How Reaching the End of a Tube of Chapstick Made Me Realize I Have Finally Grown Up

The reason I never reached the end of a Chapstick signifies a theme I lived with – and even sort of accepted – for most of my life, certainly all of my drinking life: chaos.
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Laura McKowen
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The reason I never reached the end of a Chapstick signifies a theme I lived with – and even sort of accepted – for most of my life, certainly all of my drinking life: chaos.

I was driving my daughter to school earlier this week and absentmindedly reached for my Chapstick in the console. I took off the top and as I went to put it on, a few pieces of something poked my lips. I drew it back to investigate, annoyed. Probably Alma had stuck something in it to be funny. Maybe I’d dropped it in the sand? I turned the tube around, brought it closer, studied it.

Oh.

Huh.

I’d reached the end.

I cocked my head sideways and smiled, a small chuckle.

I’ve never, not once, reached the end of a chapstick tube. Fucking amazing.

I haven’t stopped thinking about that damn Chapstick since. It's so little, yet marks such big shift. The reason I never reached the end of a Chapstick signifies a theme I lived with – and even sort of accepted – for most of my life, certainly all of my drinking life: chaos.

I shared my revelation in a meeting the other day and the room erupted with laughter. And it is funny, my big reaction to such a small thing. But as I said in the meeting, while we laugh about it because we get it, it’s not at all funny to live that way. To lose things constantly, to scatter your energy and your life around haphazardly, to not really take care of your belongings or be cognizant of small actions – it adds up to something much larger.

In my early 20s, my company made an agreement with one of my colleagues to stay at my house when she was in town. They would pay me a marginal lodging fee vs. paying for her to stay in a hotel. She was older than me in years, more senior in the company, far more responsible and with it, but we were kindred souls of sorts and had become good friends, sharing a love for art and our work and exercise and food. 

We worked in the same department so her staying with me was both logical and convenient; we spent a lot of time together when she was in town, anyway. In exchange for the “lodging” fee, I’d just need to make sure the extra bed in my apartment had clean sheets, towels, and basic bathroom supplies. This wasn’t officially documented anywhere (our company was a start-up) but we’d verbally agreed and it seemed like a win-win all around.

And for the most part, it was. It worked out fine. Except I could never follow-through on my damn part. Inevitably, I dropped the ball. I couldn’t get to the laundry so she’d have half-clean towels. I’d run out of shampoo the night before. Once my hairdryer broke and I never got around to replacing it before she got there, even though I knew her arrival date a week in advance. I was always just too busy, ran out of money, was too distracted, too drunk (or hungover), too consumed by managing my own life. I had all the right intentions but just couldn’t follow-through. 

This was the story of my life. I wanted so badly to be able to get it together, but inevitably the execution escaped me. There was never a bad falling out about it. She put up with and accepted my ball-dropping – probably, mostly because we were friends – but it really ate at me. Why couldn’t I do these simple things? Why did everyone else seem to be capable of this stuff, but I wasn’t? Why was it so totally overwhelming? I laughed it off, made excuses, even constructed self-righteous arguments in my own defense. I mean, she shouldn’t really expect this from me anyway, my life is complicated and I am TRYING. I’m only in my 20s. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else! She’s a pain in the ass. Who cares about a blow dryer?!

But I knew I was full of shit. We always know deep down when we are full of shit.

Sometimes – often – my haphazardness was about drinking or recovering from drinking. But the bigger theme was about growing up.

It is easy enough, especially in our 20’s, to accept and laugh off a certain amount of stumbling in the face of adulthood. We are newly minted grown-ups, fumbling around trying to figure out how to appear adult-ish in our professional lives by day, while we throw back car bombs and make out with strangers at bars by night. Or at least that’s what my friends were doing.

We joked constantly about not wanting to grow up, to take on responsibility, but I know I was certainly looking for the deeper cues about who really had it together and who didn’t. Like I would laugh off my credit card debt – we all had it, right? – but I also had no real clue how much I owed, and my student loans were in default, and I knew there was something really wrong with living that way. Some of my friends were buying cars, or would mention saving for a condo, and the concept of those things just seemed so far beyond my reach. Impossible, really. But weren’t we pretty much the same, and doing the same things? What was I doing wrong? What were they doing differently? How did they pay their bills on time? Did they? I couldn’t even open my mail.

So, the Chapstick.

I finished a tube of Chapstick. For the first fucking time. At the age of 37 and nearly 9 months sober.

How small. How big. How insignificant. How totally profound.

There are hundreds – thousands – of examples like the ones above. Half-wrapped wedding presents or no present at all, piles of unopened mail stashed away in drawers or behind my well-organized closet of clothes, a car returned to a friend with an almost empty gas tank, a super angry roommate who just wanted to come home from his bar shift to his leftovers (but I was starving, and ate them, because I hadn’t bought my own groceries), the fourth late notice on a parking ticket I could have easily paid when I got it.

While I grew up on the outside in my 20s and early 30s – doing well in my jobs, going to grad school, getting married, having a baby, even buying a condo with my husband – in so many ways, I didn’t mature at all. While my outsides got more adult-looking, my insides stayed the same. Then they grew messier as the drinking and responsibilities piled up.

I created patterns that, over time, chipped away at my self-esteem and self-worth. Losing stuff happens, and stuff is just stuff, but leaving my ATM card (or entire purse) in the cab, misplacing my keys, losing my $600 iPhone for the fifth time, wrecking my new shoes running to the last train because I lost track of time -- it all stops being absent-minded-professor quirky after a while. It becomes draining. Reckless. Even rude.

I don’t tie it all to drinking, but the linkage is clear to me now; the thread is undeniable. Caroline Knapp writes in Drinking: A Love Story, “Alcohol is what protected me from growing up.”

She goes on:

It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be a less chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and maintain.

I’d assumed – like so many of us – that maturity would eventually hit me. And I’m not talking about maturity as in material accumulation, achieving life moments like marriage, parenthood, becoming VP of Wherever. I’m talking about maturity as basic accountability. Of taking responsibility for your own person, your actions, and the effect you have on others. Today, I am still absent-minded as fuck (case in point, I showed up to the wrong court for my divorce proceedings yesterday), but when this stuff happens today, I come by it honestly, and not as a result of being unconscious half the time. I can separate the difference between personality quirks and shitty behavior.

Caroline writes,

When you stop drinking you stop waiting. You begin to let go of the wish, age old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.

I had no idea what it meant, really, to live my own life. It was terrifying to grasp that the buck stops with me.

It is terrifying. But it’s also the beginning of freedom, no? If I can keep a tube of Chapstick around in my car until I reach the end of it, what else might I be able to see through to finish? How else might I be able to show up?

This post originally appeared on I Fly At Night.