How to be an adult
Can’t Cope Won’t Cope’s Stefanie Preissner - plus Paul Howard, Maia Dunphy and others - on what it takes to be a grown-up
In her new documentary series, Stefanie Preissner looks at six ways of being an adult. Photograph: RTE
Maturity high-five: Stefanie Preissner’s new show is called ‘How to Adult’ and is based on the advice of experts. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Stefanie Preissner is finding out How to Adult – and not just in her new documentary series of the same name.
“There’s just kind of an adultness about my life now that wasn’t there before,” she says. “That’s not necessarily to do with age, it’s also to do with where I am in my career, but I don’t feel quite ready for it.”
She is the writer behind RTÉ’s lauded Can’t Cope Won’t Cope, but now she will appear in front of the camera in a series that follows her recurring theme. She is by her nature “a very anxious person” and “all of my work, from the get-go, has been about coping mechanisms,” she says.
Preissner is telling me this over a grown-up cup of coffee in a fancy Dublin hotel, and we are keeping our voices low because there are some older people reading papers by the fire. I tell her that I’m not sure there is a definite threshold into adulthood. My aunt is in her sixties and often talks about getting a t-shirt made that says: “I don’t have any of the answers”.
“But that’s so scary,” Preissner says, “I really want to get up one day and be like, Now! Even if I wear a shirt and iron it myself and go to the Merrion, I still feel like an imposter. So I said, I want to look at what it is to be an adult.”
Preissner sets about answering questions that she now finds herself grappling with. Having just turned 29, notions of mortgages and pensions have suddenly been thrust upon her.
“Irish people think that if you’ve been on the Late Late Show that you must be a millionaire. I keep having people saying, you should start saving for a pension now or, would you not get a mortgage? And I’m like, get a mortgage with what?”
There will be six episodes covering mortgages, pensions, health, cars, jobs, and sexual health, “which was so scary.”
She didn’t want it to be “like a legally blonde girl going, teach me how to tie my shoe. I acknowledge that I’m a very intelligent person, but there are things that I don’t know that I should know and I’m going to go in search of that information.”
Preissner describes a scene where they filmed her preparing for the panel of RTE’s Cutting Edge. “It’s very, very high pressure, and I get quite anxious so I come with my media trainer.” This is the first nod to Lorcan, who becomes a recurring character in our conversation. “I can’t reconcile the idea that I would say something for the first time on live television...There’s a person following you around to take hairs off your clothes and no one is prepping you for what you’re going to say….”
It’s becoming clear that this theme of conscious coping is woven through Preissner’s entire life. She recently wrote about a panic attack so crippling that it forced her to come home early from an Australian tour. (She pretended she was still over there by uploading photos of postcards on to Facebook. )
She no longer suffers to the same extent, but “I don’t really like crowds or situations where I feel like it could all get out of control and I don’t really know what the rules are and there’s no grown-ups... I even have fears of awards dinners...like the Women of the Year awards I was really like…” Here, she mimes the sort of breathing they teach in antenatal classes.
Nevertheless, she has the comedian’s knack of mining her neuroses for material. “I really do struggle. Some days it’s worse than others, but my job facilitates a life of semi-solitude.” Her Fitbit “keeps me from agoraphobia because I have to get out. I don’t just walk around my house in 10,000 steps.”
I tell her that so often it seems to be that creative people whose work depends on their observation of the world seem slower to go out into it. “I’m happy to walk around town on my own and observe. It’s more the demands, the exigencies of the days” like visits to accountants and work-related confrontations. She is happiest waking up knowing “today, I can just write.”
Curtailing her social media was vital to her sanity. “I got off Facebook because that sort of influx of other people’s opinions and my opinions forming on other people’s realities, which are not realities, was a bit much.”
Despite her protestations, is she really so bad at being an adult? Her career is on the rise and her writing routine commences at 4.30 am each morning. “I’m very disciplined but I have to be because if I wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t get up in the morning.”
I confess that I did a bit of Instagram stalking and saw that she gave up sugar a year ago and enjoys frequent gruelling workouts. It made me regret the little joke I’d made in our introductory email about looking forward to delicious hotel scones.
“I don’t eat sugar. I don’t really do moderation. I don’t drink, not anymore because of sugar. So I am pretty disciplined. Am I good at being an adult? I feel like I’m getting better at it. I have got great grown-ups in my life. Lorcan is younger than me, but he’s a grown up. He has all of his cards in a little cardholder, that’s an adult thing to do.”
Still, Preissner’s career focus is uncommon for a 29-year-old. She will be an associate producer on the next series of Can’t Cope, which will air on BBC3 this month.
“Jesus,” she says into her hand, at the reminder. “All the Brits coming after me being like, what does this mean?”
