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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

It’s Personal: My Mid-Life Questioning

I’m reading a new book, “The Invisible Kingdom,” published just a few weeks ago and included on a list I saw recently of the “best books of 2022 so far.” I saw that it was about chronic illness, including long Covid, and put it on my holds list at the library. For many months – well, nearly two years – I’ve been experiencing a host of new symptoms, or exacerbations of pre-exisiting symptoms, that might be related to long Covid, or maybe to perimenopause, or which could be the result of flare-ups from my multiple autoimmune disorders (and maybe additional ones that haven’t yet been diagnosed) or perhaps just the chronic, low-grade stress of living and parenting through a pandemic.

One of the new symptoms I’ve been dealing with is “brain fog,” which for me has had an enormous impact on my ability to write. It’s one of the reasons I’ve posted less and less here. But it’s not the only reason. When the pandemic began and people’s lives and lifestyles changed overnight, the DW readership suddenly dropped by at least 50%. Traffic to the site never really recovered. With a lower demand for my attention and labor – and a much higher demand for those things at home – my priorities shifted; I no longer felt motivated or called to share as much here. This was more than feeling like I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have the desire. After a decade and a half of writing Dear Wendy columns – of making them the center of my creative output – this was a new feeling. I didn’t, and still don’t, know what to make of that. More specifically, I think I’ve been experiencing something of what I call “an identity questioning” (different, I have to point out, from an identity crisis).

One of the things this book I’m reading talks about a lot is the role of stress and toxicity on our health, and, specifically, on autoimmune disorders. I hate to call this work I’ve done here “stressful” when, in comparison to so many other kinds of work, it’s very cush. But the toxicity involved in writing online really can’t be denied. I had hoped when I left the women’s website I wrote for from 2008-2011, which was an extremely toxic experience for me, I would be in a better position to control/limit the amount of toxicity directed at me. And that was true to an extent. I had control to delete nasty comments and to block accounts I deemed harmful. But before I could/can employ those methods, I was/am still confronted with the negativity first. And while over the years there was much less of that toxicity on my own site, and more positivity and support than I’d experienced before, there was still so much… hate.

For years, I tried to cultivate a thicker skin, to ignore the nasty comments wielded at me on a near daily basis. But beyond not being entirely successful at that endeavor, I wonder how that act of indifference – or trying to be indifferent – has affected my creativity, my openness, and my health. When you are actively imagining yourself armored against the defense of incivility, where and how does the love and inspiration come through? When I think about the effects my autoimmunity has had on my body – the eczema on my skin, the hair loss, the brain fog, the periods of deep depression and malaise, I have to wonder: Has the act of defending myself, of imagining myself in armor, played a part in my body turning on itself?

Of course, writing on the internet hasn’t been the only stressor in my life, nor has it been the biggest one. I’ve struggled through a lot that I’ve both shared here and kept private. But I do think that there’s a real vulnerability that comes from being oneself – or a version of oneself – in a public way like this that brings certain hazards I have never been great at dealing with. As helpful as it’s been to use this space to connect, to build community, to feel as if I was creating ripples of positive change in small – sometimes very small – ways, all of this has always been countered with the opposite: a feeling that I’ve alienated others, that I’ve created or been part of ripples of negativity – a feeling that has been confirmed or at least assisted by thousands of comments and emails saying as much. Years of this push-pull energy has left me… exhausted, and not sure what my next move will be.

I turned 45 in September – which is exactly the middle of my life if I’m lucky enough to live to 90, and I feel very much like I’m in a mid-life questioning stage. Coupled with the brain fog I’ve been experiencing off and on since the pandemic began (and when I had my own bout of Covid symptoms), I don’t know what role writing is going to play in my future or what I want it to look like or how I might want to share it with others going forward. As I work through whatever it is I’m going through, I don’t know how much I’ll share here. Probably not much.

Over the 18 years I’ve been writing online, I’ve felt protective of people I love, with firm boundaries in place about what I’d share about my personal life involving them. My boundaries around myself have been much less firm. And I’ve learned that even when the content of what I write reveals nothing personal anyway – it’s easy to avoid discussing myself if I want to when addressing other people’s problems – so much is read into my tone and my delivery. How many times has my mental health been dissected in comments here by way of my tone? So many times. I’m not here for it anymore. I want to protect my well-being in a way I didn’t care so much about before.

For now, this site will remain here and will continue to be updated as I feel inspired to update it – when I get a letter asking for advice that I feel called to respond to and when I have things I want to discuss and share. But as has been the case over the past year or two, those times will likely be irregular. This isn’t a good-bye; it’s an attempt at explaining where I’ve been and an admission that I don’t have a clear idea right now where I’m going. In some ways, this feeling isn’t dissimilar to my quarter-life questioning (which, actually was more of a crisis). Despite feeling wiser and generally more happy and certainly more settled in some meaningful ways (I have a husband and kids and a house in a city I think of as home), the sensation of not-knowing is really familiar. This time, though, it isn’t coupled with a crippling level of fear that I won’t figure it out, and the process doesn’t feel painful. If anything, I feel excited and hopeful. The Dear Wendy advice column was born in an era of self-searching. Who knows what might come from this current period of reflection?