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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Dawn of Friendship

 I've often felt like I wandered through life without friends. I never had a difficult time meeting or talking with people. I was not shy. I could usually find a group in which to fit regardless of the situation. But for most of my life I have felt like I have seldom had friends. Many of the times it was my own doing - I'd shove people away, guilt them in ways that I knew would make them want to escape or I'd ignore them knowing that they would move on and not look back. Several times though I would be in a group of people and I would feel like they were humoring me and I wasn't privy to the joke. I'd often choose not to do things with people just to avoid that very sad feeling. Even the few people that I would identify as my best and closest friends were not exempt from this - I would feel like even they would take short breaks from me to spend time with friends that were less exhausting and more together. And often times these very same people would tell me their deepest darkest secrets and I'd listen and talk with them and rush to their aid, but I never felt like I could do the same. I'd stand surrounded by a group that looked very much like my friends and all I would see was that I was alone. And so I started a habit of holding back a lot of what I thought and felt - always keeping some part of me private from almost everyone.

The first time I recall feeling like this was in the middle of a slumber party in elementary school. Somewhere in the middle of all the fun I remember looking around and thinking that no one liked me. There were no adverse words said, no overt action, but somewhere between the gossip, the 45s playing Karma Chameleon on the record player and the game of truth or dare I felt alone. That moment was so clear to me - one moment I was dancing around singing and the next I was overcome with a profound sadness. Sometimes I would exist for long periods of time where I would feel accepted by those people that I called friends, but suddenly the feelings would drift over me and again I would experience that desolate feeling. Sometimes I would go months and months without feeling this way. Other times I would shift between thinking someone may or may not be a friend from minute to minute.

During the year I was in eighth grade I was acutely aware that no one could stand me. I felt like I had one friend and although I would express a few of these feelings to her I mostly kept them to myself - I feared that exposing the truth that no one liked me would make her question why she might and I'd lose the only person with which I felt comfortable. At lunch I'd sit in a group with my "friends," I'd bring extra staples of the same meal I'd eat day in and day out for one of the members of my group that I though only liked me for that reason. And even though I'd talk with these friends, even though they would call me on the phone or return my calls, even though one might invite me to spend the night or we'd get ready to attend a dance together I still felt friendless. It wasn't logical but to me it was true.

This pretty much continued on throughout high school. If you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I didn't have any friends during those four years. I had people that I talked with in class or in the halls, I had a lunch table where I sat with people and laughed about things that I can no longer remember until tears spilled from my eyes, but I was convinced that none of them liked me all that much. And yet if you peruse my photo albums there are pictures there of me smiling in groups of people looking happy as can be. My yearbooks are signed by people that wrote personal memories and left their numbers so that we would never lose touch - they weren't simple names or generic messages scrawled on the pages out of obligation from the person that handed you their yearbook. I had a collection of senior pictures from various people. But I spent almost no time outside of school with any of these people and I'm pretty sure that no one noticed.  And yet as much as I often hurt inside I never turned to any of these people and told them how scared or lonely I was feeling.

And so during the summer between high school and college I worked and meticulously checked items off my list as I packed things to escape to college. There I told myself I would finally have friends, the kind where I wouldn't feel so lonely in their presence. I would finally have people that I wasn't so afraid of losing that I was never myself. I made friends but it took me until the middle of my freshman year to feel like I'd finally found my group. And most of the time I felt like I had friends. I could walk down the hall and hang out in someone's room and have the deep philosophical discussions that you do in college. My freshman year we established traditions - Wednesday nights we'd order pizza and watch Doogie Howser and just laugh and talk on the one night that we reserved for noting else. My sophomore year the group of us that did not study abroad lived through my roommate turning on all of us and declaring how immoral we were. They rallied to my side when I didn't get the job at the newspaper that I wanted so badly as they made me laugh through my tears at Bonnie Doon's. We took road trips and we sat to all hours of the night and talked about everything and nothing. My junior year we were a fixture in the basement smoking lounge as we played countless games of euchre to avoid studying and talked about all manner of topics. We had all countless inside jokes that I still remember to this day. A small group of us were inseparable. When we weren't together it was almost shocking to anyone that knew us. I had a still larger circle of good friends that I could turn to if needed and yet I never did - I was the together one and yet I was always on the brink of not being so even though no one knew it. My room even somehow became the party room. When I entered my senior year I did so knowing that it would be both a continuation of the fun and also bittersweet because in the end we would all part ways - hopefully forever friends but still spread out across the country. And that beginning of the year was everything I had hoped it would be. Football games, nights out at the Linebacker where I wore as many Long Island Iced Teas as I drank and long nights in the offices of the newspaper dominated my days. I suffered along with all my friends through my senior comprehensive. It holds some of my favorite stories of all time - one of mashed potatoes; one that contains Sean Astin, Vince Vaughn, Notre Dame football players and the premiere of Rudy; one with a cute boy in a blue shirt; one of a mouse, a trap and my hammer and one of the Griswold's house come to life. 

