Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
This is only about relationships in the broadest way, but I wanted to write to you anyway. I’m 25, a woman, and a couple years out of college in Minneapolis. I have a fairly good job. I live with a roommate and I have a boyfriend I’ve been dating since college. It’s just that I’m bored. I went to college, I got a job, I pay my taxes, I have a boyfriend and we’ll probably get married, but I’m experiencing, I don’t know, some sort of low key dread all of the time. Like, is this life? Is adulthood supposed to be going to work, coming home, making dinner, washing the dishes, watching Netflix, and doing it all over again the next day? I feel like I should be having amazing times because I’m still young. I feel like I’m wasting time. Am I just whiny? Or is something wrong? How can I tell? And, how do I fix it?
A Vague Sense Of Dread
First of all, know in your bones that you are not alone. Constant low key dread is an affliction of modern life. There’s a psychological theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that states that humans attend to their needs in certain order, with the basics for physical functioning coming first, then the need for safety, then the need for belonging within a community, then the need for respect within that community, and finally the need for self-actualization. Now, Maslow himself wasn’t really clear on what comprises self-actualization, so don’t worry that you also aren’t sure. But you do know that something is missing, and its lack is buzzing at the edges of your life, causing you to wonder, and worry, and itch.
I’ve had low key dread most of my life. I’ve done different things to manage this feeling of creeping despair – as a child, I refused to go to sleep at night because that’s when my anxiety was the most profound and I thought that staying awake would help me to feel safe. In school, I did everything asked of me, and I tried to be perfect. In college, I partied and drank too much and smoked cigarettes and avoided close romantic relationships. Today, I’ve acknowledged that my dread is never going to go away, not fully. All of my previous efforts to banish it just caused it to change form – worry about being kidnapped as a child turns into worry about getting into a car crash as a teenager turns into worry about being burglarized as a young adult turns into worry about my child getting sick as a mother. Currently, I spend most of my time worrying whether I’m going to be able to have another child or not. But even when that question is resolved, I know that another worry will swoop in to replace it. The reasons change, but the dread remains.
For you, life up to this point has been a check list – go to elementary school, middle school, high school, get into college, go to college, graduate from college, find a partner, find an apartment, find a job. But now you’re 25 and you’ve run out of list. There are a few things you can add to your list if you’re interested – marriage and kids are two big ones often hawked by society. But, I have to tell you, checking those two off is just delaying the inevitable. Eventually, all society-mandated objectives will be met and you’ll be back where you are now, on your couch, trying not to think about the squiggly outline of creeping fear that sits in your peripheral vision.
There are lots of tools we can use to ignore our dread: drugs, alcohol, food, cigarettes, consumption, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, sex, anger, bitterness, going to Target, ordering Chinese takeout, getting an iPhone upgrade, buying a new outfit, pressing “watch next,” another pleasure, another pleasure, another pleasure. But here’s the thing about dread: Ignoring it doesn’t help. There’s a certain point where you just have to admit that being human is hard. Even though right now, in this time and place, is as good as humans have pretty much ever had it. But it’s still hard. We’re built to strive, to work, to want more. When we have food and shelter and love we appreciate them, but only superficially. Down in our core there’s that voice telling us that this can’t be it, this can’t be all there is. More is required. There must be more.
So we try to acquire more, have more, show others that we are more. We try to find happiness and then fix ourselves to it, tightly, so it can’t move. But happiness is random and fast and it always recedes, like the tide. So instead we pretend to be happy. We pretend because we think it’s the only acceptable option. But the opposite of dread isn’t happiness – it’s peace.
I’m 38 years old and I gotta say that my 30s have been a lot more fulfilling than my 20s were. I started both decades the same – alone, in Chicago, scared out of my mind. In my 20s I had just started graduate school and moved to Chicago and had only a single friend within the city. In my 30s I had just gone through a rough break up and moved out on my own for the first time in my life. But what I did with that fear at the start of the two decades was different.
In my 20s I did my best to ignore it. I ate poorly, I drank too much, I parked my car where ever I felt like it, I smoked, and I found people to cling to, people who seemed like they were so much stronger than me. I relied on these people to show me the best way to live my life and resented them when my following their plans didn’t lead me to happiness. At the beginning of my 30s I was a wreck, alone, trying to knit my life back together, but I finally had a strong enough sense of myself that I was able to find stillness in my discomfort. I was miserable, but I didn’t spend my evenings numbing the misery. Instead, I spent them working. I started eating better, I went to the gym, I took improv classes, I took writing classes, I went to therapy, I went to open mics, I started an open mic, and, by pushing myself, I discovered what combination of efforts worked for me. I discovered a way to make peace with the dread, even if temporarily.
Constant dread is so pervasive because it speaks to a truth we all know: There isn’t more. This life, the one you’re living, is the only experience you can have. And in this life, probably nothing truly amazing is going to happen to you. You aren’t going to become famous, or win the lottery, or do that thing that will catapult you out of your current, boring, existence into a new, exciting existence. But what you can do, and what you should do, is find a way to be OK with your life as you live it. Find a way to peace.
Your recipe will be unique to you, but for me it’s a combination of frequent exercise, therapy, anti-depressants, doing side-hustle work that I love even though it doesn’t make me any money, and working every day to actively notice all that goes well in my life. My brain is hard-wired to find the fault, discount my achievements, and whisper to me the lie that my life will be better if I just do one more thing.
Every night I talk with my son about what our favorite part of the day was. It seems like a silly exercise, but there are so many days when I realize that I had only thought of the negatives of each day, the problems to be overcome, until that moment. The truth is, peace takes work. I do my daily work, I take my pill, I go to the gym, I write, I try to savor the good as it occurs. I do my work to see the dread, to acknowledge it, to not numb myself to avoid it, but also to not believe it. Ultimately, my peace comes from getting my brain to STFU for a second and acknowledge that this is it – this moment, right now, breathing and thinking and typing and answering your question. It’s more than most people get, and it’s less than other people get, but it’s also all I get.
So, start trying things. A new exercise, a new group. Walk in nature. Spend time without screens or other people. Take your burden right now, a mess of free time, and turn it into a strength. Promise yourself to leave your apartment and try something new at least twice a week. Sign up for a class that scares you. Go to that one church you pass by all the time that looks interesting. Volunteer for a local organization that does work that you really, deeply care about. Stop expecting fulfillment to come from your boyfriend, or your roommate, or your job, or by achieving some arbitrary goal that makes you look good on paper. Do the things that make you tingle with nervous excitement. Realize that getting rid of this dread will take some work. Now, do the work.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.