I’ve been in a big Nirvana phase lately, because I am an unemployed, 35-year-old father of two going through an identity crisis. (Nothing says “midlife” quite like a jobless, balding dad butchering the riff to All Apologies on an offset guitar.) At this stage in their lives and careers, some of my friends are literally interviewing presidents; meanwhile, the sum of my accomplishments in the last four months amounts to learning a tab and one single job interview that lasted seven whole minutes and ended, inevitably, with “we’ll get back to you.” (They never did.)
Not that I wasn’t a fan previously, but the angry nonsense of a guitar idol permanently frozen in time in his mid-20s appeals to me from where I sit. The first reason: in sobriety, I’ve had more emotional space to explore hobbies rather than exploit habits. The fervor with which I once furiously consumed liquor has been unleashed in a few directions, including playing and recording music and collecting vinyl, and it’s not hard to find Nirvana’s entire discography on hefty 180-gram colored wax reissues. So there’s an availability aspect. The other thing, though, is that I’m kind of fascinated with the biographies and discographies of musicians who died young, like Cobain and Ian Curtis. The bodies of work are so consistent, and the artistic visions so uncompromised, and I wonder why that intensity and innovation so often seems to come with a self-destruct mechanism1. Even when it doesn’t, output dwindles, creatively or quantitatively. (The film version of “High Fidelity” ruthlessly parodied this discussion some 20-odd years ago, even more evidence that I’ve never had anything resembling an original thought.)
Rewind to my sophomore year of high school, when my Mass Media 1 instructor Mr. Schwalm returned some classwork to me – it was a rewrite of some information in Associated Press style, inverted pyramid – and said “Bryan, this is really textbook stuff here. Great work.” That year, we visited a statewide school journalism festival, where we sat in on various seminars from local news personalities and communications thought leaders and competed against other schools in writing competitions. We swept the awards. I came in first place for newswriting, and while I forget what I won, I know for sure it was the first time I was ever awarded for doing something creative, something that I genuinely enjoyed and felt good at – and I remember thinking “This isn’t just what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m a writer. It’s who I am.” If there’s any question as to whether it’s better to burn out than fade away, please remember that my last genuine writing success – and no, this doesn’t include jobs that I’ve held, because you’re supposed to do work for money – dates to just after 9/11, when I was a teenager. I’m Willy Loman at half the age.
Now, I realize listening to a no-talent white dude whining about his existential frustration amid references to a long-dead Dad Rock2 icon isn’t at the top of anyone’s to-do list, but sometimes I wonder what happened to the kid who thought he was going to win a Pulitzer? And I ain’t jealous or nothin’ (all right, I totally am) of my college buddy with a book deal who’s probably on his way to a Pulitzer, or of my middle school friend who did go on win a Grammy, or of countless others I know who are somehow able to balance jobs and families with successful side hustles from blogging and cooking and baking to writing and recording music. For some reason, I don’t have the energy or charisma, or frankly the material, to sustain the level of consistency that some of these superhumans do, much less the level of creativity. Where does this all leave me? Professionally dead-ended, creatively stifled, and emotionally maladjusted with a bad attitude, in need of more therapy than money can buy. Not a great look at 35.
I’m purposely being melodramatic and cynical, but it’s easy to cave to hopelessness and frustration and jealousy and envy in the midst of the global angst of COVID, economic depression, and social unrest. A friend of mine put it succinctly: “The world is objectively f***ed. Don’t put everything on yourself.” He’s so right, and on rare days of mental clarity and circumspection, I recognize the limitations of my agency and the sort of egocentrism that foments the delusion I am in any semblance of control.
My actual sphere of influence is a geodesic greenhouse, within it a flourishing family. Our son is now 2 months old and beginning to smile and show preferences, which is one of my favorite stages of early development. There’s a bit of a “blank” quality to infants, even your own infant, and the extent to which a parent feels their newborn has a personality is just complete projection through the first three or four months. I’m not saying that our little boy has catchphrases or entrance music or anything, but yes, there are glimmers, and when those tiny sparks catch flame a few years later that fire is fairly irrepressible.