And then when I returned to school second semester of my senior year it all came crashing down. One of my roommates dropped out of school, the other was occupied with her fiance and again I was all alone in a very large room. And so the long streak of feeling like I had friends ended abruptly. And I retreated. I went to class, I went to work and I hid out in my room. I largely ignored my other friends unless they actively sought me out. I'd spend the nights when I would normally be with my friends either holed up at the newspaper working or in front of the television. And there were a few days when I wouldn't get out of bed for more than a few minutes a day. And no one noticed. All the people that I thought were my friends had no clue that for the first time in three years I was again dying inside. And I hated myself for believing that I could have friends for so long - I should have known that eventually the bottom would fall out. And I never sought anyone out to tell any of this. I figured it was a good ride and I was back to being the me that I would always be. 

And so I graduated. And again I posed on the lawn with groups of friends and smiled in pictures. And still as difficult as the second semester had been I was still sad to leave. For one of the first times in my life I had made genuine friends. Ones that I had shared some of those dark fears inside of me. Ones that saw the hurt inside of me when I wasn't even admitting it to myself. I had still held back a lot but most of the time I was me and that is why for the first time in my life I felt accepted and loved by people that were not related to me. I was sure that I would keep in touch with these friends even after we all moved away. Graduation night I went out with friends and looked around and realized that I didn't believe I'd ever have this again. College was not the world and it just seemed like it was the only environment where I would get friendship right. And as we toasted graduation and our futures and all the promise that we believed that we held I was happy for my accomplishment and sad all the same. I wasn't sure I was ready to face the real world. I didn't want to leave this group of people that knew me better than anyone ever had. And so the next day as I loaded the last box into the car and took that first ride as an alumna down The Avenue and back to the world that was always so much of a mystery to me I let the tears roll down my eyes and said goodbye to that very good chapter of my life.

And so I entered the long stretch of my life where I isolated myself and just stopped living. I could act with the best of them, but if I let my mind wander I realized that I really didn't have anyone. And the one person that had been a constant in my life for so many years - well I even stopped talking much to her. I'd email sporadically a few friends from college but there was so little on which to catch them up that I just avoided it all together. I carried on and talked to people at work but I'd go home and escape into a book or television and not really do much of anything. It almost just seemed like it was easier to not have to worry about maintaining friendships at all since so much of the time I didn't really feel like the people liked me anyway. And so I moved from day to day to day in the loneliness and isolation with which I protected myself.

And years and years passed. People would invite me places and I'd figure out a reason not to be there. Or I'd feign that I might make it knowing that I would never even try. Life just stretched on in front of me and none of it seemed like it was worth the effort. I would be there for any person that asked for aid from me - I'd listen, I'd rally, I'd help - but I never let them see that I needed the same in return. Life just seemed easier that way.

So when I finally decided that I would make changes reestablishing friendships was high on my list. I wrote long emails to those that I had touched base with from time to time. And I started making an effort. And when people asked me to do things I would show up and I found myself even initiating plans. And it felt good to surround myself with people again. The more and more people that I reconnected with that more I began to realize that either we had all changed a lot or that maybe the contempt and hate that I imagined that all these people had felt for me had been just that - imaginary. I wondered if I had been wrong all along - maybe people didn't think I was as awful of a person as I did. Maybe the loneliness that I felt was more about me and my perceptions than reality. 

When I began the slide into depression I kept that fact and those feelings very private, but I didn't push away or abandon my friends this time. And even though I wasn't leaning on them when I needed them most I found that they still seemed to support me and hold me up in ways that helped me cope for as long as I had. And as much as I now felt that most of these people actually liked me and the person that I was I still was embarrassed of how they might react to my depression so I kept it pretty private from most of those closest to me. But once I began my treatment and had met someone that I was so real with and they didn't run I decided that I would begin to test the waters. And so slowly when the situation warranted it I began to share a little more about me - and no one ran. 

