Dreams Deferred

Yesterday would have been my move-in day into the second floor of a two-family house in Hackensack that bent my dreams a bit. It wasn’t that the apartment wasn’t livable or even beautiful. I had no tangible complaints. It had French doors! Wall to wall windows with limitless natural light! Hardwood floors! Cute old-school crystal doorknobs! An updated kitchen with granite countertops! Antiquity meets functionality and cleanliness! Character!

But as we went through the motions to get the lease signed, something felt off. An inexplicable unease that spoiled the process of moving into my first independent living space. I was a few signatures away from a move that would defer my dreams of living in New York City for the foreseeable future—at least a year.

Sleepless for a few days, I sat up in my bed wondering what was wrong with me. Here I was, privileged to have an opportunity to live on my own in a quaint house (it even had a little garden in the front yard with colorful and well-maintained landscaping) in a nice part of town, and yet I was having an unnamed crisis. I called the realtor and backed out of the lease, fearing the commitment of the move to the suburbs while my dreams lived across the river.

Thinking back to three months prior, I remembered graduation, packing my bags, and immediately ditching California to move in with my grandparents in Jersey in hopes of finding a job in New York and then moving to the city. Since moving to California in 2008, I always knew I’d come back to the East Coast—I just needed an opportunity. What better an opportunity than right after college? A fresh start, a new life, a chance to leave some things behind. Honestly, a change of scenery could be prescribed like a medication.

I moved to the East Coast like I was going into the witness protection program. Anorexia who? Bipolar who? What’s a depressive episode? Anxiety attacks? Never heard of her. I thought that maybe if I pretended enough, I’d actually convince myself that my physical location was the root of my problems.

A change in physical place would undoubtedly make for a change in headspace, right?

After telling myself this over and over, I halfheartedly began to believe it. So when I started feeling horrible, I started feeling guilty for it. C’mon! You moved three-thousand miles away from all of this! You made the change, now feel like you changed. Why are you feeling like this?

When you run from your problems, your problems follow you. Having dreams of moving to New York City and having a job that I actually liked that paid a livable wage did not negate the necessity of all of the steps in between—all of which I had skipped. I didn’t know how to recover from anorexia and I still don’t. I still have anxiety that leaves me debilitated. When my mood is bad, it’s bad. And when it’s good, I just think it’s good, but it’s actually still bad. Plus, the memories that marred the state of California actually just marred my brain. Trauma doesn’t latch itself onto a space; it attaches to your psyche in a way that requires for it to be addressed.

Clanking together glasses of prosecco with my friends toasting to my new beginnings a few days before my move, I took the first sip and uttered something about how glad I was to leave everything behind, but then I ended the comment with, “I hope United doesn’t charge me for the baggage!” referring to the emotional baggage that I was one-hundred-percent conscious of bringing to the East Coast with me.

So if I knew that I wasn’t ready to take on New York, why did I make the move?

Because at the time, it was easier to run three-thousand miles away from my problems than to confront them head-on.

Recently, I started having these dreams about holes the size of pencils in my palms, falling into sink-holes, refusing to get into hot air balloons. I started freaking out over eating a singular piece of dry toast, exactly like the panic I felt on the kitchen floor in San Francisco. Anxiety attacks in the aisles of Shop-Rite. Sleeping for two hours or fourteen hours and nothing in between. Trying to not cry at church. Crying on the subway. Crying on the bus. Panic attacks at dinner over pasta and a comment about plate sizes. Stepping on the scale and hitting the lowest weight since quitting the anorexia recovery program in March.

Sensing my unspoken turmoil, my incredibly intuitive mother urged me to book a one-way ticket again, this time back to California. Initially, booking that ticket back felt like a personal failure—a dream too big for the mouth, spit out like chewed food into a napkin.

Announcing the move with little explanation, sinking into my self-prescribed defeat, I considered how close I got to my dreams, but the distance I still maintained from them. Moving back to California inserted infinitely more space between me and my goals. Drunk on my own impatience, I declared New York City an impossible goal, a playground for the rich, an unattainable and emotionally unavailable love interest. The four months I spent here were a miserable waste of time, and I did it to myself.

But then I realized that these past four months taught me more about life and about myself than any therapy session, sermon, or self-help book could have.