Like Lena Dunham’s Girls, the women she depicts are not her, but live some version of her life seen in a rearview mirror. “Neither Aisling nor Danielle could be running their own show. They don’t have their shit together. If I was still that way I wouldn’t be able to tell that story because I would be like, sorry RTÉ not coming into the meeting, hungover, soz.”
How she views herself is firmly wrapped up in her career. “If you took my career away from me, I would really struggle to find my identity. The only way for me to achieve the things I am achieving is to get up and write and keep writing, because I hate listing it... but I have, since January, written a book, a pilot episode for Channel 4, two episodes of Can’t Cope Won’t Cope, the second draft of a feature film for the Irish Film Board, filmed a documentary series.”
So something’s got to give. “I sacrifice socialising which is fine because I don’t like it anyway. When you quit sugar and when you don’t drink, you find that friends fall away very quickly. For the most part I have JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out.”
She is vocal about her anxiety, but mental health is not one of the areas covered in the new documentary shorts.
“I struggled with mental health, it was labelled depression. I was really happy with that because I had a thing that I had a name for and that I could attack, take a tablet. I was on television shows talking about mental health, I wrote about it. I was the face of millennial depression for a small time. And one day I was like, what happens if I come off these drugs and I’m no longer depressed and I move past this, who will I be then?
“I thought, I better not be better. And that’s really f*cked up because that’s the point isn’t it, you want to get better. So I said, I’m not going to talk about this anymore.”
She worries that she did “a disservice to people who have depression, undermining what it must feel like to wake up in the morning and think I can’t do this. I’ve lost friends to suicide.”
Now she thinks of mental health on a spectrum, like physical health. “I was having a period of poor mental health. I’ll probably go through bad times again.”
Fitness, she says, played a significant role in her turnaround, mainly kickboxing and martial arts. “People say, you should do yoga and mindfulness and I’m like, lads I’m sitting down at my desk from 4.30 in the morning being still and digging into my creative brain. I need to kick the shit out of something.”
I spared myself years of uncomfortable situations, hangovers and less productivity by just saying no
Preissner was never quite as bad as the Can’t Cope party animals but she says she lacked the confidence to open up about her social anxiety. “I never wanted to go to clubs so I would try to manipulate the whole group to stay in a pub if that meant buying another round. I would just try to control it. And now it’s like, I can just not go.” (Although there was a time, she admits, when she had a gold card membership to Coppers.)
Not going out now is akin to the “soft focus days” she sometimes gives herself, “where I don’t wear my glasses because then I don’t see things in such sharp focus and then it’s all just a little bit less.”
But don’t all of these things sound very grown up? “Or is it like immature, like, no, I want it my way?
“I’ve figured out how a way to make myself work in the world. I definitely spared myself years of uncomfortable situations, hangovers and less productivity by just saying no.”
Preissner was reared by her mother in Mallow after they moved there from Germany when she was two. She visits her grandmother in Castleknock often, who even features in How to Adult, giving pension advice, “I think she’s going to get her own spin off.” She has a lot of strong women in her life, “definitely more than men, but I never saw that as a thing.” And their careers inspired her. “My mother was an entrepreneur and my grandmother had her own chemist, like before women did that. I wanted to be the first female garda commissioner... I’ve always been like, I want this, I want this...”
Nevertheless, she worries about her ever-shifting markers of happiness. “I think, have I pushed happiness on to the horizon of success where, y’know, if you’d asked me two years ago ‘when will you be happy?’, I’d have been like, when I get verified on Twitter!” She laughs. “And that happened, so I’d say, if Can’t Cope gets a second season, if this, if that.
“I just don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied, and in a way that’s great because it will keep me working.
“I look at friends in Mallow and they have their jobs and they finish at five o’clock and they have their kids and they have Sunday lunch and they’re content and it’s like, who’s winning here? And then I remind myself it’s not a competition. I wouldn’t be happy in that paradigm.”
She has developed ways of reining herself in. “I’m big into gratitude, where I’m like, cop on now, just write down a list of five things that you’re really grateful for right now. That turns my day on its head.”
She talks about coping with the sadness of a friend’s recent death. “When he died, I found myself in the middle of a shop being like: what can I buy, what can I eat or do to help this, and that’s an adult thing, to realise, no, you’re just going to have to go through this.”
The new show is based on the advice of experts. “You’re not getting random people’s opinions. We went to a mortgage advisor, a pensions advisor, a doctor, a dietician.”
But didn’t every generation just wing it in the adult world? “Maybe no one ever knew about mortgages or pensions but it was much easier; with pensions you just went into your job and you just paid into it at source.
“With mortgages, now it’s like the hunger games, there are no houses.