And I began to realize something - I had offered up the advice several times that those that really mattered, those people that were really your friends - they would be there through it all. It wouldn't matter to them that you were politically liberal if they weren't, they wouldn't be offended if your view of spirituality didn't match their own, they wouldn't care if one time you said something that seemed insensitive because they would know you well enough to know that you valued them. Those that were offended and turned away, well they weren't the people that valued you or your friendship to begin with anyway. I hadn't taken my own advice to heart, but I was beginning to do so. I finally was coming face to face with a reality that I should have discovered for myself much earlier - people don't often surround themselves with people that they don't like. They don't seek out the advice of people if they don't respect. They don't spend hours talking to someone that they can't stand. Yes, there are times and places where people pretend, but in most instances they don't carry on the guise if it is not something they don't need to do. And if you aren't really you, if you hold back from those people that you call your friends you are only damaging yourself. If you don't talk out your problems, your fears, your insecurities and your successes then you are the one responsible for not being the type of friend that you should be because friendship is a two-way street. Friends are friends - they are the people that you choose to keep in your life - they say something about the person that you are and the person that you want to be. And for so long I had surrounded myself with the best kinds of people and I had not felt worthy of being in their circle and so I felt lonely. But, as I began to accept myself, as I began to let people know me I finally felt again like I had a circle of friends - the best of the best - and if I never accomplished anything else in my life but this I was still pretty blessed.






Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eyes Wide Open

There is a strange world that lurks during the hours when most people sleep. I had known nothing of this world really. It's filled with people that chat on the computer during the wee hours of the morning or post on facebook about how they can't sleep only to find several friends that respond about how they too are awake. On the television it's filled with programs like ABC's World News Now where you can watch the stories of the goings on in the world peppered with the anchors joking that their demographic is mothers with nursing babies, people that work overnight shifts in hospitals and insomniacs. And now this world had a new member in its posse - me.

Never in my life had I suffered sleepless nights. I was always the person that seemed to suffer more from  hypersomnia if anything. But here I was - night after night - and sleep eluded me. I'd often find myself able to drift off somewhere around 6 a.m., sometimes 7 a.m. and two hours later I'd be up again for the day. I was walking through life in a fairly exhausted state but no matter what time of day I couldn't seem to find sleep for more than a few hours at a time. And so my "nightly" sleep and sometimes a short afternoon nap was pretty much the extent of what I could seem to achieve. So I was functioning each day on anywhere from two to four hours of broken sleep and it went on and on and on, day after day after day.

And so every night I was left alone with only my thoughts - and the less I slept that more self-defeating they seemed to become. I'd even stopped venturing much to the confines of my bedroom. It was much better for me to pass out exhausted on my sofa watching television or staring at my laptop then it was to lie in bed with my eyes wide open as I silently cried. And the tears were numerous as I kept thinking about how hopeless the present and the future currently looked - again.

I wasn't in the dark about at least part of the origin of this phenomenon - my anxiety about possibly losing an important friendship, the cancer scare of another, wondering if I'd find employment and financial apprehensions were all weighing on my mind. Add to that the side effect from my medication, that before this had only been mild sleeplessness that had robbed me of an hour or two of my normal, and I was now a walking poster child for how insomnia develops.

And so here I sat again - wide awake - as the hours ticked away. My thoughts were not the best companion. I was petrified of how quickly my life had seemed to be coming together and how rapidly it now seemed to be falling back apart. Those few hours when my body would become so exhausted that it fell into a slumber were blissful. When I'd look at the clock an hour or two later, weary but awake, I would curse what was happening to me. And then again there would be new tears - this time in frustration.

Eventually I fell into some unhealthy patterns. That is more unhealthy than merely not sleeping -ever. First, I started to eat and never anything healthy. For two months I had never turned to my familiar comfort of food and the results were evident in looser clothes and a smaller number on the scale. Now the allure of things that were bad for me was too great. It was at least something to do to get through the boredom. And deep down I knew that it was really worse than I was admitting. I'd stare at my phone waiting for it to ring and when it didn't I'd find myself mindlessly eating as I cried. I felt my heart breaking in the absence of one of my best friends. I was filling the space with my long-time friend - food - which wasn't as worthy a companion, but it was the one that was there by my side at the time. And then once I'd contemplate what I had just done I'd hate myself and my weakness even more.

