By Maria LaMagna
Labor Day weekend of 2013, just after I graduated from college, started with tears and ended with having too much to drink and throwing up into the downstairs toilet at our family friend’s beach house in Manasquan, New Jersey.
I still cringe when I think about that weekend now.
Before I left on the train from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore, I knew I shouldn’t go. I felt anxious and restless. My summer internship had just ended, and I had no full-time job lined up. My former boyfriend and I had broken up just before graduation, and he was already dating someone new. And even though I wanted to enjoy the few days of beach and sun, all I could think about were the photos of them together at our college’s football game.
I knew that being in a house, surrounded by my sister, our friend and her family, I would be unable to heal in the ways I knew how — sitting by myself, thinking, exercising, watching television shows on my computer. Having to put on a brave face for 72 hours seemed much too difficult.
“But worst of all, there were the photos. Photos of my former classmates having fun, taking some time off before their jobs began, traveling in Europe. Photos of the friends I already missed, who felt so far away. ”
And it was; I wasn’t much for conversation until the last night of our trip. We decided to play a Charades-type game all together, late at night and fueled by a bottle of absinthe we were passing around. And I broke; suddenly I was on the floor of the bathroom, teary and embarrassed.
My sister, even more embarrassed than I was, wouldn’t talk to me for the whole train ride back into the city. I played with my phone, looking at the Instagram I’d taken the day before when we were strolling through souvenir shops. I knew it was cheesy, a kitschy sign to put on a beach house wall. But in that moment I wanted to believe its message.
“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”
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Even before that weekend, starting in the summer, I felt myself becoming fearful, a little unhinged. At first, I noticed that I was taking mental notes about the clothes other people were wearing on the street. For me, that was a change; even though I’d been surrounded by much better-dressed people before, even on my college campus, I barely thought about clothes at all. But a few months into living in New York, every person I passed on the street or smushed against on the subway was merely an outfit. I studied their clothes and shoes, becoming increasingly aware of the thinning of my sweater, the scuffs on my cheap flats.
And then it was money. I was starting to pay back my student loans. And besides that, New York prices — like $12 for a chopped salad in a plastic container… how was that even possible? — gave me sticker shock.
And then it was my job. When my internship ended, I had no full-time job offer, but I still had the chopped salads and the loans. And the rent. And the desire to become a journalist without knowing if that would really happen.
But worst of all, there were the photos. Photos of my former classmates having fun, taking some time off before their jobs began, traveling in Europe. Photos of the friends I already missed, who felt so far away. Photos of younger classmates, who were going back to school, when I couldn’t. And photos of my former boyfriend, the one who used to call almost every day to ask how my afternoon went and what story I was working on, in the arms of someone new.
Now, this period of time is hard for me to fully remember. It comes to me in certain images; I know I was sleeping late, then waking up to make tea and binge watch “New Girl” and “What Not to Wear” when I was supposed to be writing freelance articles and sending around my resume.
The happy moments from the last few months of college played like a highlight reel in my mind while I waited for the subway or walked down the street, remembering the pleasant chilliness of a nighttime Cubs game, giggly wine nights, the few gloriously warm days we spent sitting next to Lake Michigan, the prom-themed party my roommates and I threw during graduation weekend.
“We are all thinking about ourselves; no one is thinking about my failures — or my successes — as often as I am.”
My pace of life got slower and slower, and the list of tasks I was able to accomplish in a day became short. I wanted to press “pause” and send the same message to everyone I knew: “I know I’m disappointing you. Please don’t ask how I am.” I was mostly embarrassed. I had been confident, even arrogant in college, about the opportunities that surely were lying ahead of me. And suddenly I could back none of it up. I wanted to be a journalist but felt completely unsure that it would actually happen, and my former swagger became paralyzing fear.
I fantasized about escaping. Where could I go to find reprieve from the eyes and the expectations of those around me?
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Now, I can recognize these same suffocating, ceaseless, inescapable thoughts have been with me for a long time — maybe since I was a toddler. They basically all say the same thing: “This isn’t good enough. You have to do better.”
Around the age of 4, I realized I couldn’t pronounce the letter “r” correctly, and I sat by myself, repeating the words over and over until I got them right: squirrel, girl, rabbit.
In fifth grade, I began hating the way I looked in photos.
When I studied abroad during my junior year of college, I became frustrated when anyone commented on my American accent, believing my Spanish should be good enough no one would suspect I was from the United States. You’re too “autocrítica,” my host mom told me. Self-critical.
The strangest part is that I never recognized these thoughts as being potentially harmful. I leaned way into them and called them other names, like “ambition.”
I constantly would set “goals,” whether it was to get a better grade in Math or to hold my face at a different angle for my next school picture.
Now I know that in psychologists’ terms, that voice is called a “negative spectator.” No matter where I am in the world, in Manasquan, or Evanston, or Buenos Aires, I bring that voice with me, and all it ever says is, “Don’t relax. There are so many things about you we still need to improve.” At times, it is motivational; at other times, it is my greatest obstacle to succeeding. No matter what I do, it could always be different and better.
Right now, with some help and practice, I’m learning to tell it to be quiet, or at least soften a little bit.
I remind myself that to varying degrees, every person is plagued by a critical voice, and we are all thinking about ourselves; no one is thinking about my failures — or my successes — as often as I am.
I still don’t know if there’s a cure for anything, but I’m certain it isn’t as easy as crying, or sweating, or a trip to the beach. But there are things that help. On my best days, my internal voice sounds more like my mom’s. “There are so many people in your life who love you,” she says. “I wish you could see yourself the way we do.”
Maria LaMagna is a journalist living in New York.