In 2020, that infamous year, I did a lot of quitting.
In February, on the heels of quitting drinking, I quit my job at a local social justice non-profit. It just seemed to me that, after doing such a difficult, life-affirming thing as getting sober, there was no time or space to tolerate abuse from my boss, a textbook communal narcissist who had me in the crosshairs. I gave up on winning the fight or fixing the situation and I bailed. Two weeks later, COVID lockdown began.
Glo passed away, changing everything forever.
My therapist of 11 years began- first subtly, then loudly- to express her COVID denialism and conspirituality tendencies. To be fair, the signs had been there for some time. I quit therapy. I didn’t try to change her mind. I just canceled my appointments.
On Election Day I quit Facebook, and then I took Instagram and Twitter off my phone. For the previous 12 years of my life, I posted and scrolled on social media for hours every day, my mind entwined with people I barely knew, mourning their dead cats and celebrating their home purchases. I did a great deal of social media activism, convincing myself I was helping people, though now I’m not sure that it had the intended impact. So I quit. Soon after, I could physically feel my brain relaxing. I was eating a bowl of soup and there was nothing to do on my phone. My eyes found the window, and I watched a storm move across the sky. I watched a bird peck idly at the last scraps of muscadines clinging to the vine.
In a so-called normal year, perhaps such a rash of quitting would be a cause for concern, and maybe it still is. But once I started quitting things, I couldn’t stop. Each act of self-preservation begat the next, each boundary creating space for the resolve needed for the next one. In this year of chaos, grief, and unraveling, quitting everything was liberatory. Quitting became the only thing that made sense.
Of course, the quitting goes deeper than finally putting down the rosé bottle 497 days earlier. For most of my life, I was the opposite of a quitter: I was a joiner. I was a starter. I was a fixer. I was a do-er. I had a finger in every pie, literally: I owned a bakery, I wrote a book, I coached entrepreneurs, I gave speeches and interviews, I sat on boards, I volunteered with the PTA, I remembered birthdays. I was unimpeachable; I was A Good Person. What was most important to me was to be good; to be seen as good by others. But being good was expensive. It cost me my sleep, my health, my money, my time. It cost me myself.
My journey to being a quitter started a little over ten years ago, when my marriage fell apart. Duncan and I were separated for a year and a half, launching me, at age 33, with a 3-year-old child, into a classic “dark night of the soul” scenario. When I emerged from that reckoning, and we rebuilt our marriage and our family’s life, I was a different person. And I no longer cared about being good. I just wanted to be myself. I wanted to be fully present to my life. Slowly, gradually, this meant creating boundaries around my work and learning how to spend time alone, or how to be bored for a minute. It meant painfully excising relationships from my life that were not reciprocal. It meant slowing down, quitting smoking, and learning how to eat three meals a day. It meant stopping trying to fix everything and help people and situations without their consent. It meant accepting the world on the world’s terms, for once.
Some people didn’t like the new me. I was more truthful and I wasn’t as available and I wasn’t as fun. I started saying no. One friend drunkenly posted on my Facebook page at four in the morning that I wasn’t as “loving” as I used to be. Some people were incredulous that I was starting to give myself what I had given them all this time: my time, my attention, and my care.
By 2014 I knew that I no longer wanted to own the bakery. It took me two years to execute a succession plan, selling the business to a beloved employee and friend, and all the while my relationship with my parents and siblings deteriorated. These were the ones who invested in my business, who gave me my drive. These were the people who taught me how to be A Good Person, an entrepreneur, a pillar of the community, a model family member, a dutiful daughter, a leader. They didn’t much like the new me- and all my bothersome boundaries- either. They also didn’t like me talking out loud about the patterns that were toxic and abusive within our family and lineage. My relationship with my family of origin became untenable over those last five years. In 2020, devastatingly, I quit them, too.
In the past, I would have done anything to keep others from disliking me. I cast a wide net, far beyond my own capacity, to try to capture and reel in the people who were mad at me, didn’t like me, or- worst of all- were ambivalent. I stretched myself razor thin in an attempt to bring the chaos at the margins of life into a more manageable center, to control my image, to accumulate influence and relevance. I did these things (I still do these things), not because I’m an asshole, but because my early life experiences taught me that conditional approval from others was the oxygen I needed to survive. But to get it, I had to ignore and neglect the life that was in front of me. To get it, I became so compromised.
It got easier, the quitting. Once I built up the gumption and learned the mechanisms to blow whatever social capital I might have acquired on self-care of all things, who else and what else can try to control me? Do your worst. Obviously, I haven’t yet fully figured out how to stop caring about what other people think of me, and I never will, in this lifetime. There is no arriving. There is only the path.
In grad school, I became happily reacquainted with existentialism, but this time as a school of thought within psychotherapy. Here they were, all my old friends from high school: Sartre, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky- in my textbook on how to be a therapist. These were the books I read while dropping acid, painting my fingernails black, and learning to smoke, trying to make sense of the world. What a perfectly delicious vindication to discover, as a 45-year-old, that my basic high school premise- that humans are fundamentally alone in the world and must generate our own meaning in life by exercising our own terrifying freedom- is a legitimate therapeutic modality, not just for making sense of my own life, but for helping others make sense of theirs.
Because freedom IS terrifying. And yes, of course, we each have varying levels of freedom based on our intersecting identities and oppressions. Not everyone is free, and not every form of quitting is a choice. Loved ones die, friends walk away, jobs dry up, health problems appear. And yet across every identity there remains the existential freedom of ultimately choosing: what we do, where we go, with whom we engage, how we spend our time. The freedom to choose who we are.
If I have to be burdened with this terrible existential freedom, I want to make use of it, dammit. Why squander it choosing to get loaded and disappear? Why squander it people-pleasing? I want to be alive and get freer and freer and help other people get free. If I am going to live with the pain of living, I want there to be a purpose. I don’t want to while my hours away scrolling through social media hot takes. There are dogs who need walking and rivers who need contemplating and books that need writing and people who need tending and real friends who need phone calls and a family who needs my love. My wholehearted love. Every act of quitting is an act of choosing the life that is before me.
Another chapter in my social work textbook: Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. According to Erikson, the years between 40 and 60 are dedicated to adopting the value of “care” and meeting the challenge of “generativity vs. stagnation.” Middle age, he says, is the time where humans turn their attention to service and the cultivation of purpose. For me, this looks like whittling down, paring away, and pruning down to the root of my previous relationships and identities; no longer striving but introspective, no longer reaching out for approval but looking inward for meaning. A path, not a destination.
At the end of 2020, I found myself surrounded by boxes, empty and filled, brooms and dustpans strewn around the rooms, pictures off the walls and stacked for packing. We sold our house in Asheville, and in the last two weeks of the year we moved to the big city of Philadelphia, a homecoming for Duncan, a new adventure for me and Jasper, one giant finale of quitting; a quitting cherry on the top of the whole quitting year. It was exciting, generative. It made me feel ALIVE, and that’s something worth quitting for.