Over the past four months, I had the privilege to sit down at nightly dinners with my eighty-year-old grandparents and tell my grandmother that the eggplant was perfect and the tomatoes were sweet and the gravy hearty but light, and she glowed with the pride of providing sustenance in more ways than one. I attended church with my grandfather every Sunday and held his hand during the Lord’s Prayer. I sang hymns I have never heard before. Together we patiently sat in the waiting room until my grandmother’s hip replacement was complete and I visited her in the recovery room. Poppi and I sat for a total of ten hours (including a lunch break at a local pub serving corned beef and beer) until she was moved to a non-ICU room, which had a view of the Harlem River. I had the opportunity to work at a bizarrely upscale event company and sneak into a world that did not belong to me. I dressed in head-to-toe black and lounged on rooftops in Lower Manhattan, dreaming of the Hudson and towers that no longer exist. A trip up to the Catskills enchanted me when I met a dying artist named Erin in a dark hospital room, smelling of medical-grade cleanliness and month-old bouquets given out of premature grief. While eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drinking wine from a mug as the motel TV droned, I pieced together pieces of Erin’s life through her art with Carol, Erin’s good friend—now a source of infinite wisdom, empathy, and friendship for me. I watched as workers from a hospice care company moved Erin from the hospital into her artist’s studio—a transition from black-and-white to Technicolor only rivaled by Dorothy. July 31 marked Erin’s passing and she signaled her departure with two cardinals on the porch of her studio. After twelve years and two suicides in the family, I visited the campgrounds in Pennsylvania that I had first slept on at one month old—a place that my late uncle visited me in a dream after his passing. We sat around campfires detailing stories that built us and broke us and scarred us and rebuilt us. We spoke of Todd and Keith in ways that resurrected memories from graves and placed them in the blue of the fire to dance and glow. Removing all physical distance between me and my older cousin (a role model throughout my life), we were able to remove the previous emotional distance. We sat at coffeeshops and sang pop songs at midnight and laughed in the aisles of markets and called each other sisters and meant it. When she picked out her wedding dress, I sucked down a celebratory glass of champagne to avoid crying in public. It worked. I walked the streets of New York City with the benefit of not paying its rent. I drank wine in Central Park. I went to museums by myself and never once felt rushed. I learned that I am a person afflicted by an illness and not an illness afflicted by a person. I learned that two steps forward and three steps back is actually still forward because math doesn’t always apply. I learned that a dream deferred is not a dream dead and a trial is never an error—it is simply a trial.

And if I all I gained from this failure of a move is all of that, then I never failed at all.

When the plane lands on the SFO runway on October 3, I will still be midair—suspended in the grace of memory and lessons that come with it.

On Life-Path Reevaluation: Flowers Grow in Shit and Dirt

On Valentine’s Day of 2018, I had a doctor’s appointment with the eating disorder specialists at UCSF. It wasn’t my first visit to these doctors; it was my third week of an intensive, ultra-monitored recovery program. I had been forced to start it in late January, after I went for a routine physical, and my primary care doctor found that I was at risk for cardiac arrest due to a relapse of my anorexia. 

I took a Lyft to UCSF from my South San Francisco apartment, somewhat embarrassed to tell the driver that my drop-off was the hospital. I stepped out of the car, walked into the lobby, and took the elevator up to the second floor. Looking up into the mirrored ceiling of the elevator, I saw my drawn face, the circles under my sinking eyes, and I remembered when I was allowed to take the stairs up to the second floor of buildings, instead of being forced by a group of doctors to take the elevator because my heart had grown so weak. A short elevator ride, but by the time the doors opened and spat me out, I started crying, thinking to myself: How did I get here? 

A brief moment of clarity—crying in an elevator of a hospital. 

I thought about the progression from the previous July to that February: how many times a day I’d weigh myself; how many times I’d debate eating a piece of dry toast; how many times I’d measure out carrots by the gram; how many times I’d pinched my arms, legs, and stomach during a lecture, eventually tuning out the professor because I had been thinking about how much I regretted that half-portion of low-fat vegetable soup three nights before. 

Who am I, when did I lose sight of who am I, and how did this happen?

During recovery, I dove into my art to attempt to rid myself of the deep-seated pain in my gut (both emotional and physical pain)—writing songs, personal essays, fiction, prose poems—and I remembered that this is what I live for. I do not live to look beautiful. (And I do not live to look sick). I do not live to count calories. I do not live to obsess over being in control. I do not live to stand and shrink until I disappear while everyone watches. 

I do not live to stand and shrink until I disappear while everyone watches. 

Silence, shrinking, fragility, conformity, fear—these are things I openly reject. And as I created my art and shared with my peers, regaining that sense of intrinsic purpose, I realized that the life I was living was a life that was inherently intertwined with values that I reject. In turn, my very actions were contradictory to everything about my identity. Then, over the course of the past six months, came an equally difficult and equally easy reevaluation that inspired me to begin writing a memoir, share my mental health journey with others, get in touch with my spiritual side, and move back to the east coast to pursue my passions and be with my family. 

Growth often comes from pain. Flowers grow in shit and dirt. Reevaluation of your actions and the life that you are living is necessary for growth. 

Remember your passions. Keep a list of them. What grounds you? What makes you feel intrinsically motivated (try not to consider money, fame, recognition, etc.)? What makes you feel like you put meaning into your life and into others’ lives? These passions can be as “small” as writing letters to your loved ones, or as big as fighting for universal accessibility for people with disabilities. 

From that list, look at what you value. Is it justice, family, spirituality, honesty, communication? Values are completely based on the individual and nearly limitless. Write this list below the list of your passions. 

Now, take a look at these lists collectively. Why are you passionate about painting? Why are you passionate about gardening? Why are you passionate about education? Why do you value family? Why do you value authenticity? These answers are your intentions. 

This next step is often the hardest and the most painful, but remember the physical growing pains you felt in your shins during middle school. The same thing happens mentally and emotionally when you reevaluate. Think about the life you are currently living. Where are you passions and values in your life right now? Are they fully apparent, sort of hinted at, or have they shrunken down and disappeared completely? Are you intentionally living your life? 

Upon those answers, you can make informed decisions to make changes that you need in order to feel fulfilled and avoid mental/emotional/physical/spiritual exhaustion. With this exercise, you can restore your sense of agency and can feel grounded and validated in any further actions you make to keep you on your true, meaningful life-path. 

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