Photo by Emily Long
I am a collector of stories. I love to hear all about someone’s background – how they got from there to here, met so-and-so, followed their dreams…all of it. True or fictional, tell me over a drink or let me buy it in a bookstore.
The inner-workings of a person are what I find most interesting. Perhaps, this is why I spent 7 years studying psychology. I read and hear these stories with a keen ear for adventure. I am in awe of what people are able to get through with perseverance, how they manage to make the most out of awful circumstances, and how more often than not, people are able to find some bit of happiness along the way.
Growing up, I loved stories about people who picked up and moved their lives to a new city or started driving one day and just kept going. The idea of going somewhere, anywhere, is a dream I have held on to since age 11. I never thought of it as more than a dream, though. I always assumed those people had something I didn’t. ‘They must have money,’ I’d think. My list of why these people could succeed in their journeys and I could not was expansive. Clearly these were people who were smarter, more confident, more something than I was. Oh, and I was certain that these were people who didn’t truly understand what it meant to be alone (no one could be as alone as I felt at times was my reasoning).
I separate myself from others a lot. For most of my life, I’ve felt like I’m standing still while everyone else moves quickly past me – hitting all of the “milestones” along the way (the boyfriend, the dances, the perfect college experience, cool job, fiancé, husband, baby, house…). It’s like I’ve been walking alongside the people mover at the airport – my friends and peers making their flights, while I’m stuck moving only as fast as my short legs will go. I’ve always been, and continue to remain, the observer. I watch and attempt to learn how these people manage it, but I’m always the one staring out the window, standing in the cold, dreaming of stepping into the warmth with the others.
“Participation” is not a word I enjoy. It brings panic and a fear I still can’t completely understand. I pretend I don’t care. But I care. I really care. For years, I had convenient life circumstances that prevented me from stepping out of my comfort zone. Caring for a terminally ill family member, finishing college, entering graduate school, working…these all require time and sacrifices, and I allowed them to fill my life. I allowed the expectations of others to dictate my own direction. I went along with who I thought people wanted me to be. I’d try to rock the boat, feel it tipping, and then quickly sit back down – letting the stillness fill the emptiness.
Then, one day, I let the boat capsize. I had the crazy idea to take a trip to Portland, OR, by myself. I made the travel arrangements and then told my family I’d be gone for a few days. I returned from the trip a different person than I was before. I had been able to think about things without distraction, and was able to see that I was okay on my own. More than okay. I did something I had thought was impossible for me. ‘Other people take spontaneous trips on their own, not me,’ I thought. And so, I came back and made the choice I’d made in my mind over a year earlier, but had yet to execute. I left my doctoral program with one semester and an internship year to go.
I started feverishly applying to jobs outside of the only area I’d ever called home. I prepared for a new life – a life without the safety and familiarity of my friends and family. I cried, a lot, through the slow, and frustrating process. I felt like giving up all the time, but I continued – I’ve always been persistent (read: stubborn). I let the confidence I had built over the past two years be my anchor. The death of my grandmother changed me completely. I felt broken for a long time once I no longer had someone to care for. Now, my orbit had shifted and I started letting people in again – I even started going out on weekends!
Looking back I can see how those little acts, shifting my focus to the parts of me I had been neglecting, prepared me for where I am now – which is great, because where I am now is a place I never expected. Even two months ago, this would have seemed impossible. It would have seemed like a dream. All of those stories I had collected throughout my life made me think I wasn’t exceptional enough to have an adventure like this of my own. I thought I was too boring…and then, I accepted a job offer 900 miles from home and moved within a week. I adopted a dog (who may be the Batman this city truly needs). I have my own space. And more importantly, I’m okay.
I have broken the tradition of my family. At 26 years old, I’m not married, not even dating anyone, and I don’t have kids. I’m not trying to fit my life into a story that isn’t mine anymore. I have no idea what’s next, and I’m excited, frustrated and ready for it all at the same time!
There’s no big secret to getting what you want out of life. It doesn’t take “a certain type of person,” and happy, fulfilled people are not an exclusive group. It takes the courage to trust yourself and believing that you can be the exception to your own rules. Happiness can be hard to find – you have to pursue it. Make mistakes (you will, trust me), and accept them as yours. Be your own exception. It’s pretty awesome.