The Trouble with Year 2

Last week, I celebrated 640 days off alcohol. That’s 21 months, more than a year and half, and an accomplishment I can barely believe.

I wanted to post something back around the 500 day mark, a huge milestone, but I couldn’t. I was proud, and happy to report I’m rarely tempted at all to drink, but I didn’t feel as much like celebrating as I thought I would. The truth is, I’ve spent a lot of year two feeling kind of down in the dumps.

It took me forever to figure this out at all. Physically, I am continually feeling better. But emotionally it’s been really up and down. Mostly down. At this point, I think I am beginning to understand.

All through year one, I prioritized becoming a sober person. “Don’t drink” topped my to-do list everyday. Everyday I had the wonderful feeling of accomplishing my goals. Unconsciously, I battened down the hatches in every other area of my life.

I’m a freelance writer and author. Pitching articles and books to editors is a big part of what I do, and with it comes rejection. Constant rejection. Even in the best of situations, this feels terrible.

To help keep my income more predictable, I have always prized relationships with so-called “anchor clients,” the clients that pay you every month. Coming into 2017, year one alcohol-free, I had several wonderful anchor clients, enough that, well, I didn’t need to pitch at all if I didn’t want to. I think some sage inner part of me knew that protecting my newly sober self from rejection was a very smart idea, a way to shield myself from bad feelings at a time I needed all the good vibes. Only good vibes.

Having enough steady income to cover my cost of living is wonderful, but as writer, not getting bylines and publishing in new places isn’t so great. So I came into 2018 ready to step up to the plate and start swinging again.

I felt strong and ambitious … until I started striking out.

I wrote a book proposal that didn’t sell, which frustrated and devastated me. Earlier in my career, when I had so little experience and much less to offer readers, I was able to get a book deal. It felt unfair that now that I have more expertise and more to teach, I was found wanting as an author. Simultaneously, I pitched articles to many magazines, newspapers, and websites and my ideas went ignored, passed on, unloved, rejected.

In January 2018 I was full of optimism that this would be a huge breakthrough year for me. By the end of February, I had hit some roadblocks and the book wasn’t looking like a sure thing, so I turned my attention to stepping up my pitching efforts. To my frustration, I didn’t pick up a single new assignment through all of March.

As April began, I was totally despondent about work and, therefore, myself. I started thinking about applying for full time jobs. I picked up a couple of good projects mid-month, but I had trouble turning the way I was feeling around.

I thought it was just the rejection bothering me. Rejection bothers everyone, of course, and I had taken some time off from the rejection grind. It dawned on me that this was the first time in my career that I was weathering these rejections without the numbing agent of alcohol.

Night after night, I had to sit with the bad feelings. Watch TV with the bad feelings. Go to bed tossing and turning with the bad feelings. I couldn’t flick off light a light switch with an after-work glass of wine or three.  

At very specific moment, I recognized the bad feeling for what is was: Shame. The moment occurred as I was being considered for an exciting longer-term opportunity with a big-name publication. I had been invited to apply for this gig by an influential person I deeply respect who is famous in my field.

From the moment this process began, I felt more dread than excitement. I was terrified of the shame I would feel when I was passed over for another writer. I didn’t think I could survive another confidence-shredding rejection. My fear interfered with my ability to do the edit test. During this time, in my personal life, I flaked out on people who matter to me so I could sit at home, staring a blank word document and giving myself a stomach ache.

At some point I started telling myself it’s just a feeling. Don’t be afraid of a feeling. I said to myself, this feeling, the shame, is a thing you have been feeling for months now and look you are still here.

One word at a time, I wrote the edit test. I told myself no one was going to put my photo on the front page on this prestigious publication with the headline, Joy Manning, Loveable After All!, if I got the gig. If I didn’t get it, I would not have to wear a scarlet W for worthless. It was just a job.

None of this, no rejection, no byline, no book deal has anything to do with my worthiness as a human, my lovableness as a person, no matter how much it felt like it did. I have struggled all my life with feelings of being left out, picked last, unfriended, and not good enough. Getting so worked up about this one particular opportunity was so intense, my emotions around it so ridiculous, I could finally see it.

I had been drowning the shame and the fear of the shame with red wine and craft cocktails for all the years I’ve been writing professionally. I have had my byline in many fancy places; I’ve been on staff at national magazines; I’ve authored two books. If opportunities and publications could make me feel good enough, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore.

I was officially rejected for the big gig in late June.

I lived.

Though I didn’t get the big gig, my edit test led to other opportunities and now I actually feel good about the whole thing. It was a breakthrough in that I came to understand what I was doing to myself, putting my worthiness in the balance with every pitch I sent off into the ether.

It still stings every single time an idea of mine doesn’t land or is ignored. But I can call the feeling by its name and see that it’s what I’m making a rejection mean that is the problem.

One year ago I wouldn’t have said shame was a problem for me. I have read all of Brene Brown’s books on the topic and found them interesting--for other people. Alcohol is a great shame mute button and confronting shame at full volume was, for me, the biggest and sneakiest challenge of embracing an alcohol-free life so far.

A lot of the reasons we like alcohol relate to hiding from shame. When we say “social lubricant” we mean, “Alcohol makes me feel unashamed enough to speak easily, to share with I think without fear you’ll think I’m unworthy of your attention.” When we say “liquid courage” we mean the courage to offer ourselves to another, to be vulnerable to their rejection. The saying “write drunk, edit sober” refers to drugging the shame factory of the inner critic who negs every word and sentence you set down as you type.

I have only become aware of this relationship between alcohol, rejection, and shame in the past few months so forgive me if this has been obvious to you for a long time. But learning how to cope with shame has been a staple of year two for me. Not the most fun I’ve had since I quit drinking, but, clearly, a necessary part of the process.

joy manning