Where’s a Map When You Need It?
I had been in the ICU for weeks waiting for this moment. Waiting was all I could do. I was paralyzed from the shoulders down and on life support, with a tube down my throat so I couldn’t even talk. My own thoughts were the only thing available to me, and they weren’t very cheery.
At times, a badass fighter would rise up inside of me, and in those moments I knew I was going to make it. I had kids to fight for. No way were my girls going to grow up without me. I could handle this. But that badass appeared only intermittently, and in her absence I was filled with dread. There were times I wasn’t sure I was ever going to leave that room.
My medical team was finally going to pull the tube out of my throat. I’d be able to talk again. I could interact with my family, assure my kids it was going to be okay, start the long journey of recovery, and (first on my mind) share what I had been thinking about all of those days and nights lying immobile with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company. I had been making plans.
The doctors told me not to talk for the first 24 hours after they removed the breathing tube. My throat was a raw mess. It felt like someone had lined my mouth with sandpaper. I took shallow breaths that stung, and rasped out words just above a whisper.
My husband walked into the hospital room to see me after they finished the procedure. He hadn’t even made it all the way to the bed before I caught his eye and scratched out the words that had been bouncing around in my head with more and more fervor these past weeks.
“Things have to change,” I said to him.
There was no way I was going to live the rest of my life—whether that was 10 days or 100 years—feeling the regret that I’d faced alone in that bed.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. That moment was a turning point, and this book is an exploration of the turn. Hopefully it can offer some guidance if you are facing a potential turn in your own life. But in order to understand the turn, you have to understand what came before it. Though I always had a free spirit inside of me, I had spent most of my life up to that point trying to be what other people wanted me to be: Thinner. Quieter. More reserved. More like everybody else.
Whether it was trying to be the perfect private school mom around my kids’ classmates’ parents or trying to squeeze into the right size jeans, I’d spent most of my years up to that point trying to become someone else, to mold myself into what I thought other people wanted to see when they looked at me. It wasn’t until that moment in the hospital bed that I realized I was already the person I was supposed to be. But realizing who I really was wasn’t enough to undo the years of bullshit that had been piled on top of me. That would take some unpacking; metaphorical and literal.
Things didn’t all change at once, but that moment was the pivotal point for the rest of my life. My past and future hinged around it like halves of a book. Everything I had been and everything I would become were both there, open for interpretation. I had to look back into the story I’d already told about myself and pick out the pieces that were really true, really me. In the process, I had to discard my attachment to the versions of myself that I had put on only to please someone else or to meet some invisible expectation that I’d felt placed upon me. It was only with a clear sense of who I was and where I’d been that I could see the rest of the story unfolding in a way that would make me want to be in it. Living authentically in a life I could proudly call my own became my primary drive.
“Things have to change.” I said the words to my husband, but I was really talking to myself, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to coax myself into a reset.
Full Speed Ahead
I am far from the only person who has found herself unexpectedly living a life she didn’t want to be living. In most of the tales I’ve heard about such dissatisfaction, the person living the “wrong” life is able to look back and point to some obvious misstep, some mistake that took them astray, some poor decision that led them away from their true calling. It’s like when you make a mistake while knitting. It might take you a minute of examination, but you can eventually find the error. Then you can unravel backwards and pick up where you left off. You might be frustrated and feel like you lost valuable time, but you can see where things went wrong and get the stitches back on track.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I got to that point, and there is no clear moment where I’d gone wrong. I had grown up with plenty of opportunities to choose the “right” paths, and I was a hard worker who took advantage of them. I wasn’t in a position of dissatisfaction through laziness, lack of education, or even unfortunate circumstances beyond my control. While my life had its fair share of crises and dashes of tragedies, none had derailed me from a path toward a different life.
The truth of it is that the life I was living when I decided things needed to change was a life three decades in the making. It was the life that I was supposed to be living, and I had happily embraced the choices that I’d made that had gotten me there. When there were forks in the road, I chose the ones I thought I was supposed to choose, and I was certain I would attain what I was supposed to want: career, great guy, marriage, kids, dream house, eternal bliss. I had internalized societal expectations and the “right” path was laid out in front of me as clearly as the colorful tiles in the game of life. Check, check, check. Each step took me closer to the dream. I can’t look back on my past self and fault her for the choices she made. She did everything she could with the tools she had and her expectations about the life she wanted. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my life, my husband, and my children. My life was not a mistake; I just wasn’t living it as my best authentic self. Not everything in my life was unhappy. I just wasn’t living it on my own terms. I wasn’t in my own skin. I was creating the person I was supposed to be instead of experiencing all of these joys as my real self.
The problem wasn’t in the journey. The problem was that I had never stopped to question the destination. It wasn’t that I had dropped a stitch. It was that I had been knitting someone else’s pattern.