I needed something that would occupy me throughout the nights. I had no energy, so it had to be something non-strenuous. And I still had little concentration so it couldn't be complex. Those parameters left very few options.

Eventually I found a friend to chat with that worked overnight monitoring a system server that pretty much had very little work to do other than being there to prevent a disaster and running a report in the early morning. We'd often fill the hours instant messaging until he left at 4 a.m. and I tried to find something to do to pass the rest of the night. He finished work at 6 a.m. and most of the time I'd still be awake to see him log off. We even played a somewhat risky game - where we'd tempt fate by talking about non-work friendly issues using euphemism and descriptions to fool the serve that only scanned for key words in employee correspondence. But he didn't work every night. And so as the rest of the world slept I searched for another insomniac. What I found was a graduate student up one night studying and taking a brief break.  He held my interest enough in my sleep-deprived state and so I started talking to him more and more as the days passed but I wasn't really invested in it. It wasn't kind or fair of me to occupy the time of someone that I knew wouldn't turn into anything. I didn't like the person that wasn't being completely honest with herself in the situation - deep down I knew that he was thinking as more time passed that I was no longer just talking to him because I couldn't sleep and I took advantage of that. The hours that I occupied talking with him were ones that I didn't need to occupy myself.  And so the guilt also began to build to join the exhaustion, the anxiety and everything else that seemed to be swirling around inside my mind.

 And the less I slept the more incomplete I began to feel again. My exhaustion was robbing me of more than my energy. I was trying to fill a void in my life, but anything I found to fill it was fleeting. It would do in the moment, but it didn't last beyond that. And as much as I hated to admit it that just made everything worse. Trying to filling my life with meaninglessness made me feel hollow. Knowing that I could only find things that held little value for me made me feel worse about myself. I was recognizing the pattern.

I was watching myself slide backward but I couldn't stop it.

And the timing of this slide could not have been worse - I had to stop therapy because I no longer had insurance and sadly on the balance sheet it counted more as a luxury than a necessity. And then the one person in my life that had told me he didn't understand why I needed therapy - that he would always be there for me whenever I needed it no matter what time it was or how silly I thought that need might be - well, he wasn't answering my calls. I was lost and I was too tired to figure out where the path was to return to sanity.

Try as I might I didn't know how to solve any of my issues. And if I could figure out how to sleep again I might clear my mind just enough to discover some answers, but sleep would just not come. The only thing that I could seem to do was cry. I had mastered the tears.

Days turned into weeks. Then the weeks turned into a month. And soon enough it was time to turn the page one more month on the calendar. And as time continued to pass I still could not sleep. And now I couldn't even concentrate enough to count sheep if I wanted. I felt like I was heading into the territory of an entirely new type of crazy - one where my eyes were wide open but couldn't see through the fog.

Even though I was exhausted the days were easier. During the daytime hours I could make phone calls to friends, go to lunch with my mom, meet a friend for coffee or just browse through the aisles of a store. I had things to occupy and distract me. At night I was alone. And even after I'd forged the shaky treaty with my friend and learned that my loved one didn't have cancer, sleep still evaded me. I was frustrated, pure and simple, with the fact that I couldn't sleep.

I found new ways to occupy my time - I worked endlessly on jewelry and my etsy site in the wee hours of the morning. I researched and investigated marketing techniques. I read job searching blogs, googled companies that I wanted to target and filled out job applications. And still even though I felt horrible about it I kept talking to the person that I should not have.

And still - I COULD NOT SLEEP. It had now been three months since I'd really had a decent night's slumber. The first time I found myself sleeping more than two hours in a night was when I was hit with a nasty flu bug - the flu or no sleep - if someone had asked me to choose I wasn't sure that I wouldn't have chosen a few more days of the flu. But the bug passed and so did my tentative pattern of sleep. I couldn't keep living like this - I was starting to resemble the walking dead.

And then that day came when I talked again with my friend that I'd almost lost. We talked a lot that night. Words that were exchanged surprised me. There was so much misunderstanding that had taken place. I had been laying across my bed that night when we hung up the phone in the early morning hours late in January and almost immediately I fell asleep. And for the first time since the beginning of October I awoke nine hours later. I didn't believe the numbers that looked out at me from my ipod dock. I picked up my phone and checked the time on it and sure enough it was not a joke - I had slept.

