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Letting Fun In



Don't overthink it.


I used to have so much fun. In fact, I used to BE so much fun. In college, I was the social planner for the rugby team—I was responsible for throwing parties every weekend with fun themes. In grad school, I became a regular at a secret bar hidden in a parking garage where Cee-lo and Janelle Monae were known to make appearances.


After grad school, I aborted my plan to go straight to medical school because I realized I hadn’t got all the fun out of my system. I was in no shape to be someone’s doctor so I booked a one way ticket to Rio de Janeiro. I lived and worked in a hostel two blocks from Ipanema Beach where I had all the fun with intriguing people from across the world. There, I felt empowered to finally come out of the closet, embrace my eclectic interests, and lean into my ability to create and share joy with others.

Then, I went to medical school. I chose to attend a school in Chicago because two close friends from college were at the same school already. At this point, I was pretty confident that I’d once again be able to balance working my ass off in school and playing hard as a reward.


Needless to say, I learned quite quickly that working my ass off wasn’t paying off like it used to, and the fun I received from playing became hard to justify as a reward. Then came the crippling anxiety, the stress of the cost of living on 6K a semester, and the toll of judging myself against the 21 year olds who studied for 15 hours a day.

I had to learn to live a new life, one that included a new relationship to fun. [In therapy, I refer to everything up to this period in life as the “fun Kali era”] My new medical school life included sitting at a coffee shop 5 days a week from 7:30 am to 5pm (including a nap at the table because, surprise, I had undiagnosed narcolepsy!). I ate a rotation of cheap meals like the pasta special, trash vegetable salad, and stir fry. I instituted a mandatory bedtime of 8:30 pm that changed for no one. Fun was relegated to Saturday night between 5pm and 12 am, had to fit within the budget of ten bucks, and needed to be an activity I deemed was worth my time.


This new life did come with increased confidence in my non-15 hour approach to studying, which led to improved test-taking skills and better grades. Yes, I felt less anxious without a bustling social life to manage. Yes, the Saturday night queer dance parties I squeezed in were reinvigorating. Yes, I was exercising 6 days a week and in the best physical shape of my life. But, I was the most isolated I’d ever been in my life. I watched my friends create a life that only included me one day a week. I was emotionally unavailable to others until I decided I wasn’t. This approach worked: I was admitted into a top residency program, excelled with patient care, and created anti-racism programs that I felt made an impact in my community.


The only thing missing was fun.


“Med School Kali” works hard but rarely plays hard. In exchange, she gets shit done when the pedal needs to hit the metal, which is basically always, given the current economy, the number of patients in distress needing to be seen, and the need for warriors to fight the increasingly pervasive systemic injustice in the world.


However, I’ve noticed that recently, med school Kali is less efficient, more anxious, and so tired she procrastinates on important tasks. She maintains a rigid schedule that affords quality time with her dog over her partner, loved ones, and herself. She is mostly in despair with the state of the world.


She desperately needs to have some fun.

Your Therapy Takeaway

I’m sharing 3 questions to ask yourself about your relationship to fun (or, lack there of).


1 - What are your Bouncer’s requirements to let Fun into the club?


We all have a Bouncer when it comes to letting fun into the club (eg. our lives). For example, to get into my club, fun has to wait in line with money, sleep, responsibility, tummy aches, even Instagram. And since buying our home five months ago, money, sleep and responsibility are the only VIP’s cool enough to get in. Fun is literally waiting out in the cold every night.


I realized I had sent fun Kali away on a one-way ticket out of town. This is because I felt she was dangerous—she uses up all the energy needed to manage med school Kali’s anxiety, ADHD, narcolepsy. So, since September, med school Kali has been running the show. She gets shit done by watching no more than 30 mins of tv, she flakes on friends the day of if she hasn’t finished her task list, and only really socializes with her dog. But, eventually, she becomes really miserable. She doesn’t see the point of working so hard to make money to support the capitalist real estate market. So she sulks while the people she cares about have fun. And, at some point, everyone does coax fun Kali out, but because she’s been shut in for so long, she makes a hot mess of things — cutting in line, making a mess of things.


The truth is, if my bouncer let fun Kali was into the club on a regular basis, she wouldn’t be so dangerous because she would not need to act out or turn up.


2 - Can you receive the fun that others offer you?


In the throes of my deep disdain for working, I can be pretty terrible to be around. And like most people, my loved ones bear the brunt of this negativity. A couple of months ago, during an argument, my partner said, “we used to have so much fun together, and now I only get that from my friends.”


OUCH. But she was right. Her words forced me to reckon with the impact of all the no’s I’d given her when she asked to spend time with me. We were definitely in a rough patch, and I realized it was because she had been holding the responsibility for fun in our relationship while I felt like I was holding the responsibility for adulting. I didn’t necessarily need to sign up for every event on her social calendar, but I wasn’t even letting myself do the little things like reviewing funny memes before bed, playing dominoes while watching law and order, or trying new restaurants. And when I did partake, I was a total scrooge feeling too worried about staying out too late, spending too much money, or not meeting a deadline. I was not only depriving myself but also my partner of the thing that connected us in the first place: laughter.


So I’ve been working on saying yes. Yes to sleeping in Sunday mornings. Yes to Saturday date nights. Yes to stopping work at 7pm and watching a comedy. And if saying yes stresses me out too much, I am only allowed to say no if I offer another option.


If you’re having trouble letting fun in, you might also be influencing the amount of fun your loved ones are having. Chances are that someone around you — your partner, sibling, child, co-worker - have been offering you opportunities to correct the fun deficit. Challenge yourself to say yes next time to happy hour, seeing a movie, playing Candyland with your kids (IDK if Candyland is still a thing I don’t have kids lol), closing the laptop to snuggle with your partner in bed.


3 - Are you overthinking your fun?


Every now and then one of my overachieving friends (guess who?) comments on whether working is our only hobby. It forces me to scroll through my rolodex of personal experiences over the past month to prove her wrong. Inevitably leads me to wondering why I can’t identify any hobbies besides reading about the neuroscience of ADHD, strategies for political advertising, or listening to non-fiction books about sociological trends. My instinct is to think that the hobbies or activities that lead to fun are different now that I’m a responsible doctor. Friends are too busy for private room karaoke. My 39 year old body is too old and fragile to play club sports. My bank account can’t afford beach vacations whenever I want them. Then I thought, wtf is a hobby anyway? An activity that brings fun or pleasure or relaxation? To count as a hobby, do you have to do the thing regularly? Should it be something you can gain mastery over?


Per Catherine Price, science journalist and author of The Power of Fun, “true fun…materializes when we experience the confluence of three psychological states: playfulness, connection and flow.” She offers three suggestions for accessing fun again, after a period of losing it: find your fun magnet, put fun on your calendar, and fun is okay in low doses.


I’ll admit, putting fun on my calendar is a tough one because everyone knows I’m the flakiest person alive when it comes to socializing. But, somehow, I did it.


I’m writing from NYC right now, where I arrived last night to see one of my favorite French pop stars live. Mind you, I already saw her on Saturday night in DC. It took a deliberate effort to put these concerts on my calendar, force myself to spend the money on travel and tickets, and actually get here on a Tuesday night. Full disclosure: I don’t have kids, I have a virtual job, and the means to travel. This is a large dose of fun and it will have to last me a long while— but it is something.


What does fun look like for you? Don’t overthink it.


You got this,

Kali


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