HOW I CHANGED MY LIFE WHEN I FELT STUCK IN UNHAPPINESS
10…9…Mouths cracked into smiles…
8…7…Conversations laced with laughter intertwined with loud music…
6…5…Arms wrapped around bodies in affection…
4…3…Champagne glasses celebratory clinking together…
2…1…Lips interlocked with the lips of loved ones.
And then there’s me, decorated with an apron and a tray, separate from it all.
The tears patiently waiting behind my eyes finally slip into view. I don’t even bother pretending I’m not sad. No one’s paying attention to me anyways. I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve. It’s always another reminder that despite time progressing forward, as time typically does, I have remained still, cemented in a life I am dissatisfied with. Unhappiness following me from year to year like a permanent part of me. It’s 2015, well technically now 2016, and I am embarking on an intoxicatingly deep depression that will absorb me in hopelessness and leave fresh scars collaged on my wrist and a collection of binges meant to distract me from intolerable loneliness.
It just so happens to be my one year sober anniversary, but I don’t feel like celebrating. I thought sobriety was going to fix all of my problems, but it turns out there’s no magical cure for hating your life. As if this moment didn’t feel dramatic enough, the day before, I was broken up with. There was no particular reason other then that he didn’t want to be with me anymore. My heart felt cracked, stitched together with words of self-deprecation. Life sucked and I sucked and I just wanted to go home and disappear into a pint of ice cream and an entire pizza, but of course I couldn’t because I was at work and employers don’t typically like it if you walk out in the middle of your shift simply because you don’t want to be there anymore. Happy fucking New Year to me.
As I stood there watching other people be happy, I felt condemned to a permanently melancholy life. All of the pieces were arranged in a way that completely contrasted the imagined life I wanted for myself and yet I felt powerless to change any of it. It’s not like I hadn’t tried to change my life. I had tried a lot, I mean a lot, like I was basically always trying to turn my life into something different then it was. Variables interchanged in a way that felt stagnant. All of those attempts felt futile because they resulted in this very moment of me standing alone in a room full of people, holding a tray of drinks, crying in public on New Years Eve.
I remained depressed for most of January, wishing for a different life while I contradictorily indulged in self-destructive behaviors. I managed to fulfill my seemingly mundane responsibilities of work and class, but that was all I was capable of. All the other moments were steeped in ways of distracting myself from the reality of what existed inside me. I’ve gotten quite good at luxuriating in things that will distance me from my emotions: food, boys and TV being amongst my favorites. However, none of them changed anything, they just gave me enough space to temporarily hide in an alternate existence where life wasn’t so painful.
I self-medicated because it was the only thing I could do to change the way I was feeling. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like, thinking that I would be happy once I obtained certain things. A perfect body, an acting career, a boyfriend — these things would surely bring me happiness. The only problem is, these sorts of things don’t suddenly appear in your life just because you want them. They take time and effort to create, and the journey to get to these presumed destinations of happiness was unbearable to me. If the journey is peppered with misery, and I have to keep hiding from reality with self-harming behaviors, then I’m never going to achieve all of the things I want to fill my life with. Maybe my dreams would make me happy or maybe it’s just an illusion to believe that certain tangible things will eradicate negative feelings. Regardless, I knew it was important that I find happiness within the pursuit of my goals not just in the goals themselves, and well, I found my journey to be full of muck and garbage and other shitty things.
What I hadn’t recognized was that I was continually trying to change the same pieces of my life in repetitive ways that proved time and time again not to work. I blamed it on a lack of will power or low self-esteem, but the truth is, I was stubborn and unwilling to allow life to unfold into anything other than the idealized dream life I had specifically created for myself that I was certain would bring me abundant happiness. I thought I knew what was best for me and I didn’t open myself up to the possibility of approaching life in a different way. And so I rigorously stuck to my plan which was glossed with self-sabotage, because that’s just what I do when I take on seemingly enormous tasks with a perfectionist mindset.
I wanted to be skinny and so I would go to the gym excessively and hardly eat. This would sustain for a bit and I would lose some weight only never enough to make me feel good about myself. And always I would eventually give in to the desperate grumblings of temptation and go on a bingeing spree that would last sometimes for weeks at a time. Of course I knew that a healthy diet and a realistically maintainable work out regimen are the practical ways to losing weight, but I wanted to lose weight as quickly as possible so that I could get to happiness sooner. And so, I continued to try and lose weight my way, indulging in this routine for years despite the fact that it never worked.