I couldn't be this simple right? After months of not sleeping one phone call could not an insomniac cure - could it?

With the clarity of my non-sleep depraved mind I thought that I might need to wait a few days to make sure that it wasn't just a fluke. But that night I climbed into bed at a decent hour when I felt tired and I drifted off to sleep pretty easily and woke up seven hours. And the next night - sleep. And it carried on into the next week.

And now that I wasn't wading through the days and nights with weary wide open eyes I had time to really stop and examine why I had stopped sleeping. I tried on a few theories and mulled them over for days at a time before I reached my conclusion - that talk had cleared my mind. I'd said the things that I needed to say not only to him, but about me. I'd shared my proud and not so proud moments. I told him how scared I was that I hadn't really found work yet. I worked out for the first time in words the plan I'd been contemplating on the job front. I'd told him how anxious I'd been about the cancer and how worried I still was. I talked and been real and vulnerable. I'd laid everything out there, listened to the responses, discussed the possibilities and heard someone say some really kind words about me. Eventually I would learn something more from this, but for now I knew that not sleeping had been about something more than a few bad things befalling me. And for now that and actually sleeping again would have to be enough.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How the Mighty Have Fallen

I'd been a master at carefully packaging the person that I presented to the world including the people that I counted as my closest friends and confidants. There was usually surprise when I told someone what had been happening. No one suspected the depth of my unhappiness, despondence and depression and that I had slowly been robbed of my self-esteem and self-worth.

But then something happened and I showed a glimpse of what I had been hiding inside. From that very small lapse two very special, wonderful people noticed and sent messages to check in on me. It was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever done. Two people, that at the time were not my closest friends, saw something and they just wanted to make sure that I was both all right and that I knew they were there if I wasn't.

When I first started my slide I'd  been hyper-aware of putting up the front that all was fine and then once I admitted to myself that I wasn't all right I began improving and saw the value in the power of positive thinking. I'd been very careful what I posted in the world of social media to keep up the act; I didn't want to be one of "those" people that never had anything positive or humorous to say even when inside I felt neither uplifted nor funny. But then two things happened that took me by surprise and all the progress that I made was sidetracked and the cracks began to show and that was what two very astute women noticed.

I was positive that I was on the right path for the first time in a long time. I was feeling good about things, including myself. I was beginning to feel like a person again. And then I had what can best be termed a misunderstanding with a very dear friend and it threw me for a loop. A few days later news was delivered that someone that I loved likely had cancer. So while I was able to disguise things for so long this is what tested my acting skills. This is what their very keen, intuitive selves were noticing in me. And when I read their emails with tears in my eyes, thinking how much it meant to me that they would take the time to offer help, all I could keep thinking was oh, how my mighty self had yet again fallen. I had let these incidents derail me. And there I was lying on the tracks trying to figure out whether or not I had survived and two hands came from out of nowhere when I was sure that I would be left for dead to help lift me up back onto my feet. There is not one part of me that won't always have a special place in my heart for those two angels of sorts that offered aid. Hit from out of nowhere with this possibility that I had destroyed one of my most important relationships, and then with the thought that I might lose yet one more person to cancer, I was right back at rock bottom wondering if it might just not be better to accept my fate that I would never figure it out or get it right or be a good enough person to deserve love and friendship; I would just never be happy. It wasn't that I felt "why me," it was more like "why bother, nothing really matters, I always end up back at start." And yet their gesture of caring was so simple and pure that I had to see that it meant something more. I had to face what was happening and figure out how to either fix it or grieve the loss and let go.


While one of my great skills is that I'm a master debater of sorts -I'd aced my college course in argumentation and  I'd never faced a intellectual match in which I couldn't hold my own - I was not a fighter in anything but the academic sense. When someone chose to exit my life I pretty much let them leave. A lot of the time I pushed people away on purpose seeing if they were committed enough to try to come back. It was my greatest fear in life - to be abandoned - it was why I always held part of myself back in all my relationships so that I would never lose everything, every part of me, every time. It's so much easier to push someone to leave then it is to face the rejection if they choose to do so. I expected that people would grow bored with me. I knew that I was too much of something to really be loved by many, if any, people. I'd experienced it first in my relationship with my dad and from that time forward I'd been guarded, alone and not whole with most everyone.  But this time, whether it was because I'd seen a light or that I had actually let that guard down for once, I couldn't bear to let this person go. Once those angels picked me up I wanted to battle. I couldn't pick a fight with the cancer, so I decided instead to try to win back the relationship that was at best in jeopardy. When out of nowhere they offered to care needed to mean something to me, it needed to mean that I had to care about myself at least as much as they had.

