How to make friends and believe in yourself without wearing pants.
It was right about when my knees were curled up around my ears that I realized I needed to re-evaluate my priorities. Teri, a complete stranger who I’d met five minutes before, was using hot wax to get intimately familiar with me in a way that is normally reserved for the fifth date. New to this whole method of grooming, I was impressed with her ability to keep me chatty and distracted from the task at hand. So far, we had covered the basics. Did you grow up here? Yeah. What are you doing home? Family things. Seems like a snowstorm is coming through, eh? Please tell me we didn’t go to high school together.
“So what do you do?” Teri asked, slathering the purple goo with the precision of Michelangelo.
This was not an unexpected question, of course. But over the past year and a half, my answer had morphed from professional chef to international vagrant to “categorically homeless and unemployed but I’m writing a book so it looks like I have my shit together.” I freelanced here and there, but mostly I lived off the meager sale of my business while I wandered around the world, burying my competing feelings of shame and narcissism in tacos and coconuts.
I stopped there and did not elaborate, breaking the rule I put in place after signing a book deal with a small, unknown publisher with few credentials. In an effort to become less self conscious about the fact that I did not get an advance and that the deal was unprofessional at best and a scam at worst, I forced myself to talk about my memoir when people asked what I did for a living. I was writing about a sensitive but massively important topic, and the coos of support convinced me that my book needed to be out in the world, even if the situation around its birth was the publishing equivalent of Herbalife peddlers who deem themselves “entrepreneurs.”
Besides, I was the envy of every writer! I had representation! And a publisher! And I was writing my second book! Never mind that my agent didn’t pick up the phone for months because she was living in a Winnebago with two geriatric dogs and that my publisher sent a technology book to print with Steve Job’s name misspelled. But it’s good to know that Stave is the true genius behind the iPod shuffle.
And yes, I was writing my second book, but my first book was a cookbook about boozy cupcakes. It’s visually stunning and you should definitely buy a copy for you and all of your basic brunch friends, but ultimately it’s a cookbook about vodka and cake so it’s no literary masterpiece. I’m proud of it in the way a childless dog-mom beams at her scrappy rescue mutt when it doesn’t try to bite the mailman, but writing Prohibition Bakery did little to prepare me for the reality of working on a book where I couldn’t just copy/paste the words “sugar” and “booze” and “alcoholism” over and over again.
“So what do you write?” Teri asked, her perky jumps from topic to topic quietly honing in on the last thing I wanted to talk about when I wasn’t wearing pants. I considered dipping myself in the sticky pot in order to move the conversation towards a full body chemical burn, which had to be more pleasant than the current state of my work.
After hiring my own editor, I pumped out a full manuscript just in time for my New Year’s deadline. But just before I was supposed to send it in, I learned that my publisher failed to stock their books both in stores and on Amazon before the holidays, because apparently they don’t like money. When I asked my agent to pull the deal and try to place the book elsewhere, she told me she would only shop the book around if I paid her $5000 in addition to her commission, which is not how agents work. Reputable agents take a cut of the royalties and advance, usually 10–15%. Money upfront, even when disguised as a “retainer,” is a big ‘ol sign to run far, far away.
Though I wanted to raise my fist in the air and shout “You’re fired!” at everyone involved, this instinct left me feeling uncomfortably akin to our fermented soy meatball of a President. So I lawyered up and instead sent manicured emails that politely asked everyone to give me back my rights and piss off, which felt like a super adult thing to do given that my mom gets my mail.
Eight weeks later, spread eagle on a table with scorching nethers, I wondered if now was really the best time to go into details. When the book deal fell away, my validation went with it. I found myself plagued with a monster case of impostor syndrome as I slogged through the confidence crushing process of querying new agents with a “parade-drenchingly small” chance of getting signed, as one agency so eloquently put it.
“Breathe in…” Teri tugged, filling the room with the sound of human velcro.
What was the point in talking about my work when the damn thing might never exist?
