My 50’s (or How I Finally Learned to Stop Giving a Shit What People Think)
There are basically only two cardinal rules to Hollywood. Don’t reveal your real age. And don’t sob in front of a studio head.
Since I have surely done the latter, I am turning 53 later this month. There, I said it.
One of the hardest things about reaching this age, besides attempting not to get up and pee thirty times per sleep cycle, is to try and summarize my life experience. But I am going to try. And I will even break it into two distinct time periods.
I would say that the first 50 years of my life, certainly my adult life, were dedicated to shielding myself from criticism. To limiting my exposure to being seen or heard for fear that someone, somewhere may not like one thing that I did or said. And my limited reservoir of self-esteem would crumble as a result.
And I would say, the last 3 years of my life have been dedicated to doing whatever the opposite of the last paragraph is.
That means finding my own voice and shouting it from the social media rooftops.
That means sharing my life story, even the most emotionally painful aspects one can imagine.
That means taking firm political stances, even if it means getting shit on more than a German porno video.
And it means taking jobs with so much responsibility that the mere thought of it used to send me into such crippling panic attacks that even Lexapro and Xanax were overheard to say, “there’s really nothing we can do here.”
While lots of factors have got me to this psychic point in my life, they all bsacially boil down to one thing: No longer giving a hoot what people think about you, what they may say about you behind your back or in your comments section. Attaining this sort of emotional freedom, which runs counter to everything I’ve ever done or felt, is the most amazing form of catharsis. And that includes vowing never to watch “The Romanoffs.”
If I were a Marvel superhero, my savant skill would be feeling immense amounts of anticipatory anxiety and giving into my fears, to not try anything new.
Three years ago, I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post about turning 50, that was read by tens of people. I don’t remember the specifics and I’m too lazy to read it again. But I vaguely remember rueing the passage of time and being afraid of lots of things to come. At the very least, that sounds like something I’d have written.
But what I have found in my moments of post 50 clarity is that the anticipation of what’s coming is always exponentially worse than the actual events.
I famously have dreaded my daughter leaving for college since before my wife’s water broke. And there is no question that her leaving was immensely painful, for a little while. But that pain in no way compared to the pain I had anticipated. Or the pain that I engendered through myriad, masochistic viewings of Toy Story 3.
Similarly, I dreaded ever writing anything in my own voice. One of the many perks of having a writing partner and being on sitcom staffs is that you can go decades creating the illusion that you are telling your own story without ever having to come out from behind the shields of partnerships and staffs.
About three years, I finally wrote a completely honest piece about my father taking his own life. Many of my friends never even knew his cause of death until this piece came out. There is no question that forcing myself to re-access those feelings was incredibly painful. There is also no question that getting attacked by some people for sharing my intimate story was equally painful.
But neither sources of discomfort outweighed the massive relief that I felt. Up until that moment, I’d always intuitively felt that I had been keeping a secret, shielding the world from an enormous piece of who I am. This piece begat many more pieces on suicide loss survival and suicide prevention. And the joy that I experienced discovering my own voice has led to over 50 other pieces ranging from mental health, the state of our democracy, aging, over-eating and where to find the best hot dogs in the San Fernando Valley.
The truth is, once you’ve lived through suicide, the disruption to a family caused by suicide and the backlash to speaking out loud about suicide, everything else in your life suddenly seems a little easier. I’m sure this will constitute a different piece or at least a poorly-attended TED Talk, but my therapist and I both agree that in many ways, it took my father taking his own life for me to start living.
Before then, and this dates back to my early childhood, I was terrified of criticism, of being a disappointment. I’ve already said my words in this paragraph than I did in all of eighth grade. And this intense fear carried all the way up the border of my fifties.
I was the last person I know to join Facebook. I was the last person I know to join Twitter. In both cases, if you put a gun to my head or simply asked politely, I’d tell you that I physically couldn’t join because the terror of being made fun of by someone I went to high school was too great. Like seriously.
But then in both cases, I finally jumped in. And like everything else, the anticipation was so much greater than the actual pain. Once I started posting, I haven’t shut up. People from my high school have made fun of me and I didn’t die on the spot. In fact, I’ve starting going to reunions and even enjoying them.
But even after two full years on Twitter, I never actually espoused an opinion of my own. I did a lot of movie puns and banal observations about the U.S. Men’s Soccer program. And then, it became evident that our democracy was in grave peril. The thought of not speaking up and speaking out about the threats to our nation outweighed any internal fears. Besides, that’s what binge-eating macaroni salad is meant to assuage.
As a result, I yesterday passed over 100k followers on Twitter. And this astonishingly includes many of my heroes of the Resistance. For someone who entered his fifties terrified of his own voice, this is a bewildering turn of events. And I’m still waiting for someone to virtually pour Carrie-style pig’s blood on my virtual head.
The final place where not giving a crap has paid unlimited dividends is in the workplace. Even as someone who had written on 22 sitcoms over 23 seasons, I had never run a show. In fact, if I’m being honest and why not, I thought that ship had sailed in my career long ago. If I were too get my first opportunity, it might have happened at 32. But certainly not at 52.
And then it did.
It wasn’t a job that we sought. We never asked for it or campaigned for it. And when I first heard our names mentioned, I was so overcome by age-old terror, that I assumed I would have to turn it down just so I wouldn’t experience a year-long panic attack in the middle of the writers’ room. The truth is, I secretly never even wanted to be considered for a showrunning job because my fear of doing it was so pronounced.
Then something amazing happened. The job was offerred to us. We didn’t have time to perseverate over it. We took the job. We did the job. And guess what, we loved doing the job. It was truly the most gratifying experience of my adult life. I, who assiduously avoided exposure. I, who went my whole life seeking the comforts of not being seen or heard. Yes, that I. I (along with my writing partner)not only ran the writers’ room, but the entire operation. We had over two hundred people answering to us. And I loved it. Not just that, I believe that we empirically did a good job.
And yet, for so long, my inner fears kept me from wanting that kind of job. But from 50 to 52, I had found my voice. I had articulated my innermost fears. I had drawn boundaries in my family of origin. I had stopped anticipating anxiety. And most importantly, I stopped giving a shit what anyone might or might say about me.
And I have to tell you, it feels great.