 And so, I wouldn't let this person go this time without making a valiant attempt to recover the relationship. I could take responsibility for any mistake I'd committed, but I wouldn't allow myself to not try. And for the first time I saw something deep within me that I rarely experienced -  I wanted to be a person that was worthy of those that were in my life and for this one particular person I wanted to face all my fears.  For once I could see the value in saving something important to me. I loved what this person represented, but there was also much more. I loved who this person was, faults and all, without question and that was possible because I was for once all me with someone.  I loved myself and the person that I was in his presence and the person that he made me want to be. Without him and the support of those two special women I wouldn't have wanted to or needed to fight - I would just have carried on like I had in the past, finding a way to live that really didn't involve much living at all. I would have just given up on him and in turn on me. And so if I was going to make it past my depression once and for all I had to fight this time - it was more than just keeping someone near and dear to me in my life, it was also a fight for me - the person that I wanted to be. I no longer wanted to be someone that didn't care about herself or her life. I didn't want to be content to just get by any longer. I wanted to be a person that could find those few simple things in life that would fill my heart's desires. I think that deep down I knew these things - I had made progress - but seeing that caring gesture from my two friends helped me arrive at the conclusion when I could still do something about it.

And so I fought - and sadly I admit that because I had never tried before I made some mistakes and landed some punches that I never should have taken. I threw out some guilt- of which I am not proud and wish I could retract even today. I didn't know how to do this and I know that I went about it all wrong, I was embarrassed by the level of desperation that I was feeling and in turn knew I was displaying. When the mighty fall they don't always fight back in the best possible way, but I was hoping that something, anything would work. It was this important to me. I wish that I could be more proud of how I executed my battle plan but I wasn't sorry that I was making an effort. I wasn't sorry for wanting what I knew was the right thing for me and being determined to achieve it if I could.

And each time that I pushed the call button on my contact list next to the name I waited with hopeful anticipation as I listened to the ringing and then felt my heart sink lower again when the phone flipped to voice mail. When I sent a few emails or text messages with no reply I wondered how long I would be able to keep up the plan before I folded. I tried to walk a thin line between acceptable contact and overdoing it but I had no idea if I was accomplishing my goal or not. I just kept hoping that losing a friend was not the price I was going to have to pay to learn a lesson.

Eventually after weeks of no response I finally sent a text where I basically was admitting defeat "So I'm never going to hear from you again am I?" About 45 minutes later when I heard my text message alert I wasn't positive that my ears weren't playing tricks on me. Sitting in a restaurant at a table with a friend, I glanced at the screen and saw a response and I did everything that I could to hold back my tears of relief. I hoped that for once I wasn't reading too much into someone's words. That night I waited anxiously for the phone to ring. I knew that this was not going to be an easy conversation but I was just happy that I would have another chance. A few hours after the phone rang a very tenuous treaty was reached.  It wasn't until three months later, when we stumbled into a conversation again about the incident, with time and distance giving it some clarity, that I finally felt like we were once again friends. That night I silently breathed a large sigh of relief. I finally felt less trepidation.

But even before that I'd learned a great deal about me. I learned that when something mattered, when someone mattered, there was nothing wrong with thinking that just letting it go was not the answer. I might not always win like I had this time, but sometimes I could and that made it worth the effort to save something important. And I learned that I wasn't perfect but I liked this person that was afraid and vulnerable but willing to put herself on the line a whole lot more than the person that just let life pass her by without much thought. And I liked that for the first time in my memory I had let two people help me when I needed it most - I didn't try to say I was fine and rebuke their offer. I learned that even when I was facing the wrath of what could happen when you let someone know you I was still willing to take the chance. And I was learning that I had a tremendous network around me of good people that I failed to appreciate or recognize. And so grabbing onto those hands wasn't easy or comfortable for me but I am so happy that I did.

