writer burnout

(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)

I just signed a lease for a gorgeous, spacious two bedroom in Cincinnati. It has my dream kitchen, plenty of space to work comfortably from home, and the perfect layout for entertaining. The neighborhood is cute and historic, just a twenty minute walk to downtown. There’s a coffee shop & bookstore right next door. It checked all of my boxes. It’s central, close to all the action, but not directly inside of the insanity. It will be a comfortable mix of quiet and exciting, with plenty to do in all directions.

Move-in is April 5th, and I’m excited beyond words. But I also have almost no furniture, 40% of a book to finish writing, a new series to get started on, this last book in the current series to publish on May 30th… and I also have to learn how to live on my own in an unfamiliar city very, very quickly. I’ve lived on my own before, in college and abroad, but those times were in dorms or flats with other people around. These living situations had structure, and they were broken up with periods of living at home. And I was also in active addiction, so I wasn’t exactly a “functioning adult” during those years.

The last couple months have been hard on me. I’ve had to deal with a few shitty people coming in and out of my life—the joys of modern dating—and I’ve pushed myself extremely hard to get things done so I could make this move. I based my entire schedule around the idea that I’d be moving in July, and now I’m scrambling to adjust. I’ve incurred a few ouches, such as getting turned down for a dream apartment last week and watching a few career moves not pan out how I’d hoped.

I’ve also been exploring Cincy, both with friends and dates, which has included a few drinking situations. I’ve been sober for nearly eighteen months now. Until this month, I’ve considered that sobriety to be rock solid. I’ve been to bars, clubs, conferences, and adventures abroad with no problem at all.

The past few weeks, I’ve started to feel some kind of way. I call it feeling itchy. One of my recovery pals says squirrelly. AA calls it feeling “restless, irritable, and discontent,” or Dry Drunk Syndrome. I’m not drinking, but I’m also not feeling or behaving like I’m in recovery. I’m growing resentful. Why do I have to disclose to everyone I meet that I have a brain that will not be satisfied with small doses of pleasure, but instead prefers to consume and consume until oblivion? Why can’t I do what everyone else is doing, only sans alcohol? Why does it have to be such big deal? I deserve to live like other people. I should be able to go out and make mistakes and fuck up and catch feelings and be around people drinking and still be able to keep my rock solid sobriety. I don’t want to be The Addict.

I don’t want to keep answering the same questions over and over. Wait, so this is forever? You’re never going to be able to have like, a glass of wine again? What about just a bit of weed? Ohhhh. Well, I can’t imagine being with someone who can’t have a beer with me/smoke a joint with me/party with me. So it’s not that you just don’t drink, for like health reasons or whatever, it’s that you can’t drink, because your brain is fucked. That’s crazy, bro. Have you ever done heroin???

I wish I was joking, but yes, people really are like that. Especially people my age who don’t have close personal connections to addicts or are in recovery themselves. Double especially when my sobriety triggers someone’s fears about their own consumption and behavior.

And listen, other people are not the problem here. 90% of the time, everyone’s reactions and questions are born of nothing but curiosity and a genuine concern over being respectful and conscientious of my recovery. But sometimes I just want to be treated like everyone else. I don’t want people to treat me like a glass figurine on the edge of the table, one wrong move away from shattering. I know that they’re only doing it because they care. I get it, I truly do. But it’s so goddamn alienating. Always feeling like people are uncomfortable drinking around me, constantly attempting to alter their own behavior so as not to “tempt” me, or maybe because they think I’m silently judging them for signs of substance abuse. Or there are the people that really just don’t get it, and will end up asking me if I want a drink half-way through the night because the I don’t drink thing just never truly sunk in for them. Because who doesn’t drink? Especially a young person in a city with a vibrant drinking culture…

It’s exhausting.

Yet the end of the day, I’m not like everyone else. And right now, I do feel like a damn glass figurine three seconds away from shattering. I have a lot of amazing things going for me, but to keep it real, a whole lot of other stuff has not gone super well lately. I’m in a sales slump now that I’m in between releases. I’m feeling the pressure, and I’m feeling it from all angles. I knew the slump was coming, and it’s all still going according to plan, but the valleys will always feel like blows. This career is rough. It’s a never ending cycle of highs and lows, burst of enthusiasm and troughs of doubt. Just like life.

I don’t even want to drink! What I want is to feel settled, comfortable, peaceful, and purposed. Right now I’m feeling scattered, unprepared, and out of control. I’ve been neglecting recovery-centered self-care. I’ve been choosing relationships that keep me in a state of fight-or-flight, addicted to the highs and lows of their intensity just the same as I was once addicted to the highs and lows of substances. Again, classic Dry Drunk shit. And I know it. I know the warning signs of a relapse. I know that I entered the Danger Zone weeks ago and I’ve only been struggling to keep my head above water ever since.

So… what now?

Therapy, for starters. It’s been a long run, months in fact, but we’ve already got an appointment on the books.

Choosing relationships that make me feel secure, peaceful, and nurtured is another big step. I think we can often confuse good excitement for bad excitement. If someone is triggering your autonomic nervous system to go into overdrive and pump out cortisol on the daily, that’s perhaps, just maybe, the bad kind of excitement. In every relationship, with friends, family members, or casual or serious partners, we should know exactly where we stand, without fear of expressing our emotions, concerns, or boundaries. If you’re afraid someone is going to cut you off at the drop of a dime, that’s a problem. No one is perfect. And no relationship will ever be without its issues. But if a relationship is not meeting our basic human needs to feel understood, heard, safe, and cared for physically and emotionally, then that relationship is poison. Literally. That is how our body interprets interpersonal stress and chaos—as poison— stress hormones that effect our every cell and send all of our systems out of balance.