I wanted a boyfriend so I filtered through a string of interchangeable boys who treated me as if I were unimportant just so that I didn’t have to be alone. Years of dating commitment-resistant boys who weren’t particularly kind to me resulted in emotional turmoil, low self-worth and an unhealthy relationship with sex, all of which could have been avoided if I had just put that energy on having a healthy relationship with myself. If I had felt good about myself I would not have been so willing to invite boys into my life who treated me poorly. But there I was, certain that a relationship would solve my issues with low self-esteem only to find out that you actually have to do that yourself. Apparently you gain self-esteem through esteem-able acts not through having sex with someone who leaves as soon as they wake up in the morning because they have other things they’d rather do then spend the day with you. I ignored everything I knew to be true and continued to try and manipulate these unhealthy relationships into something that would make me happy.
I shuffled through waitressing jobs trying to find one that I hated the least, when the reality is that I hate waitressing and working six days a week doing something that you hate is going to make anyone miserable regardless of the restaurant. I was working so much at a job I found utterly unsatisfying that I hardly had the time or energy to pursue my acting career which was the thing I hoped would get me out of waitressing. I saw no end in sight and that idea flooded me with hopelessness. I didn’t change my behavior though. Instead I continued to waitress and timidly pursue acting in the hopes that somehow happiness would manifest itself into my life. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, that is insanity and at that time, I felt as though I was an insane person.
I didn’t need to change. I was doing fine, I mean I was miserable, but I was fine. I had two jobs, my own apartment, all my bills were getting paid, I didn’t like my body, but I wasn’t fat by medical standards, I had friends and a string of boys to pass the time with, I was in recovery for my alcoholism. I checked all of the boxes that society decided I needed. So, I could have continued to pursue life in the same way that I was going about it and as a result, it would have remained much the same. The problem was, how I was going about life wasn’t working for me. If it was, I wouldn’t have felt so empty and unhappy. My heart wouldn’t throb with the ache of dissatisfaction. I want a life I’m in love with, not just one that society deems as “good enough”.
It was time to be painstakingly and brutally honest with myself about what pieces of my life weren’t working and then take action to change them. It wasn’t easy. I had to challenge ideas that had been cemented in my mind for years and open myself to the possibility of a different life than I had imagined for myself. I wanted to be an actress. I had wanted that for as long as I could remember. I like every other aspiring actor, had practiced my Oscar speech in the mirror and felt that one day I would be standing up on that stage, teary-eyed and glowing, amazed at what I had just achieved. I would day dream about being on set with Sean Penn and telling him how I named my cat after him. I imagined David Fincher directing me in a film about a heroine addict and the challenges she faces while she tries to get sober. I pictured my name on the celebrity gossip sites I read everyday. But that is all fantasy. The reality of being an actor is working tirelessly on an audition for a student film hoping I get this part I don’t even really like so that I can get footage for my reel so that one day I can get an agent who will get me an audition for one line on NCIS that I’ll pray to book even though I was so nervous during the audition my hands were shaking. It’s going to class and rehearsing, and networking and casting director workshops and rejection and feeling like I’m not thin enough or talented enough. It’s being one of the thousands of people in Los Angeles with the same dream. I wanted the fantasy of being an actor, but the reality of it was making me miserable. Along the way my love of acting dissipated and I started to resent my dream. The journey of being a working actor was not one that brought me happiness, instead it brought depression and low self-esteem and an eating disorder and feelings of worthlessness. It’s working as a waitress so that I have a job that’s flexible enough to allow for auditions, class and time off if I book something. Now this is just me. I have many friends in Los Angeles pursuing careers in acting and they are happy and determined to make their dreams come true. But I am not them, I’m me. And we all need to find out what works for us in this world. All I wanted to be was happy and pursuing a career in acting wasn’t giving me that.
And so, after a tear-filled conversation with my mom, I allowed myself for the first time to consider the idea of not pursuing acting anymore. The moment I did that I felt a sense of peace I’d never felt before and I knew that letting go of this dream was the right thing to do. I was taking action to change my life instead of continuing trying to force something to work for me that clearly wasn’t. I wasn’t giving up on my dreams, instead I was allowing them to transform into new ones that coincide with the person I am today, not the person I was at a young age when the dream first manifested. Then what followed was an avalanche of decisions.