“Those institutions are not ready for us. We’re also so tech savvy and internet connected, there is so much information. I don’t know who to trust. ”
The nuns were trying to make us scared of having sex. If they’d given us the actual information, I would’ve been terrified of having it
The information will be presented in a fun way, she says, but “if someone calls me a millennial again I’ll go through them … Oh you’re snowflakes, oh you want the job before you’ve even done the training. Oh you can’t do anything.
“This is not a novelty thing. This is information you need.” Preissner considers it completely unacceptable to only find out at the age of 28 that a vaccination given before a woman becomes sexually active can eradicate her risk of contracting HPV.
“The nuns were trying to make us scared of having sex. If they’d given us the actual information, I would’ve been terrified of having it. Don’t tell me that Jesus is going to be annoyed with me, tell me that I might get cancer! Be clever nuns!”
So now she’s opened a credit union account and is mulling over her pension options, but “I’m not engaging with mortgages. I rang my old maths teacher and said, I want to come into the school and talk about why you didn’t teach me financial maths and actually it’s a course on the Leaving Cert now.” The students totted up her numbers and she was horrified. “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to be paying that!”
Preissner has learned that adulthood is expensive, and only slightly easier “partnered up.”
“I never was really big into video games but whenever I was, I never went on the tutorial. I remember walking around tombs with Lara Croft trying to keep away from bears, trying to figure it out. I’m like, I can do this, let’s just keep pressing all the buttons.”
It is also a question of the expectations of her generation. “I have that equation of happiness equals expectation versus reality. I think our expectations were so high.”
What of the idea that younger people now have too many choices, I say, trying my hand at playing the elder in this conversation. Preissner doesn’t think the world was presented to her like that. A career guidance teacher told her not to do drama and get a proper degree. “Like, how reckless is that.”
By the nature of technology, hers is an “instant gratification generation.” And “there’s a sort of Instagram generation thing of ‘I feel entitled to take my own picture of Bondi Beach’, like I have seen it and now I want to do it. That’s a good thing, but yes it does it makes you feel like everything is achievable and when you’re not achieving it it’s like, oh god there’s something wrong.”
Is it strange that all this anxiety works alongside a compulsion to put so much of herself out there?
It’s like, can I just tell you that I’m anxious about my future without you telling me that I’m reckless and that I buy too many lattes?
“It’s horrific though. What am I doing? It must be self-harm like,” she jokes. “It’s kind of like tit for tat: you like my stuff, well here’s a little bit more about me. If Can’t Cope was written by a middle-aged man, people would relate to it differently.”
I tell her I laughed a little too heartily at the morning after pill scene in Can’t Cope. She tells me about a similar moment in How to Adult, “basically that scene with an actual pharmacist where I’m like, if I’m sleeping with someone in the Big Five with a good clean job, do I still have to use protection? And she’s like, your job does not protect you from chlamydia.”
She hopes it won’t be dismissed as millennial nonsense. “It’s so unhelpful. It’s like, can I just tell you that I’m anxious about my future without you telling me that I’m reckless and that I buy too many lattes. Can someone meet me where I’m at?”
She believes that ridicule has become a “potent weapon” which only serves to make people “shut down and not talk to you and disregard you and that’s how Donald Trump gets elected.”
I tell Preissner that if being an adult is all the good old-fashioned stuff of being true to yourself and working hard, then she seems to have a fairly good handle on that.
“If that’s what being an adult is, then yes. And it makes me uncompromising. But it also makes me be a good friend, a good employee and a good granddaughter.
“One of my pet peeves is people saying ‘maybe’ when they mean no. And I don’t do that anymore. There are people who cannot hear the word no and they’re not my friends anymore. But my friends know there’s no malice. It means when I do things, I want to do them. I’m fully there.”
Stefanie Preissner's How to Adult, is available to view from Thursday, 18th May on RTÉ Player www.rte.ie/player
Stef Preissner’s six tips for being an adult
1: Save like you’re an 11-year-old
Remember when you took all your communion money and lobbed it into the credit union after you’d bought your furby? Well it turns out that in lieu of a pension, opening a credit union account is still the best option. That €50 you weren’t expecting from nana for Christmas? Save it, you weren’t expecting it so you won’t miss it. Saving what you can when you can doesn’t carry the same pressure as having to save a specific amount each month. Saving something is better than nothing.
2: Talk about sex
Shuffle off that Catholic shame and be open about your sexual health. From filming the documentary I’ve learned that contraception is not just the pill or the bar, there are other options and STI checks are not for other people. They’re for you and me and anyone having sex. If you’re having some sexual health issues, or some difficulty with your partner, talk about it. But not to me, please. I’m still wayyyyy too uncomfortable about the whole thing, but there are doctors who know stuff and they’re really sound and don’t embarrass you at all.
