Fake It 'Til You Faint
By. Chante Owens
I’m on a train headed to downtown San Francisco and somehow I feel the wind against my skin. But how? We’re underground. And the AC on these things is shit. There it is again, cooling my cheeks. When I open my eyes I realize that I am on the floor and that the soft breeze is coming from blurry hands fanning the air close to my face. I have passed out inside a train car packed with people on my way to work. Fellow passengers are trying to rouse me.
The last thing I remember was seeing the doors close behind a cluster of commuters who’d just elbowed their way into the crowded car, and thinking, holy shit it’s hot in here. Then, as the heat crept up my neck: I need to get off at the next stop. And finally, before a wave of black fell over my eyes: I’m going to pass out aren’t I? I’m going to pass out on the fucking BART train. Then, I must’ve fallen. I don’t remember feeling the bodies next to mine, the backpacks and purses that must have brushed against my descent, or the pain of finally hitting the ground. All I remember is total relief. In that fleeting, dark, in-between space before I fully gained consciousness, I was so goddamn happy.
The jig was up. I could stop pretending. My body horizontal on the grimy floor of a BART train was proof that this thing I was doing wasn’t sustainable. By “this thing,” I mean my life. Or rather, the kind of life that my fellow millennial city-dwellers and I have adopted and clung to. A life of the hustle; a life so ruled by career demands that we forget to take care of ourselves; a life so eclipsed by the shadow of work that any creative yearnings we once harbored—to dance, to paint, to write—shrivel into un-nagging specks somewhere deep inside our weary bodies. Since moving from Reno, Nevada, to the Bay Area in 2014, work has infiltrated every aspect of my life: my commute, my happy hours, my social media accounts, my weekends, my sleep. While I’ve observed the dividing line between work and life grow more and more obscure, I have tried, as I believe many here do, to smile through it.
But my cheeks hurt from all the pretending, and now, splayed out on the floor, so does the rest of me. I think I knew all along that something was bound to come crashing down, I just wasn’t expecting it to be me. On a train. And yet, my aching bones are relieved. After all the late work nights, back-to-back meetings, and endless screen time, I have finally hit my wall. My body is saying, Enough, it’s time to stop, to rest, hydrate, to do nothing. I relish in having met my limit. Lying on the floor, it feels good to have at least some semblance of boundaries again.
“Can someone call the medics?” a woman behind me yells out, as I manage to sit up. Someone is rubbing my back. People are using books and notepads to fan my face. As the train comes to a halt, I mumble that I need to get off, that I’m fine without the medics. Two women help and then another gives me her water. I take a few steps toward the clearing crowd and a man offers me his hand. I find a nearby bench and sit down. Taking a sip of water, I watch the train pull away and think about all the nice people who just helped me. They were so calm and efficient, like they’d done this before.
The route to my office in downtown San Francisco takes me through streets cast in shadow by surrounding skyscrapers. On the chilly sidewalks, I fall into stride with the commuters around me. We are a hurried, distracted bunch. Even as we step off curbs and into crosswalks with blaring busses and trollies barreling down, we somehow still don’t take our eyes off our phones. We turn corners; we jaywalk; we adeptly skirt around the homeless and their scattered belongings, all while our impressive thumbs traverse tiny keyboards, fielding emails, responding to Slack messages, composing complex emoji sequences. We certainly don’t have time to smile at one another. Our hands are always moving—typing, putting in headphones, rummaging for our other devices, shielding our gargantuan yawns. We are too busy to notice that the cherry blossom trees on Sutter Street have started to bloom.
I am a burnt out millennial. I hear that I’m a cliché, but if that’s true, why do I feel so alone in my burnt-outness? I walk through the Financial District of San Francisco side-eyeing everyone with great suspicion. Are you really that into this? This frenetic routine of caffeinated drinks, long work hours, spin class, dinner, and sleep—is it really doing it for you? Who are we kidding? Can’t we all just come out and say that we’re unhappy?