Now I was moving forward with three people in my life that had at various times all offered me an incredible gift of caring and that was why they were monumental  in my life. They saw value in the person that I was when I was seeing none. For whatever reason it might be, they were willing to take a chance on friendship with a person that couldn't understand why anyone would bother. There simple words "I'd like to talk, I'm looking forward to it actually," "You seemed a little down last week about your goals and not meeting them ... just thought I'd try to get in touch" and "what's getting you down?" were bigger and more important then they will ever understand. When people see you and look past the exterior facade to discover the truth about a person - that realness that you don't always like and rarely love - and still see value in you, well those are the people that you grab hold of and don't let go. You hope that they will never have to endure the depth of suffering that you just had, but you know that that you would jump to their rescue without a thought to make a small repayment for all they had done for you. And yet again that is the important stuff of life - the stuff that matters and these three mattered to me. They will always be important people in my life if I have any say. They are three remarkable people that each came into my life at a time when I needed them most. If the people with which you surround yourself say something about who you are as a person then I knew that no one would ever again question my worth as long as those three were in my life. And so for those special and simple words, that caring hand that they offered and that worth that they saw in me I am forever grateful. The world would be a better place if there were more of these kind of angels in it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

When I Grow Up

 There were very few moments in my life when I questioned what I wanted to be. The list of careers I'd envisioned was very small. At various times I'd wanted to be a mommy, a teacher, a pediatrician and then a journalist. That was it. The first one could go hand-in-hand with any of the other three. I wanted to be a teacher in my very first years of school as I imagine a lot of children do. By about age seven I'd changed to the doctor route of thinking which lasted until my sophomore year in high school when I sat in a journalism class and then I knew within moments of composing my first piece that I wanted to be a writer. And being a journalist fit with my natural curiosity - I could get paid to dig, research and ask people invasive questions and that was perfect.

Throughout college I studied communication and political science in a liberal arts environment while outside of class I worked for four years at my college newspaper. I was always driven with a single-minded purpose of what I wanted to do and how I was going to accomplish that. And then I graduated and entered the very real world of small-town journalism - and for the first time ever I hated what I was doing. Pleasing advertisers was now paramount. Quantity of stories trumped quality. And one day when I stared at the flats and found a glaring error in the content of a headline that didn't match what it said in a story I pointed it out to the editor only to be told that "you are too concerned with accuracy." And that was that. I found myself crying on the phone to my mom that this job was never going to get better. And for the first time in my life I didn't have a plan. I applied for more journalism jobs but eventually I found a fit for myself in the world of public relations and event planning. It was the natural flip side of what I had trained to do in life.

And then fifteen years later I was sitting here facing the same question - now what? Did I just hate my job or did I hate what I did? Was I even a good public relations professional? Could I do this for the rest of my life? And fundamentally I was again staring at the question of What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? even though I'd given it very little thought in the past. I had been applying furiously during the past month for employment in the same field in which I was working, but somehow now that I no longer had a job I felt the need to examine if it was even what I wanted to do.

In my misery at work I'd often dreamed and talked about doing other things. I'd investigated graduate schools as a means to a career change a few times. But now I was thinking this was my last chance to really get it right. If I wanted to make a major leap this was the time. And because I'd been robbed of so much of myself and my esteem the last few years a lot of my questioning had to do with whether or not I was even capable of finding a career in my field. Was I good with people? Did I communicate well? Could I construct a sentence? Should I be calling myself a public relations professional? Should I be calling myself a writer? Was everyone laughing secretly when I said any of those things? I was petrified of the future all of a sudden and it was because I no longer knew what I was good at doing or what would make me happy. I'd been so wrapped up in hearing my faults and failures that I knew that the image I was seeing was warped, but I didn't know to what extent. What did I want to be when I grew up?

On the first morning that I was jobless I applied for several positions online. I investigated and viewed various stories about finding a career in the "new" world. I applied a lot of the advice I found but I still wondered about the questions that I was asking myself. The one thing that I knew in that moment was that never again could I work in the type of environment from which I had just escaped. Everyone has bad days at work but I had just had three bad years. I knew that since I was finding myself jobless that I just didn't want to settle for anything, I wanted to settle for something that I loved. I wanted to finally be able to tell people what I did with pride. And when someone told me how incredible what I did sounded, as they often had with my previous job, I wanted to nod my head and agree but really mean it.