We need people who turn on that parasympathetic nervous system. Who make us feel calm, in addition to the good kind of excitement. People who have our backs, and will never make us feel afraid or insecure. People we can trust and count on. I’m lucky to have many friends in my life who fulfill these basic needs, and I’ve even picked up a few new ones the last months. Community is medicine, and alienation is crushing. I plan on utilizing these connections, especially the friends in recovery, as much as possible during this time. Because addicts are different; we understand each other better than non-addicts will ever understand us, for better or for worse.

The funny thing about stress is that we can get physiologically addicted to it. Workaholics are a classic example. Cortisol acts as a drug to the workaholic, and being idle, restful, and at peace can feel intensely wrong and uncomfortable as a result. We can do the same with interpersonal relationships—seeking out situations and people that provide a challenge, that excite us, but that also keep our bodies in a state of toxic hyper-arousal. There’s an obvious trauma connection here, as these kinds of relationships tend to repeat themselves over and over. When chaos becomes comfortable, we risk reaching for it even when we say we want something completely different. That’s why people who have experienced domestic violence with one partner will often wind up in the same situation again.

We can say we don’t want stress or drama, but our actions very often tell a different story. I think what we all truly want is to feel alive, and we can get lost chasing that feeling. Instead of finding that intoxicating aliveness with moderation and balance, we go overboard. We chase love, achievement, sex, fulfillment, growth, and passion with reckless abandon, taking shortcuts, neglecting our mental, physical, spiritual, or social well-being in the process. We get so caught up in the rush that we forget what it’s all about, that the reason we’re here is to connect and love and learn from each other.

When we face death, it becomes clear that our relationships were what mattered most all along. They were perhaps the only thing that ever mattered.

Our relationship with ourselves, with each other, and with the world, all wrapped up together, all intrinsically intertwined. We are but a piece of a greater whole.

It’s so easy to forget the bigger picture of our fleeting mortality when we’re stuck in our myopic day-to-day realities.

Even now, I can write all of this, and I can be like damn that’s hella inspirational, good one, Maggie! and then flip off the switch and immediately to go back into the discontented state I was in before.

And that’s the thing about recovery and healing from any kind of mental health concern, addiction, or unhealthy thinking or relationship patterns. You can’t think your way out of any of it. It was your faulty thinking that got you there in the first place.

It’s your actions that matter. One step forward, and then the next. I’m going to go back to therapy. I’m going to lean on my friends. I’m going to seek out people who make me feel secure and nurtured, as uncomfortable as that can sometimes feel for me. I’m going to be way more mindful about putting myself in drinking situations without the right precautions in place, like having another sober friend with me, having an escape route, setting limits and boundaries with my time and comfort levels. I’m going to re-prioritize self-care, find AA or other recovery meetings in Cincy to start building a local network, and compartmentalize and refocus to start slowly checking off my intense to-do list.

Above all else, I’m going to breathe. How I feel now is not how I’m going to feel forever. It never is. There are always highs and lows, and there’s always a path forward, even when it’s too dark to see. I was going to make this article for paid subscribers only, because it felt maybe a little too vulnerable, but I thought it was important to show you guys that my recovery journey isn’t all smooth sailing. I’ve been extremely lucky to have spent the last eighteen months in a very supportive environment where I could learn how to be a human being again without having to worry about paying rent or living completely on my own. I’ve also been lucky to have had a fairly smooth journey, with nearly no concern about my sobriety up until now.

Which is why I’m taking these feelings very seriously. Because despite recent struggles, I’m still the happiest and most centered and fulfilled I’ve ever been. I fought HARD to get where I am now. I tried to get sober dozens of times before it stuck, and it was a gruesome, bloody war that I didn’t always think I’d make it out of alive. I used to wake up with bruises all over my body, no recollection of what had happened the night before, and I swear to you I could feel every single one of my organs fighting for their lives. I used to be so sick and stuck that I didn’t think inner peace or happiness would ever be in the cards for me.

I don’t believe those things anymore. I believe that what we do in this life matters. I believe that it all means something. I believe that in saving ourselves, we can save each other, and that’s what it’s all about. When I’m sick, I’m not a good daughter, friend, partner, or sister. I can’t help someone who’s struggling. I can’t hold space for other people’s losses and heartbreaks. I’m completely consumed by my own cyclone of chaos and self-absorption. It’s not enough for me to just not drink, and it never will be.

Recovery will always be work, but it’s be most rewarding work I’ll ever do. If I don’t remain an active participant in my own sobriety, all other threads of my life—the joy, the love, the contentedness, the creativity, the achievements, the adventure—will unravel one by one until there’s nothing left.

Sometimes I think addicts in recovery are the lucky ones, in a strange way. Other people struggle slowly, in a way that builds and compounds over time, and they’re rarely forced to actually deal with the underlying trauma and dysfunction that impacts their lives and relationships on every level. People in recovery hit rock bottom hard and fast, allowing us to get to the root of our maladaptive thoughts and behavior in a way that normal folks don’t always get the chance to.

We are the wounded healer archetype; our greater propensity for suffering can lead to a greater capacity for healing. We felt the trauma in our own skin first, and now we can recognize and heal the same in others.

I wouldn’t trade that ability for anything, not even to be just like everyone else.

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(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)

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