You there, with the Herschel duffel bag: do you dream about quitting this race, putting away your phone, and creating something, anything, with your own hands? I do. Do you sometimes come close to missing your stop because you’re too caught up in imagining places without skyscrapers, places where sunshine is uninhibited, just waiting to warm your back, your eyelids, your smile lines? Does the idea of missing your train stop send just the slightest thrill up your spine?
I arrive at the door to my office and comb through my purse to find my keys. I catch my reflection in the glass and notice that my hair, which I’d curled earlier that morning, has already fallen. My locks are limp and lackluster and this upsets me. I press my fob to the sensor more forcefully than necessary and yank the heavy door open. I wait for the warmth of the office to thaw my extremities, chilled from the walk, but the warmth doesn’t come.
It’s 10:15am and Justin Timberlake is blasting on the office Sonos. I am supposed to be writing copy about the benefits of antioxidants for skin, but all I can think of is bringing sexy back. I turn around in my chair expecting to see others struggling with this Timberlake-induced paralysis, but everyone is happily tapping away on their laptops. This can’t be right. I work as a social strategist for a skincare company that oozes wellness in everything from our weekly green smoothies to the sage that the office manager burned after I broke the rule to not microwave fish. Surely, there is something under the umbrella of wellness that covers the optimal way to ease into a productive morning, and I highly doubt JT is included in it.
I consider stepping out to get a chai but then I remember that it’s raining. I should really get this copy written, but my resolve is slipping. I’ll go out once the rain stops, and the chai will help me kick things into gear. I remember that I need to text Nathan about picking things up for dinner. Should we do chicken thighs again? Those do make good leftovers; that’d be one less $16 lunch I’d be buying this week. Maybe I should actually take a real lunch break today instead of chomping down a salad in between writing emails at my desk. I’ll stake out a corner in a café, maybe read a book. But the report! I’m so behind on building that deck. Jessica is going to be asking about it soon, perhaps in another 9pm Slack message. Girl does not stop. How does she use her standing desk all day long? I should do that more. My jeans have been feeling tight. That almond-cardamom croissant I ate during my commute is not helping. What do I have to do to become one of those people that meal-preps everything on Sundays? Where do those people get the time? I still can’t believe I spent three hours on Saturday putting together an Instagram story for that stupid event we hosted. What’s a wellness company if people can’t even have their weekends? Dear lord, is this another Justin Timberlake song? I have to get out. Fuck. Still raining.
My Instagram account is a picture-perfect projection of a beautiful, envy-worthy existence. There I am roaming the streets of Portugal with my best friend. There’s me and Nathan at a Warrior’s game, just a few rows away from the court. There we are again, this time smiling in front of a glittering Eiffel Tower. Here, my life is laid out in neat, sunny squares that never stop beaming. Every little box is a capsule of happiness, every caption evidence of my wit.
Not pictured in the pretty aesthetics I pore over: the fatigue that’s etched its way under my eyes, the silent moments I spend looking back at myself in the mirror wondering, Is this really it? Nor is the virtual pile of work pictured that awaits me each week, or the dread that blooms inside my chest as the weekend wanes.
My Instagram account is just one of millions that presents perfection as truth. We all have ways of curating our dream lives and dream selves on social media. In her January 2019 BuzzFeed essay “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Anne Petersen draws the connection between social media and online branding. No longer is a post just a post, it’s an opportunity to portray an “on-brand” persona that could help to better market oneself for jobs. Petersen writes that with smartphones, there is no such thing as “off the clock” when every moment is open to the possibility of getting messaged by an employer and open to the opportunity of building one’s brand.
Because I live in the Bay Area, my life is permeated by tech culture, which has done an astounding job at optimizing the standard day-to-day. In just a matter of clicks, I can get food delivered from the crowded Burmese spot down the street, have my dirty laundry picked up, send flowers for a friend’s birthday, do my grocery shopping, pay my rent, and reserve a spot in a group fitness class near my office. My small, mighty thumbs can add hours to my day if I so choose. But what do I end up doing with all the extra time? Certainly not kicking back on the couch in front of the TV. I do it for the same reason everyone else does: to optimize productivity.