So I spent time trying to extract my feelings about the tasks I actually performed in my job from how I felt about where I had worked. It was a very carefully executed surgery. I wanted to do this right. I wanted to have a clearly thought-out plan that made sense in light of the person I wanted to be and the talents that I possessed. I wanted to be one of those people that loved what I did for a living. I also wanted to be one of those people that used the talents that I had to excel. Now I just had to figure out what those things were.

The first thing that I discovered when I voiced some of these issues that were troubling me was that I had an incredible cheering section in my corner. There were people that believed in me when my faith in myself was faltering at best. I also knew that I was not a reliable source when it came to determining anything that related to my self-worth, identity or abilities in my current state; I was better but I was still wallowing in the depths of depression to which I had slowly sunk and getting out of that was not something that just happened overnight. I loved and trusted people that were in my life and I needed to lean on them for guidance when it came to determining what I might be able to do with my future and what things I could list as my talents. I had to do what was most uncomfortable to me - that which never came naturally - that which I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer - I had to ask people about me and their perceptions about the person that I was. Did I want to know how the world viewed me? I knew what I'd been hearing for the past few years and none of it was good or solicited, was I ready to hear what people that I cared about thought? If any one of the people whose advice I sought didn't think that I was good at the things that I would need to start the career path that I wanted to take then what?

 And I hated that I was looking at questions in front of me that most people struggle with when they are much younger but I never had, and now I couldn't even put voice to them. When I grow up what do I want to be? And the one answer that kept appearing was happy - when I grow up I want to be happy. I was pretty sure that it wasn't a category that I could search for on careerbuilder.com or within the pages of What Color is Your Parachute. Happy is not really something that you get paid to be. How did I find that place within a career?  And what profession? How did I once again become that girl that sat in class her sophomore year in high school who just knew in an instant what she wanted to do? That girl was one that trusted her gut-instinct and then investigated the way to make that career path happen. She was the same girl that applied to one college, and one college only, early decision because when she went to her first (and again only) college visit she just knew it was the right place for her to be at that time. She was a girl that was so full of confidence in her academic abilities and what she wanted to be that when she wrote her admission essay she crafted her answer to the topic Tell us about a woman that you admire and why by writing about herself as she envisionied the accomplished person that she was twenty years in the future. And sadly the twenty year mark was a mere three years away and that girl had become none of those things.

I wondered how I'd fallen so far from the path of what I'd always wanted to be. And when I really thought about it - when I admitted it to myself - I'd given up. That girl had faced the world, found it difficult, took an easy route with a job that didn't challenge her and then trapped herself in it for fifteen years. How easy it had been for my employer to steal my self-worth when I'd left it at the door years before for the taking. In all those years when I was struggling with my past and hiding from the world I'd given up on what I wanted to be the first moment things weren't so easy. So I was still nagged by the notion of what I wanted to be when I grew up because at some point I'd stopped growing.  When I had implemented all the changes in my life for those few adult years when I'd been happy there were only two areas where I hadn't gotten it right and one of those was my career path. I'd never really delved into the depths of the question of what I wanted to do when I stopped wanting to be what I decided as my future at age sixteen.

So I was back at the basic questions now - What am I good at? What do I want to do? What do I want to be when I grow up?

And after much thinking and musing and questioning and talking and asking those questions of people that I was frightened to ask I finally discovered that I pretty much wanted to be doing the same kind of things that I had been with a few key differences. I wanted to work somewhere where I would get constructive criticism that would help me improve. I wanted to be good at what I did but never have it be something that was static or boring. I wanted to be challenged. I had the talents to do what I'd been doing but they weren't being fostered - I was going it alone. At the end of the day it wasn't going to matter to me that my check totaled any more than what I needed it to to cover my expenses of living with a little extra here and there to buy clothes I didn't need or go out with friends for some fun times. I was never going to be driven by money as much as passion. I needed to feel like I was making a difference in the world. I needed to leave my place of employment most days feeling good about what I was doing with my life. I needed to be able to tell people where I worked and what I did without feeling embarrassed. I just genuinely wanted to like what I was doing and I wanted to do it well.

So finally I had an idea of what kind of career "happy" was and I just needed to figure out a way and path to make it happen. Never again was I going to settle for just a job. I wasn't going to stunt my growth on the path to what I wanted to be when I grew up.