. I was always trying to lose weight. Every day I made a new resolution and every day I broke it. I am pretty sure that I tried every single smoking cessation, drinking cessation and eating cessation program known to humankind – and I failed with every one of them.
Somehow I also managed to write and publish a few more books, but not as many as I would have if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my lack of money and my bad habits. (And, to make things worse, the price of cigarettes and booze kept going up and up, and the publishing industry fell to pieces!)
Finally, I hit bottom. And finally – with the help of a therapist I had gone to in despair – I began to realize that I had been taking the wrong approach. I began to understand that I could never quit anything when I was focussed only on the quitting. What I had to do was stop thinking about what I was afraid of, and start remembering what I wanted to become.
What I Did Next
At age 50, I took that image of myself as a failure and I essentially shoved her off a cliff. When I saw her trying to claw her way back up toward me, I shook my head at her. That wasn’t me. No more. After a long time, she grew weaker and stopped trying to return. Now I almost never see her.
In the meantime, I took that other image, the one which had become lost in all the stresses of the years, dusted her off, and put her back in front of me where I wouldn’t lose sight of her again. I did some fine-tuning while I was at it: imagining every aspect of what I wanted to become. I was getting to the age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never get another chance.
The woman I wanted to become was strong and healthy. She was aging powerfully and well. She was a woman whose children and grandchildren would see her as a role model – and (this part hadn’t changed!) she was a writer whose books (and blog posts! And Tweets!) made people sit up and pay attention: hang off her every word.
First, I quit drinking… one day at a time. That turned out to be much harder and to take much longer than I thought it would, but it was nothing compared to quitting smoking. That I had to do one hour at a time. Both of those recoveries caused me to gain even more weight than I was already carrying around, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that. Finally I turned to the challenge of getting healthy, and a few years later, I was able to get serious about actually losing weight.
I didn’t do any of these things out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t do them, or because I wanted to fit into some outfit for a certain event. I didn’t do them because the doctors told me I had to, or because my loved ones said I should. I did these things for me – because I know who I am, and because the person that I am has goals. I did them because I want to live long enough to enjoy my life and the people I love for as long as I can – without sickness, without shame, and especially without fear.
I Am Getting There
I have not fulfilled my vision yet, but today I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I get out and exercise regularly, and I weigh 35 pounds less than I did four years ago (I still have 10 pounds to go).
And I write. My latest book – a novel called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin – is the story of a woman who, at 29, learns the lessons that it has taken me a lifetime to figure out.
Who knows? Maybe some day Rita (or one of my other books) will put me on that stage I’ve been imagining for so many years, in front of a room full of readers who are hanging off my every word. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Because what really matters is what happens offstage, where most of my life is lived. And there, at last, I am finally getting closer and closer to becoming the person I have always wanted to be.
* This article was written at the invitation of Jan Graham and originally published on her great blog site, Cranky Fitness. Check it out. Thanks, Jan!
What a wonderful, brave and inspiring article. I can’t even begin to think of you as a failure. I only think of you as that dynamic positive woman. Good luck and much success with the rest of your life. Marion Hoffmann
What a lovely comment, Marion. Thank you!
I can empathize so much with you on this issue, Mary. I developed an addiction to alcohol starting around age 20, when I was a first-year student at a major Texas university and trying to join a social fraternity. That turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of my entire life. It disrupted my education and made me start to hate both myself and other people. Alcohol got to be enough of a problem years later, when I would consume a great deal on a week night and then have to take off the next day from work. At one point, my supervisor pulled me aside and asked if I was okay. I didn’t realize that I’d missed so many days until that moment. I then began to get a grip on the problem. My youthful shyness and lack of self-esteem had carried over into my adulthood, which only confounded my innate desire to stay sober and healthy. I’ve always liked to jog and life weights. I also got into martial arts in the mid-1990s.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century (and most notably a particular incident at the bank where I worked at the time) that I truly realized not only that I had to take greater control of my life and my health, but that I could do it – without anyone else’s help or approval. The death of an aunt to cancer in 1989, followed by the death of a close friend to AIDS 4 years later, made me understand how fleeting life could be and that I had to do more than lift weights to stay healthy and sane.
The only one true element in my life that kept me from falling into the abyss of an early death was my writing. I’ve kept a regular personal journal every year since 1983. Whenever I get depressed or anxious, I turn to that journal and can literally feel the stress evaporating into the air. My various other creative writing projects help just as well. That’s when I feel the safest and most comfortable.
Congratulations on getting things together in your life, Mary! You’re important, too!
A very moving response, Alejandro. Thank you.
Great writing Mary and inspiriting story!
Well done, girl. ‘Taint easy to quit a habit, any habit, and even harder to stay quitted. Good luck from now on, and I hope you get the kind of moral support you’re providing for others.