Let Me Hit That: Dopamine and the Consultant's Lifestyle
"I did not design this game. I did not name the stakes.
I just happen to like apples, and I am not afraid of snakes,
and I am...I am...I am truly sorry about all this."
--Ani Difranco, Adam & Eve
I do not truck with the concept that because I am a woman, I am inherently more emotional and, therefore, worse at business. I love my son and if I were to stay at home with him every day for hours on end I would legitimately lose my ever-lovin' mind. That isn't how I operate.
I do, however, through no fault of my ovaries, possess an addict's personality. I don't drink daily, or to excess; I don't smoke weed, and despite having some legitimate and long-suffering pain issues, I do pretty well on a daily basis without more than a standard dose of ibuprofen. But I do find myself sliding quickly downhill into poor behavior patterns at the first hit of something a little stronger to my soul: approval, and validation. And this is where that emotional part of me (which should not be, but often is, chalked up to my reproductive ability) comes in.
When someone looks me straight in the face and tells me that I'm brilliant: hit of dopamine straight to the brain. I'll start playing with my hair; I'll start making direct, almost uncomfortable eye contact. I'll automatically put them on the top of my list to email and follow up. That makes them compliment me again, this time on my timeliness. Another hit. The next email I send (to thank them for that compliment) is friendly, conversational. I'm a relationship-builder. They are just as happy with me as I am with them, it turns out! Now I'm dopamine-drunk in the middle of the day and the other contracts I have are completely by the wayside, I've forgotten all about them.
I work hard. I devote time, energy. My brain goes miles a minute, I problem-solve, I tie up loose ends. I do damn good work. I deserve the position.
And then that contract ends. A nice hug, a nice handshake, a "let's work together again," all of that sweet stuff. And 24 hours pass.
A good idea occurs I pitch it to someone and it's treated just like that. A good idea. Not, like...brilliant, or anything. Just, you know...good.
I'm sure some people can chalk it up to a rough day or a bout with a bad mood and get the hell out the other side. But this is the sort of day that causes me to curl up in the booth at Coffee Bandits with a large mug of something and my headphones in and cry hard into my keyboard. And the sort of day that makes me want to get drunk at 1pm.
I love my life, and this is a necessary theme within my life. No relationship lasts forever, and no dopamine high is worth being chained to the office every day. So how do we learn from this experience, gentle reader? And, as we learn, how do we avoid "spewing the crazy" (read: feeling things intensely and publicly) at people who don't necessarily deserve it?
(An important note: the following advice is applicable to everyone who boasts an identification anywhere on the gender spectrum. As someone who has been accused in the past of not being quiet or passive enough around the fragile male egos of my coworkers, though, it's important to me as a woman. That being said, not every woman experiences this issue at work, and every single person can use a little assistance separating valid reactions from emotional reactions. Try it and see what you think!)
Step One: Edit
It is unnecessary to be constantly open about your feelings. Period. You do not deserve the fallout, and generally speaking they do not care for the honesty. For 48 hours at least (and sometimes, in my case, a week) after an intense dopamine withdrawal, I give myself full permission to simply lie in public and be as crazy as I want in private. There's a lot of dancing in my studio, that's for sure.
This doesn't seem very "authentic," I don't think, and as artists we crave authenticity and real connection. But let us be clear: you cannot unsay it, so if you may not mean it in 24 hours, it's important not to verbalize it, no matter how authentic the feeling is. In the words of Aaron Burr as written by Lin-Manuel Miranda: "Talk less. Smile more."
Step Two: Input, Release
I have a playlist running called "Coffee Shop Crazy," one that I made in preparation for today's intense dopamine drop. It's a lot of new Avril Lavigne and old Ani Difranco, as well as some Joni Mitchell. Sarah McLachlan and Nicki Minaj; you know, covering all the bases.
When I listen to these songs, I feel a rise and fall of emotions over which I have control; I feel angry, sad, regretful, inspired, injured, competent, connected. And I can curate these feelings to create a sense of control over my life. Now, I was never missing this control, but in the wake of a lack of feeling valid, I will often feel like I'm at sea without an anchor; a good playlist acts as a life-raft.
It also inspires me to write, and provide a release for these feelings. My poems and stories are not necessarily based on anything, and the veil of fiction allows me to scream obscenities and howl at the moon like the pissed-off animal I can be at the emotional rock-bottom of my most tender moments. Suddenly, I'm not crazy, I'm a literary genius! Suddenly, I'm not in need of therapy, I'm in need of a microphone and a publishing contract! Turning pain (real or imagined) into art is a healthy way of processing. If you've never done journal work before, this is an excellent reason to start.
Step Three: Let the Sun Shine In
Don't force the issue. Like grief or physical pain, you don't need to force your way through it, but it needn't be coddled, either. If you feel better, feel better. Remember, there are zero benefits to staying sad about something outside of your control, even though your brain might try to convince you otherwise.
Enjoy any of this advice? Send me your playlist the next time you feel crazy, and I'll send you mine. Just don't tell me how amazing I am, not yet; I'm still coming down and it's going to be a hot minute 'til I'm sane enough to take it for what it is.
"Traveling, I made a friend. He had a trouble in his head,
and all he could say is that he knew that the bottle
drank the woman from his bed.
He said 'I'm not gonna lose that way again.'
But sober is just like driving, more joy, more dread,
someone turns her head and smiles and disappears...
...and now he's gotta get it back and it goes so fast
and he's just like me, caught in between,
no sage adviser, does weary mean wiser?"
--Dar Williams, "Traveling Again (Traveling 1)"