I realized if I didn’t want to act, then I didn’t have to live in Los Angeles — this city that I wasn’t happy being in. A city that brought on feelings of loneliness and of not being good enough. For all my adult life, acting dictated all of my decisions and the parts of me that didn’t coincide with this dream got pushed deep within me, into a space reserved for neglected yearnings. I chose a college in New York City because that is a city full of opportunity for actors, though I always dreamed of going to college on a huge campus with Greek Row and sports teams. I then moved to Los Angeles because that is where movie stars live. I didn’t know who I was without acting deciding my choices for me and removed from it I was free to explore the parts of me I had ignored. I was young and had nothing rooting me to any particular place and I realized I was able to live anywhere in the world. Portland, Oregon had always intrigued me with its uniqueness and creativity and it was the first place that came to mind when I thought of moving. Why not take action to do something I’ve always wanted to do rather then reserving it solely for my imagination? And so, that’s what I did. Once I settled into Portland, I knew I needed to conceive a new dream that would bring me just as much satisfaction and happiness I had imagined acting would. I knew I wanted to write, that much was clear. It had become an outlet of creativity and expression that I’ve fallen in love with. But becoming a successful writer is almost as challenging as becoming a working actor and I could no longer live a life where I was working a day job I hated while pursuing my dreams on the side in the hopes that one day they will come into fruition. I wanted to do things differently in Portland, not repeat the same pattern I was doing in Los Angeles that made me so unhappy, because even in a new city I would still feel the same way if I continued to practice the same behaviors. I wanted to fill my life up with things that brought me happiness, not just have happiness intertwined with despondent obligations. And so I had to think, what would I love to do that would still give me plenty of time to pursue my writing?
That’s when, seemingly out of nowhere, the idea of being a teacher came to me. It just felt like the perfect next chapter for me. After all I used to play teacher in my bedroom with a chalkboard and imaginary students way past the time it was socially acceptable to play make-believe. And so I applied to Portland State University and I got in. Unlike acting, where I saw the process of auditioning and rehearsing tortuous, I’m actually really looking forward to going back to school and learning. It was not the mentality of “I’ll be happy when I become a teacher” because I knew happiness would be found in the process of me achieving that dream.
After a few lonely weeks in this strange city where I didn’t know anyone, I wanted to meet people and so I downloaded Tinder and decided to have some fun. I was no longer looking for a boy to solve my problems or fix the broken parts of me, I knew I needed to do that on my own. Instead I changed my perception to a healthy way in which relationships could make my life fuller. Granted, my intentions weren’t the purest and I drank a lot of Diet Coke at bars and had a lot of casual sex, but I enjoyed spending time with people other then myself, even if it was just for a night. But soon enough I met someone who turned out to be wonderful and he became my boyfriend and now we’re in love.
All of these things that fell so perfectly into place came from me recognizing the things that weren’t working in my life and instead of trying to force them to work, I opened myself up to new possibilities and took action towards my intention of happiness. I don’t know what my life will turn into, but I’m no longer waiting for happiness to be the prize when I reach certain goals, instead I’m finding it within my journey. Because after all, that’s what life is.
I’m not going to lie to you and pretend that as soon as I stepped foot in Portland suddenly all of the things I hated about my life disappeared. If only life were as simple as moving to a new city and immediately reinventing yourself, but unfortunately reality doesn’t work like that. I still brought myself to Portland and along with me all of my unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Los Angeles has a population of four million people and I’m sure many of them are living lives that they are in love with. And it’s very possible that I could have been one of them. Los Angeles was never my problem and neither was acting. It was the way that I perceived the world and myself that needed adjusting. In truth, the world is not a hopelessly dark place, that’s just how I saw it. Along with that perception came a flood of negative thoughts that I believed to be true such as not being good enough to have a life I wanted for myself. I’m not going to pretend I have it all figured out, because in truth, I’m not even close. I still struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, but there are things I do to help me get my perception in the right place, such as prayer, mediation, journaling and treating my body well. Allowing myself to admit that I don’t know what’s best for me and turning my will over to the power of the universe has also helped. I still have dreams, though they look much different then before, but I’ve allowed myself to be open to the numerous unknown ways in which they can manifest themselves in my life. I’m no longer rigorously stuck on the path I think I need to go down in order to reach them. I still have a long way to go, but if I just take little action steps each day to move towards the direction of my dreams, I know I’ll be okay.
I wasn’t right when I stood in that comedy club on New Years Eve and thought my life was going to be like this forever. In only a year my life has become something new entirely. Permanency is a myth and the only thing we are guaranteed in this life is change. I now know I have the power to change my life and whenever I feel stuck in unhappiness, I just remind myself of that. On New Years Eve 2016, the clock turned midnight and my boyfriend leaned over and kissed me. Tears threatened my eyes but they weren’t the sad kind. They were the I’m-so-grateful-I-can’t-believe-what-my-life’s-become kind.