This is not a story about a specific magazine, or even a magazine at all. Magazines have staffs, staffs that come and go. Each person has his or her own experience. This is a story about the girl in that photo, caught during a moment on assignment while working as a magazine editor. And that girl is me.
Last week this showed up in my Facebook feed; taken and posted by my talented former colleague Art Meripol. I commented, "I almost don't recognize that girl." It was true. Aside from the reporter's notebook, coffee, and gold shoes, I'm not the same. And that's a good thing.
What was I thinking that day? If Art showed me the photo that day (which he probably did). I would have thought that it was an accurate reflection of my life. I might have been self-congratulatory that I was living my dream -- writing and editing for a large magazine, traveling and getting a chance to shape the future of a publication. All of these things were true. I was good at that job, and I did it for seven years.
In the years since this photo was taken around 2010, the photos of me told a similar story. "Here's Erin holding a Hogfish in The Florida Keys! Here she is in a field with a famous artist! Here she is with her pink laptop case and Sky Miles, doing what she always wanted to do."
At my 20th high school reunion, someone said that. "You actually ended up living your dream.” It was true.
But back to the girl in this photo. She was doing what she had always wanted to do. She was filled with ideas, creative energy, and unstoppable determination. She was also exhausted, struggling with anxiety and searing pain in her back and neck. She was spending time with her husband and young son less and less.
When she was home she was often preoccupied. She drank wine too much to squelch the stress, which worked for a time, and then didn’t. She read less and wrote less and slept more. She could be a jerk. She tried.
She was also in her mid-thirties, a notoriously stressful time for women, navigating changes in her role as a mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend.
But at work, she did a good job, a very good job. She got promotions, awards, and gold stars. She also got more therapy appointments and stress-related illnesses and chiropractic appointments for the migraines, the unrelenting pain in her shoulders, her jaw.
The first time she had shingles she had to take two weeks off for the welts to subside, and get acupuncture, and promise everyone she loved she would slow down with the work. She did not.
The second time she got shingles, she was a talking head on six videos in the morning, and by afternoon, back at the doctor getting put on antivirals, after she had gone to meet-the-teacher day in the middle.
“It’s uncommon for someone to get shingles twice, Erin. And in your 30s?” The doctor said, “Slow down.”
Or from others, "You have to find ways to deal with your stress."
She did not slow down or find ways to deal with her stress. It was just part of life, right?
The little girl who was praised and validated for her achievements became the professional who still sought validation from more wins, more successes. More, more, more. Wasn't that the dream? Then why was she so unhappy?
This could have happened while I was in any job, anywhere. It is not as much about the place and the circumstances as how one reacts to them -- this is one line of thinking I've heard. And as a hard-driven, ambitious creative, I’ve always been drawn to environments that are challenging. So once again, this is not about a specific publication. My personal story could have happened at any publication post-recession, post-digital disruption, post-2008 (or earlier.)
But: those years broke a lot of people in our industry. Budget cuts and layoffs, re-orgs and corporate shuffling. It seemed no one was immune. Many have written about what that’s like, and the toll that it took individually and industry and wide. That is not my story, but worth mentioning when I deconstruct that photo of that girl, because these were real factors that loomed in the not-so-distance.
I lost myself there for a few years. With every Facebook post of me in some cool location, with every story about a tasting at a new restaurant (and believe me, this was fun) I was trying to believe my own illusion. That “more” experiences, “more” success, “more” stories – wacky, moving, true – would fill some kind of hole in me. As the years went on, I wrote less personally, spent less time with the ones I love, and lost perspective.
I was prescribed more anti-depressants, and more anti-anxiety medications. I hid a medical condition that made me woozy and lightheaded until I couldn’t hide it anymore. Or, rather, edited out that part of the story.
In the course of all of this, I lost myself, and then kept trying to find her in a story. But she was no longer there.
If this was a Listicle (you know, stories as lists you read everywhere), I’d now break down the good things from those years in an easy-to-read format.
Top 5 Great Things About My Work 2008-2015:
· How I worked alongside and learning from brilliant colleagues who are now on my speed dial, in my book club, who remain part of my tribe.
· How I learned to become a sharp editor, a better leader, a not-too-shabby-art-director and business person.
· How I learned to cook. Just kidding, Despite the best efforts of my friends in the Test Kitchen, and spending countless hours talking about casseroles and biscuits, I never did learn to cook. Oops.
· Who was there for me -- really there for me, when any illusion was stripped away and I was a girl in a bathrobe at times unable to get off the couch. My family. My closest friends.
· Most of all: I learned what kind of person I wanted to be. And what kind of person I didn’t want to be anymore.
Today I’m still an editor and a writer, collaborating with brilliant teammates from whom I learn each day. Unsurprisingly, I work in a fast-paced environment, fueled by creativity and growth. I’m quite passionate about all of it. But I have a different perspective on all of it.
I’m gentler on myself now. I try to get more sleep. I keep my doctor’s appointments I say no to more things, and spend more time with my family. I like being at home and in my house and don’t feel like I always need to chase after the next big story, or when I do, know that that victory is temporary and does not define me. But I have to keep an eye on this part of me every day, or I'll turn into an ego monster. True story.
I like not having to create or hold up an illusion to anyone – myself included. Maybe that’s part of maturing, or inching toward a milestone birthday.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still ambitious, driven, determined and more enthralled with the creative process than ever. But – it’s only part of my assignment.
I speak in the language of deadlines and assignments. It’s comfortable. A few days ago, while listening to a prayer service, the pastor used the latter. He said, “God has an assignment for you.”
One of them, I believe, is to narrow the gap between the illusion of who I am and the truth. To do fine work, but to know that ultimately it’s not my entire assignment.
So, dear girl in that photo: you are good enough. No story, no publication, no job is needed to validate that. You’re a good writer, you’re a good person, and you are growing during tough, brilliant, challenging years.
Now listen closely: Here’s your assignment. The most important work you’ll do yet is when you stop putting so much energy into seeking validation from the things of this world that will never give you what you so deeply desire. Put down the illusion, and invite other the people to do the same.
Life is not all meant to be styled or curated, though that sure is useful at times.
It’s best, though, when lived unedited.