3: You’re gonna regret #YOLO
The bigger picture is scary and sort of out of focus, I agree. But make sure the things that make you happy today are contributing to what will make you happy in the long run. That burger and chips or €200 pair of shoes might feel great for a minute, but are you going to look back in a few days and feel guilt? Probably not worth it. You only live once, so you should probably exercise caution in all your affairs. After all, your life is the thing you’ll have for the longest.
4: Get a grown-up
It’s not immature to ask for guidance. Getting yourself a real adult who has their $h!£ together is a sensible and responsible move. Ask questions from people who’ve gone ahead of you and take the advice that worked for them. Unbiased opinions from people who aren’t on commission are worth their weight in gold. Getting a mortgage, organising a pension, choosing a car or asking for a raise are all big grown-up moves and there’s no shame in having your hand held a little in the process. People who climb Mount Everest without a Sherpa take their lives in their hands and generally don’t come out the better of it.
5: A portion of Carbs before Marbs is ok
You’ve heard it all before but in my experience, cutting out entire food groups only ever lasts a couple of weeks or months before the inevitable carbohydrate binge. Apparently if one quarter of your dinner plate is carbs, one quarter is protein and half is veg... you’re on the right track. That seems simple enough? Also let’s stop calling it Marbs.
6: Wear your seatbelt
Road safety mottos were drilled into us at school but no one told us the hidden dangers of driving a car. If you’re buying a car from a private seller splash out on the €15 to do an online car check. It’ll tell you the history of the car; if it’s been written off before, if there is finance owing on it, or – one horror story I came across while filming How To Adult – if it’s in fact two different cars welded together.
Good luck out there. Maturity high-five.
The first time I felt like an adult
Louise McSharry, DJ and author
“I think the first time I really felt like an adult was the first time I made a doctor’s appointment for my son, Sam. There was something about being responsible for something outside of myself which made me realise it was proper grown-up time. He is relying on me, and I can’t mess up on his stuff the way I might mess up on my own!”
Jarlath Regan, comedian
“I’ve never felt like a grown up. I’ve always felt like I was the same lad who used to be obsessed with doing wheelies on my bicycle, only now I have more bills to pay and a car that won’t do wheelies. Then the other day my six-year-old had a play date with his best friend at our house. I walked into his bedroom and they looked at me the same way I looked at my Da when he interrupted me having the craic with my pals. To them, I was the cops and they were the outlaws. I walked away with my head in my hands and started considering a pension plan.”
Maia Dunphy, TV presenter
“There are so many small milestones on the way to feeling like an adult. The first time you can buy a drink without being asked for ID, learning to drive, leaving home, your first pay packet. The ones which feel far more epiphanous are those which involve responsibility or loss. When I brought home my baby son in 2015, I was terrified, but then over the subsequent months came to realise that I could cope much better than I thought, and I remember one particular day feeling a wave of ‘Gosh, I’m a proper adult now’ rush over me.
“But then I spotted a teenage girl wearing the same top as me and wondered which of us was getting it wrong.
“If we can keep a sense of fun and individuality, then feeling like an adult doesn’t have to mean feeling a bit defeated as is sometimes implied. I met a women in her 80s who said she was filling in a form and under the age range, the final box option to tick was 65+. She said ‘I’m such a grown up now there isn’t even a box for me!’ I loved that.”
“There was an occasion in my teens where I felt completely alone. At that moment I realised there was no cavalry coming over the hill to save me. It’s a feeling that has stuck with me all during my adult life. In hindsight it was a positive moment. I realised you can’t rely on others for happiness or security. From that moment I’ve learnt to give back, to live and love as much as I can. Everyone has their own struggle, so be sympathetic.”
Paul Howard, author
“It was when I earned my first week’s wages. It was September 1988. I was 17 and I had a job in John Hinde Limited, the postcard manufacturer in Cabinteely, Dublin, where I was employed as a general dogsbody and sweeper-upper in the platemaking department.
“I went from school, where I was a very immature teenager, into this world of grown-ups, where everyone seemed to have children and facial hair and a stock of bawdy jokes.
“I think my voice first broke when I walked through the factory gates. I even remember trying to dress like an adult to go to work. My father lent me a pair of Farah slacks until I got paid and could afford a pair of Farah slacks of my own. In those first few weeks, I learned so much – how to look grown-ups in the eye when I spoke to them, how to hold my own when the slagging started, how to take lunch orders from 15 or 16 people and give everyone back the correct change.
“And then at the end of the second week, I got my first pay packet. It was £59.65, cash, in a square, brown envelope – and it would go up £66.85 once I was taken off the emergency tax. I’d only had money twice in my life – when I made my Communion and when I made my Confirmation. This was the most money I’d ever held in my hand. And it was going to be every week. I wasn’t just an adult. I was Jay Gatsby.”