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When the Mask Drops: Trying, Failing, and Re-Finding Myself
hello yes I am still alive
Hello, friends! It has been much, much too long. I’ve missed you. Please take this post as proof of life, and let me try to explain why I’ve been gone so long.
I started working full time again a couple months ago. But it’s not that I lack time to write—it’s that I lack headspace. So to make this newsletter more sustainable now that two-thirds of my waking hours and most of my braincells are spoken for, I’m going to be posting twice a month going forward.
That makes me feel like a failure, honestly. It’s an admission that I can’t keep up with what I originally set out to do. But a quality essay every other week is better than a crappy one every week, and it’s a heck of a lot better than not publishing at all because I feel too overwhelmed to start typing.
Cutting back also creates space for growth once I find balance…and I do think I’m on my way to finding it. More on that below.
Also: massive, massive thanks to the lovely(one of my long-time subscribers who has a very fun food newsletter you should check out), who just made a generous pledge in support of this publication. I literally burst into tears at the thought of someone paying for my writing. Rachel—you are amazing, and you have no idea how much I needed that today. Thank you!!
But what about you? How have you been? A handful of you are new here since I posted last—please introduce yourself in the comments. I’d love to get to know you!
Have a wonderful rest of your week,
Jet lag woke me well before sunrise last Monday morning. I was in a lonely hotel room in D.C.—that city of suits and analysts and shiny buildings, so different from Cairo, from where I’d arrived the day before. Out my window were the pitch-black streets of downtown, and beyond that, the office where I’d been summoned to report for my first week of in-person work in well over a year. In just a few hours, I’d have to stuff myself into business casual and put my game face on.
I was not happy to be there. I had started teleworking a couple months prior, an event directly correlated to a period of extended writer’s block, and this trip would leave me no time to even make an attempt at forming words. Returning to D.C., my professional home base and therefore the creative blockage’s physical origin, seemed like a betrayal of the artistic self I’d spent a year cultivating. I felt false and out of place.
An email from my internet friend, who is unfailingly thoughtful and kind, waited in my inbox. Trilety had noticed how long it had been since I’d written. She wanted to know I was ok. Her message said:
It’s funny that we don’t ‘know’ each other, but my brain recognizes your absence.
Hope you are busy and bright.
I was busy, but not bright. And no, everything was not good. I sat up in bed and told Trilety everything: that I had been silent because constant thoughts of my job were invading my mind and squelching my imagination. That I couldn’t seem to make words appear on the page and it terrified me. I told her I had disappeared because, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had nothing to say.
I don’t like talking about my job in this newsletter. It’s not a secret—a quick Google search would tell you what I do—but I try to keep “work Sam” and “artist Sam” separate for practical and ethical reasons. All you really need to know is that my career is in about as un-creative a field as you can imagine, and I have spent most of my working hours pretending to be someone I’m not.
That sounds very grim. Yet in many ways, I love what I do. It’s meaningful work. It feeds my intellectual curiosity, and it gives me an outlet for one of life’s purest joys: arguing with people and winning petty disputes.
Still, I have always felt the need to hide parts of myself to succeed. I stick out from the crowd in ways that do not naturally accord professional respect. I have the wrong background, the wrong personality, I’m the wrong age, the wrong gender. So I try to assimilate into the throng of serious, studious, calculating men 15-30 years my senior. I try to match the cold timbre of their speech; I take on their lexicon and their mannerisms.
The more I work, the more I wear the mask. The more I wear the mask, the more I lose myself and the less I write—because how can I write when I’m intentionally silencing my own voice? I’ve started to wonder why I put up with such diminishment.
“I spent my whole career chasing prestige. It was never even about money for me,” I told one of my closest friends, Ellie, over a creamy bowl of tan tan men noodles. We had met for dinner in Dupont Circle, the neighborhood I used to roam in college when the streets of Georgetown, so full of people I knew and loved and hated and drank with, began to feel stifling. It was the right sort of place to bare my soul. “It was always about winning. I toiled until I landed my dream job, and now that I’ve won the prize I don’t know why I did it. I was just doing what was expected of me. I never questioned whether that actually made me happy.”
