Uphill Starts
Emma Oulton

I Finished College: The Stress of Starting Over

Throughout my life I have had many challenges. I was raised in an abusive household, went through the foster care system, and fought my way through college. While all of those things were challenging and stressful, they don’t compare to the challenge I face today. That challenge is starting over.

When I was a kid, my challenge was surviving abuse. Child Protective Services took me away from my parents when I was a teenager.There were good and bad things about foster care. One mixed blessing was that everything was planned for me. I didn’t have to make any decisions. Even brushing my teeth was scheduled into my day. It was better than living with my parents but far from ideal. I craved more control over my life. My parents never let me cut my hair. Having long hair was the only acceptable style according to my father. If I had cut it, he threatened to shave my head bald. That wasn’t an idle threat. He was serious. In foster care I had my room searched and my privacy invaded, but I wasn’t beaten. The worst punishment I received was not being allowed to have soda.

By the time I got away from the abuse, out of foster care and found some good mental health treatment, I was eighteen. Then, the big goal was earning my degree. I felt like I had a purpose: get through college. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it through. One time in particular, while writing a paper, I cried after each paragraph until I got the whole thing done. It wasn’t a sad paper. I was just that stressed. While university was stressful and felt unmanageable at times, there was an end in sight that kept me going.

When I graduated, I thought that all my struggles were finally over. I soon found out that I was wrong. I didn’t know what the next step in my life should be. I thought I would get a job, but that is easier said than done. Last summer, I applied for over twenty jobs. About three days before my last interview (for which I didn’t get the job), I got shingles. When I found out that shingles is often induced by stress, I was confused. My life was completely stress-free. For the first time ever, I didn’t have anything to be stressed about. I wasn’t fighting life threatening abuse. The deadlines and pressure to study that stressed me in college were gone. It took me a while to understand that I was stressed, but not in the way I was used to. It turns out that a lack of purpose is its own kind of stress. I was faced with the task of starting over, changing my life and making it my own. I didn’t have the slightest clue about how to do that.

I decided to be a writer. I used to write fanfiction and I got some encouragement at that. I thought writing might be a way to contribute to the world. I took a writing class and I aced it. I hired a writing coach and she said that she was impressed. When that was over, I found that I had no passion to write anymore. I have spent many months wondering where the motivation has gone. At first I chalked it up to writer’s block. But after a few months, I didn’t even feel like a writer anymore. And then the big scary question was back: If not writing, what should I do with my life?

Even compared with fighting to survive, going through the foster care system, getting through college to getting shingles, answering the question What should I do with my life? is by far the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. I tried answering “movies and minecraft” and that was totally unsatisfying. I tried to just relax, watch movies, and play games all day. Strangely enough, that was even worse than the struggle to write. Not having a purpose is like being constantly hungry.

I have to be my own boss and being the boss is hard. I don’t have deadlines or someone to hold me accountable anymore. I realize now that I have to take charge of my life and no one can do that for me. It begins with this post. This is my first step to starting over.

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