The prevalence of this kind of technology is such that millennials always have a way to make space for more work. This, coupled with the pressure of hustle culture, which touts an obsessive and sickeningly cheery work ethic 24/7, is the main reason I remain confounded by accusations from older generations that millennials are a whiny, lazy lot. When I look at studies online—which is where all the studies are!—I see statistics that are reflective of the reality I’ve come to know all too well.
According to a report by the Manpower Group, nearly three quarters of millennials worldwide work over 40 hours a week. This same report cites that over half of millennials expect to work past the age of 65, which is older than the average retirement age. A particularly disturbing statistic from a 2018 survey shows that 48% of surveyed millennials actually want to be seen as work martyrs. When I looked up the definition of “work martyr” I learned that it is a person who works long hours instead of taking breaks or even vacation time out of fear of being seen as undedicated to the job. I think I’ll pass…
I feel like buying things all the time—jackets, shoes, beauty products, a new phone, a laptop, overpriced athleisure sets. A therapist would tell me that I’m trying to fill an emotional void with material items. Yep. I may be the only person on the planet who actually seeks out a Facebook ad; this is how badly I want brands to sell me something. A therapist would tell me that I’m using shopping as a quick happiness fix because I’m not finding joy in other areas of my life. Again, thanks.
For the past nine months, I’ve been caught in a current of false starts. I don’t know what all of my doing is actually doing. Between the new job I’ve lost interest in, the diets I’ve divorced, and the creative writing projects I’ve let flounder, I struggle to catch my breath. I can hardly keep my head above water long enough to make sense of things, get riled by a sunset, or feel something other than tired and bogged down. I have the unshakeable feeling that I’m missing out.
My life is as diluted as a watercolor. It grows more monochromatic with every extra hour I spend at the office, every Sunday evening I use to prepare for the week, every work-related scenario that haunts me in my dreams, every dinner conversation plagued by my venting. Work bleeds into every part of my life, muddying its other hues, blurring once-defined boundaries, curling my corners inward so that work is all I see. Well, work and the new Molly Two Piece set I’ve been eyeing from Reformation.
Sleepless Sleep It’s 3:36am on Thursday and I’m curled up at the edge of the bed, cradling my phone, typing. The screen casts its pale light across my face and I feel my eyes adjust to the familiar brightness. Behind me, Nathan snores, behind him, our dog rests in her kennel. I should be doing the same—snoring, that is—but my thoughts won’t leave me alone. They’ve seeped into my slumber, stalked me in my dreams, stolen me from sleep. Do something… they urge. Not now… it’s the middle of the night… later. But they don’t relent until all of my bones are awake. So I oblige.
I start doing that something. I write. I was a writer before I was anything else. Lately, I’ve been saying this to people. When they ask how I got into the strategic career field that I’m in, I cock my head and say, “Well, actually, I was a writer before I was anything else.” Of course, I wasn’t a writer before I was anything else. I was a daughter, a sister, a tomboy, a brown girl with a curly head full of dreams. Then I picked up a book, and another, and another. Then I picked up a glitter-inked gel pen and wrote stories in a notebook until my hand grew tired. This was the beginning of my love affair with writing.
Lying on my side, punching clunky sentences into my Notes app on my phone is not how I normally write, but still, there’s something about it that thrills me. Doing this defies my routine. It adds some unexpected color to my life. It makes me feel like I’m onto something: a way out. I don’t know if what I’m writing will become anything at all, but with every word I feel lighter, less tethered to the madness, like I’m closer to where I’m supposed to be.
So I keep tapping away: I’m on a train headed to downtown San Francisco and somehow I feel the wind against my skin.
Chante Owens has been writing since she was old enough to wield a gel pen across a composition notebook. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Pacific University and explores various aspects of her identity through personal essay. Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, she now lives in the Bay Area where she works in digital media, but dreams, even still, of the desert. You can find chante on Instagram: @chanteo