I dumped on Ellie about how I felt I’d been labeled a “smart kid,” then railroaded onto a path with narrow options—ones that afforded status, but not necessarily fulfillment. I felt like a square peg in a round hole, I told her, and that it was leaving me unable to write, which is what truly feeds my soul.
Ellie—a corporate lawyer who I’d always understood to be a realist about work, seeking only to maximize her ability to do what she wants outside the office—surprised me by confiding she felt as lost as I did. “The only thing I like about my job is the paycheck,” she said as she picked at a cold plate of yakisoba. She fantasized about leaving, but for what, she didn’t know.
I asked Ellie if maybe I should just do something crazy, quit my job, and try writing full-time. But what would be my plan? Wouldn’t I be ashamed to tell people I was dropping everything to be a freelance “writer” with no real bylines to her name? And wouldn’t I miss the excitement, the validation, and the intellectual stimulation I got from work (not to mention the money)? Shouldn’t I buck up and write in my free time instead of taking a leap of faith? Should I just get on Prozac and call it a day?
“It’s a privilege problem,” Ellie pointed out. “We wouldn’t have the luxury of worrying about this if we were single moms trying to feed our kids.”
She was right. There are worse problems to have than constantly questioning how your life could be better when it’s already close to perfect. We were both gainfully employed, happily partnered, sipping on cocktails at a nice restaurant. Yet the thought that we could be worse off didn’t make us any happier.
When we finished our drinks, I hugged Ellie goodbye and stepped into the cold with no more answers than I’d had when I arrived. But I was comforted, at least, in knowing I wasn’t alone.
Later that night, Trilety responded to the self-pitying outburst I’d sent her.
Oh yea working a lot seems to desiccate our thinking. Or rather there’s only so much space in our heads and sometimes work takes over. […] You have a lot to say, even tho it doesn’t feel like it. I know that feeling as i have it every day and every time i start writing.
But also if you don’t write for a bit, it’s okay. You have mad skill and talent, and that doesn’t just dissolve with time. […] Every life has its path and every path has its pace, so if your path right now is work and your pace is slow, it’s okay.
I hadn’t even considered this—that not writing could be ok, and that I would be just as good at it and love it just as much if I were gentle with myself and didn’t do it for awhile.
Trilety suggested I scribble a few pages in my journal every morning, allowing thoughts to flow without pressure or goals or judgment. I took her advice, and little by little, my words started returning.
Before leaving D.C., I had a midyear check-in with my boss. I had spent the day prior staring at a blank page that I was meant to be filling with professional goals and accomplishments. “I probably haven’t been giving my career trajectory as much thought as I should,” I admitted to my boss, a preemptive excuse before she saw through the lame word salad I’d put on paper. “This has been the hardest year of my life and I’m just trying to get through the day.”
It was a half-truth. I hadn’t thought about my career trajectory because I was wondering if I should continue down this road at all. But her response was so grounding, it was as though she’d known exactly what I meant.
To paraphrase it: there will be times when work is our focus and times when other aspects of our lives need to take precedence. When it’s the latter, it’s okay to just meet expectations. We are not just employees, but whole people.
To me, this tiny offering was a revelation. It’s okay to be a whole person. I was struck by how closely her words resembled Trilety’s. Each was telling me that there are times to lean in and times to pull back, and that we can’t slice ourselves into parts to be used or cast off at will.
I took it as an invitation to let the mask drop, and to start being my whole self at work. I’ve stopped nodding sagely at things I don’t actually understand. When I’m on the phone with colleagues, I give them little details about my life in Cairo, like how the street dogs’ barking keeps me awake at night, or how the hibiscus tea is thick and sweet. I don’t agonize over email wording for 20 minutes. I am surer of myself, more at ease in my own skin, and I’m starting to enjoy my job again.
The more sincere I am at the office, the more I write—because writing is about honesty, and honesty is a whole lot easier when you aren’t hiding who you are. The racing, intruding thoughts of work have begun to subside, and once again, I’m finding room to make art.
It’s a rare moment where I can have my cake and eat it too.