Justin’s in the kitchen, sitting on the floor. Messing with our shoes. He looks like he’s organizing them on the rack next to the back door. He looks up at me. “Hi sweetie.”
“Hi,” I choke out, my greeting barely audible over the Electric Light Orchestra spilling out of the speaker. I dart back to the living room.
He’s cleaning. On a Saturday morning.
My breath catches in my throat. I’m fucked.
Most Full-Time Writers Are Broke For a Long Time and It’s Easy to Feel Guilty or Unworthy
I do most of the chores in my house as a way of assuaging my guilt from being a writer. Financially speaking, even relatively successful authors struggle for a very long while. Even strong book sales aren’t typically enough to live on, not until you’ve got a significant backlist. There’s a wide middle ground between the writer who self-publishes books that don’t sell any copies at all (except for perhaps a few to their friends) and mega rich bestselling authors with breakout titles and movie deals (e.g., J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc.).
An awful lot of full-time writers fall somewhere in the middle, where they work very hard and definitely sell books, but it’s a real grind, and they certainly aren’t rich off it. I’m one of them.
Like many others, I pick up miscellaneous writing jobs when I can, freelancing and ghostwriting, to fill in the gaps. I write a lot. And I still dramatically under-earn relative to my partner.
I know it’s not due to any personal defect: It’s the writing life. How it goes.
But since I have a true talent for feeling guilty, I’ve had to take on other responsibilities so that I don’t feel quite as bad about being a writer. Like less of a drain on the people in my life. This entails a lot of cleaning and errands and the vast majority of the cooking.
Doing this isn’t fun or anything, but taking the lead on all of these tasks has helped me to feel like I’m contributing enough. Like I’m not a burden. Maybe I’m not a boon. But I’m solidly within neutral, non-parasitic territory.
And as I see him organizing, I feel like I’ve dropped the ball because I missed some clutter. Shit.
Once You Start Feeling Guilty, It Tends to Spiral
I walk to the living room, frantically start to gather up the only other clutter I can find. Junk mail that’s been casually scattered on the couch. Envelopes tangled in a throw blanket.
“Are you in AAA?” I ask him, returning to the kitchen.
“Naw,” he replies. “They just send those letters that look like you already are in order to fool you.”
I nod. “That’s what I thought. Well, I know you have roadside assistance but thought it was through a different company.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Seth had AAA. But then I started to doubt myself and wonder if it were you. You know… I started worrying that I had gotten my wires crossed. Mixed that up.”
He nods. He’s wiping down the counter tops.
I laugh nervously before returning to the living room.
What the hell are you doing? I think. Why did you bring up your ex-husband? Like, who cares that your ex-husband had AAA? Why was that something you thought you should say just then?
Why do you think it’s a good thing to make your husband feel interchangeable? That you could easily mix him up with your ex?
I start to panic. I have to fix this somehow.
It’s Easy to Mix Up What’s Going On In Your Own Head With What the Other Person Is Actually Thinking
So I walk back into the kitchen. “Hey,” I say.
He looks up.
I don’t know what to say to him. I don’t know how I can tell him everything that’s just run through my head. How to apologize for everything that I’ve clearly done wrong. The ways I’ve failed him. The clutter I missed. The insensitive and unnecessary invocation of my ex-husband. I feel myself choking up, like I’m going to cry.
“I love you,” I say.
“Love you too,” he replies. And before I can say anything else, he adds, “Do you want to go to the zoo later?” He tells me it’s supposed to be cloudy. That people will think it’s gonna rain, but it won’t. He says it’s not the right kind of clouds, not the right conditions for rain. But there won’t be many people there.
It’s not at all what I expected him to say, so I’m too surprised to respond immediately.
“It’s okay if you don’t wanna,” he adds, misinterpreting my hesitation, giving me an out.
“No,” I say. “That’d be great.”
I realize in that moment that he’s made coffee for me. Again. I’m still not used to it, that he makes coffee for me, even though he doesn’t even drink coffee himself.
And as I stand there drinking the first few sips, it’s perfect.
It feels utterly surreal. I thought he was going to be irritated or angry with me… and instead he’s made me coffee and come up with fun plans for the day.
And in that moment I can’t help but be frustrated by how long it’s taking me to adjust to the present and reacting as though it’s the past when I knew people who would have handled things differently.
I’m Sorry, I Had You Mixed Up With Someone Else
I haven’t had the best track record when it comes to relationships. I’ve definitely dated my fair share of selfish partners. Landed in a couple of dangerous situations. Volatile, destructive dynamics.
But that’s all behind me.
These days I’m in healthy relationships. By and large, I know a ton of really excellent people, between my friends and love life.
But it’s still possible for me to freak out sometimes. To get into loops where I feel like I’ve made some kind of irreversible mistake and that I’m about to get raked over the coals. And that I deserve it.
It happens far less often than it used to. And these days, it only happens with people I’m really close to (compared to the distant past, when I’d agonize over something stupid I said to a stranger that they likely never even thought about again), that panic loop. I’ve made a lot of progress in building self-compassion.
Ninety-five percent of me, ninety-five percent of the time knows that the past is the past and that I’m in a better place now. I’m not going to get yelled at for nothing — and especially not before they’ve talked to me about a problem in a nice way first.
But sometimes the abused inner child comes out and starts driving my emotions, even though no one said it’s okay and she’s too young to have a license. And she drives the car right into the wall.
And all I can do at those moments is stop and shake my head. Throw my hands up in the air and say, “I’m sorry. I had you mixed up with someone else.”
And most of the time, I’m not mixing you up with an ex, but with me and my own negative self-talk.
We go to the zoo. It’s fairly empty, which makes it feel almost like we have the place to ourselves. It doesn’t rain.
I watch him as he watches the animals. I’m trying to be subtle about it so that he doesn’t catch me looking at him. But he does.
I’m embarrassed. I’m sure he thinks I’m being creepy, but he smiles instead. And takes my hand.