Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Big Night Out

Two related things happened recently. I turned 30, and I went out at night for the first time in two years. It's taken me a while to write about it, because it's taking me a while to recover. I've been taking the time in bed, as usual, to have thoughts about it.

I should say first that yes, it is objectively wonderful that I could leave my house, sit upright in a chair, and hang out in public for over two hours. Back when I was only half-sick, I used to read blogs where people wrote rapturously about their once-yearly nights out, and I couldn't imagine a life like that. I thought if I ever got that bad, I'd want to die. Now that I've crossed that divide, and I know that life with this kind of illness is indeed possible, I am genuinely grateful that I was able to go out on my 30th birthday. I'm 30 years old, and I definitely don't want to die.

I am increasingly able to will myself into a few hours of health, and I choose these hours carefully. Spending my 30th birthday alone and in bed was too disheartening to be an option. My family wanted to take me out somewhere, and I was determined to let them.  I did nothing for days, in preparation. We went to Teller’s, a restaurant I chose because of architecture. It's in a building downtown that used to be an Art Deco bank, the kind of place I could imagine classy gangsters robbing. It has impressive pillars and a three-story ceiling. In a life as claustrophobic as mine, high ceilings mean a lot. I spent much of the night craning my neck up to stare at the great expanse of air and space above me, like a rube encountering a skyscraper. The light was pink and dim, making the artsy waitstaff look even more attractive than usual.

The isolation of illness makes doing normal things, like eating a meal in a restaurant, seem bizarre and surreal. Look at all these people! Strangers! More people than I've seen together in a long time! Many more people fit in a restaurant than in a doctor's waiting room, or my mom' s house. They all look so well-groomed and upwardly mobile. They all seem so natural, eating and talking, like they do it every day. Walking like it's no big deal. They probably have "jobs" and stuff. Some of them are on "dates." It's like looking through the glass at an aquarium.

Except it's not. Sitting in the restaurant also felt perfectly normal, and the normalcy itself added to the weirdness. Two years isn't really that long, and in my mind, I've never really left the world of the healthy. I felt like I was doing an excellent impersonation of a normal human being. I ordered scallops and risotto like a pro, and made small talk like a returning champion. I ate a piece of chocolate cake and got an Oscar and standing ovation.

Relatively late in life, I've discovered a love of occasional light drinking. Everyone around me is very encouraging of this. What I especially love about it is that after half a glass, I feel my body, but I can ignore it. The "occasional" is key. Here I am on my big night out, next to my friend Jonathan, having ordered in my inexperience a sweet, girly cocktail that I had to convince my brother to drink for me. After that, I had a whole glass of white wine, by myself. I stopped drinking at 19, and in my 20s I was either too Buddhist or too afraid of illness to drink alcohol. So hanging out in bars is still novel and exciting. I failed at my first cocktail, but I will persevere. Jonathan offered to show me the bars in Lawrence that the college students don't know about. I was happy to be invited.

Jonathan is one of my few friends in town, and though we don't see each other often, he's been the only guest at several of my birthday parties. I think the awkwardness and the tradition appeal to both of us. He's been a father for most of his 20s, and we have a lot of conversations about how relative age is, and how our lives are constrained in ways that most of our peers’ lives aren't. Our 20s weren't what we expected them to be. I don't know what my expectations were exactly, but I know that this decade has defied them. Sometimes I think I tried to stay a teenager until I abruptly turned 90 years old at the age of 27.

I can be pretty ashamed of my Peter Pan syndrome, but it's also hard to pick a career and “go forward”or whatever it is you're supposed to be doing with your 20s when you're sick all the time. I kept thinking that in a few months I would get better, and be able to commit to something. I thought that for years. I fueled my personal economy on low-hour teaching jobs and grandparents dying. I moved to a lot of different cities, and spent what energy I had on friends and fun, which I considered desperate necessities. I guess I achieved what I set out to achieve; I made really good friends, and we had a lot of fun. Many of the friends are still around. It's easy to look back with regrets, and it's also easy to look back and see every decision you made as absolutely inevitable. I won't say my youth was entirely misspent.

I am much older and wiser now than I was two weeks ago, when I turned 30. Despite being generally glad to be rid of my 20s, many days of crying buffered each side of my birthday. A typical case of 2.5–wave feminism grappling with and losing to three decades of media conditioning. A tally of my material achievements over the last 30 years, coming up short. Unfavorable comparisons. Gravity. Loneliness. Etc.

But I don't feel bad about it anymore. Feeling feelings when you turn 30 is an inevitable stage one has to go through, if everyone older than me is to be believed. It's a chance to look back over my life and let go of everything that doesn't apply to me anymore, which is almost everything. I think about how I haven't done what I wanted to do yet, but I still have as much time as I can remember, and more. There are achievements I can tally if I must; they are mostly invisible, but they are real. I'm always dismissing the invisible, although it encompasses almost everything of value.

Also, unlike most people whose bodies decline as they age, mine is getting stronger. Like that guy, from the movie, based on the short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald apologized for writing: I'm aging backwards. I could go out to dinner a few weeks ago! If current trends continue, who knows what I will be capable of a year from now? Wondrous things, no doubt. There are also wondrous things that I can do now. 30 years old: Totally glad I'm not dead.


  1. Lee,
    I'm totally glad you're alive. I'm glad we're friends. I'm glad you blog. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing where you're at ten years from now, and all the time from now until then.
    all the love,

  2. Love this, Lee, and happy birthday! I haven't been able to go out for 5+ years, but I remember well that surreal feeling when I could...wondering at the fact that these people just go out, and don't have to worry about how long they've been sitting up, or how far it is to the car, or a million other accommodations I forget about because they're par for the course at home. -Jocelyn

    1. Thanks, Jocelyn! It's Nice to hear from you. Isn't it weird when the weird becomes normal, and the normal becomes weird? It's sort of jarring to face the world again, after having acclimatized to illness. I enjoyed it, but it was a lot like going to the zoo. I don't know, sometimes I read about crazy school shootings and vapid pop culture problems and I wonder if I'm really worse off "in here" than "out there." I guess I'm somewhat institutionalized at this point, but from what I understand, human nature readjusts to its set point of happiness after a loss is accepted. I think that at this point, I think I'm about as happy or unhappy as I used to be. Happier, arguably, although I also think it's human nature to be stupidly optimistic.

  3. "It's like looking through the glass at an aquarium" - I've conceptualized the cut-off feeling and strangeness of normal behavior as looking in a fishbowl. I like your metaphor better. After all, they're freely moving around. I hope some day you will feel yourself a part of that aquarium. Nice blog. Happy Birthday.

    1. Hello, thank you! I too hope to someday be swimming with the stingrays and dolphins, though it will probably be a while yet. Thanks for reading.

  4. Hey Lee! I signed up for google+, and then they lead me back to your blog. A pleasure to read this entry, for sure. P.S. I hope you've gotten over this "being 30" conundrum, because IT'S NOT OLD. Like, at all.

    Anyway, I love reading your overly-analytical thoughts, and this entry reminded me again of my visit in February and our lovely photo shoot. It was so great to see you!!! I wish I had another sister to get married so I could visit you randomly again.

    You are wildly creative and I have no doubt that you will / have successfully found your way right in the midst of chronic fatigue.

    Lots of love!
    (p.s. this is Laura, it's not letting me sign in for some strange reason)