Enter our daughter, who is such a blaze of joy and humor and confidence. I’m learning how to slow down, stoop down, and tune in to the world she experiences at her level. While I distinctly remember portions of my childhood at 3 and 4 years of age, and recall having a more or less fully developed personality (if not intellect) at that point, she’s navigating a completely different world than I did when I was her age, not to mention as a little girl. My sensitivity to those nuances affects my relationship with her, and it’s important for me to pay attention to the little details – her burgeoning interest in technology, for example, or her growing sense of self. I used to spend the majority of my days either dulling my senses or waiting impatiently for them to be dulled; I don’t want to pat myself on the back for doing the bare parenting minimum, but the fact that I am “noticing” is evidence of some significant growth on my part.
Removing alcohol from my life on Jan. 25, 2020 was as pivotal a decision as I’ve ever made. (To some extent, I can’t hold myself to the standards of someone who didn’t just spend the last decade of his life being a drunk, so I’m learning to forgive my own lack of creative output with a series of IOUs – for recording music, for writing, for cooking more adventurous dishes and visiting more interesting places and maybe even learning a new skill or two.) I don’t want to unprofessionally assess the psychological implications of my alcohol abuse, but drinking allowed me to ignore the parts of my past, my life, and myself that were deeply uncomfortable to deal with. I need to give myself a lot of grace here, because my two kiddos aren’t the only ones who are growing and changing. I’m not going to allow a past version of myself to hold me hostage; while I’m not in the program, I know that I have a lot of amends to make for some attitudes I held and behaviors I displayed when alcohol was my idol, and I’ve been in the midst of that difficult and confusing process even since before I decided on permanent sobriety (I think there’s probably material to that effect elsewhere on this very website).
Among the lessons I’ve learned in sobriety, one that is probably clear to you but took a while occur to me, is that no drug has the capacity to make me any happier than I already am. I used alcohol as a crutch for so long, confident that it would elevate my mood and relieve my anxiety and discomfort and discontent. It didn’t do that (and it didn’t make me any cleverer or sexier, to boot), but it did lead to irreparable damage among family and friends as my deception over the extent of my use became craftier and my ambivalence to others’ feelings about my fondness for the drink grew – not to mention the recklessness and irresponsibility I sometimes displayed under the influence3.
Let’s play the greatest hits: career temporarily on pause, sure; but raising a happy, healthy family in a nurturing environment, under no immediate threat of any real socioeconomic duress, and I haven’t had a drop of liquor in 13 lucky months. Not so bad at all.
Like I said before, I feel as though I’m playing a little creative catch-up after having spent about 10 years obsessed with the bottle.
I need to write more, and to care less about the relative quality or reader-readiness of the material I write. My alcoholic laziness isn’t the only thing that’s prevented me from publishing my thoughts more than once or twice a year; I also have a predilection toward perfectionism that’s caused a tremendous amount of hesitation about the substance of what I write. My impostor syndrome is aided and abetted by my preternaturally talented group of friends (many of whom I’ve subtly subtweeted here); I’m not naturally competitive, so sometimes my inclination is to just not do the thing. That’s not a great way to approach something that I care about so much as writing, plus “you are what you habitually do” and “writers write” and a number of other platitudes, so I promise I’m going to be investing a little more of my personal capital into the exercise, regardless of whether it’s publishable. I may not get a Pulitzer or a publishing deal, but at least my punchy prose is getting out there. It’s somethin’.
I’m taking a similar approach to music. I probably don’t have the capacity (the intellect, raw talent, or equipment) to make In Utero (or Bleach, for that matter), but I have some projects on the horizon that I’m really interested in sharing with you. Maybe soon. Maybe in six months. I cannot promise it will be good. I cannot even promise that I will not sing. But I do promise, in 2021, I will somehow “release” some form of recorded music. (On that note, if this is in your wheelhouse, I have a lot of questions about recording and producing that I could really use someone to hold my hand and answer. Please let me know!)
To tie this all in a bow4, if I need to have a remarkable life to have a successful or satisfying one, I don’t think I’ll ever be happy. In this season of wondering who I am at 35, I’m learning what my priorities are and realizing that my value doesn’t come from what I produce. And with that, thanks for reading what has essentially amounted to a glorified “life update” letter. Be well. If you’re reading this, I love you.
1. This is by no means a comprehensive or complete depiction of suicide, nor an accurate portrayal of my thoughts on suicide.
2. It’s 2021 now – sad, but true.
3. I’m trying to figure out the best way to grapple with the subject of my alcoholism, but it’s something I’ll explore more in the future.
4. I am so, so much better at the structure and content of the opening paragraphs than I am the closing ones, and I’m terribly self-conscious about it. Again, I’m working on it.