“…just a little more…”
How many rejections does it take before admitting that your work is terrible?
“…and now the bunny tail!”
What if none of this matters at all?
“I write about antidepressants!” I blurted out suddenly, surprised at my own admission. “Specifically, I write about getting off antidepressants and staying off them.”
I dropped my head to the table and as the fiery breeze dissipated to a tingly warm goodness, I thought about all the reasons why my book might never sell. I am not a doctor, a scientist, a researcher, or a pharmacologist. I don’t have a string of letters after my name, and my brain is not worth upwards of a million dollars in university degrees. I didn’t get into the blogging world during its Gold Rush in the 2000s and become ketogenic bros with Tim Ferriss. I do not have a league of minions on Instagram, nor do I have the boobs for selfies that could garner me a few thousand follows overnight. I am just a mediocre chef without a home address who, like so many others, spent years on antidepressants that were never properly regulated by doctors. Unlike so many others, I bucked the system and figured out how to not only get off the medications, but stay off them and cure what was once believed to be chronic and “genetically predisposed” depression. But with a sample size of one, what gave me the authority to speak on the topic? What did I even need to be the authority? A degree? A certificate? One hundred thousand email subscribers? Without any of these things, who would even care to listen?
Teri slowly put away her tools, and the timbre of her voice changed. “I want to read what you write,” she said, “This is too important.”
She covered me up with a soft white towel, dropped her eyes, and shook her head. “I was just having this conversation with my mom, like recently. I didn’t know she had spent 25 years on antidepressants. She just got off of them and now…she’s a different person. She’s a better person, but she was on them the whole time she was raising me. I had no idea. But getting off them…nobody talks about it.”
The practical intimacy between us melted away into a moment of true connection. Naked from the waist down with a stranger who was about to take my money, I realized two things:
First, Teri didn’t know my background. Since opening up through social media and speaking, people have reached out to me but only after they heard my story. A 19 year college student told me she was put on antidepressants when she was 9 and didn’t like how she felt but didn’t know anything else. A 25 year old man struggling with his sexuality told me he was prescribed Klonopin after his first and only appointment with a psychiatrist. Another woman told me she has been taking antidepressants for 10 years and that not a day goes by where she doesn’t wonder how to get off them.
But Teri didn’t know my story. She didn’t know that my father died when I was fifteen and that I was medicated in order to “manage my grief.” She didn’t know that I suffered memory loss at the hands of the 30,000+ pills I took over a decade and a half. She didn’t know whether my writing was even any good. All she knew was that the topic was relevant to her life and that no one was talking about it.
Second, after losing my book deal and facing the world of queries and rejections, I realized that I was more self conscious about my work getting dismissed because I wasn’t a neuroscientist than I was about the world knowing about my personal waxing habits. Which makes no sense, obviously, given that I will never be a neuroscientist and that grooming has nothing to do with my ability to string meaningful words together. Much like the situation down below, my insecurities had to go.
Because, as Teri said, this is too important.
There are millions of people wandering around the world in a medicated daze, operating under the assumption that their emotions are a permanent liability. I understand it, but I no longer buy it. I spent a decade and a half believing that I was “just wired differently,” forever bound to little orange bottles that defined my ability to cope. I traded the pain of deep work for the mindlessness of prescriptions until an opportunity presented itself that forced me to make a different choice. After one year, 17 countries, and hundreds of hours of compassion therapy, I got off all the meds and re-wired myself like a refurbished Victorian home with Siri controlled light switches.
And then I wrote a book about it and watched it fall apart, just as quickly as it came together.
But I now know, somewhere deep down, that my book will one day be bound and available for purchase. I don’t know how or when or what that day looks like, though I’m sure it will have a glowing review from Oprah. Or at least from someone who watched Oprah. In the meantime, I inch into a world that is not defined by my ability to mix together butter and sugar, but by my ability to believe in the power of words and practice radical trust in the universe, all while remaining curiously delighted by a skirt and a cool breeze.